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Jen Gerson: This isn't politics. It's war.
The thugs who stormed Congress appear to lack the internal organization to sustain an insurrection. But we do not know how much more violence we can expect.
Well, this isn't great.
As darkness fell in Washington on Wednesday night, we watched in disbelief as a mob of die-hard Trumpist lunatics stormed the Capitol complex. One woman was shot and killed — and though details remain scant, honestly, if you're going to join a collection of nutballs chanting for "civil war" while breaking into the capitol building, you can't really claim to be surprised to register a fatal outcome.
Regardless, the scenes pouring through our livestreams left most of us scraping for some kind of word to describe our seemingly paradoxical mixture of stun-fucked disbelief, and total cynical acceptance of how inevitable it all was.
Personally, I started reaching for German. The Germans always have the best words for such moments, and I'd like to thank Twitter user @hillbillyspider/raisins for her suggestion: "götterdämmerung."
That seems right.
Honestly, we at The Line have expressed concern about such a scene for some time, but for some reason, imagined that the riots and disorder would have broken out much sooner. Something about the turn of the year into 2021 gave us the naïve impression that we had exited the woods. Brighter days were ahead of us, and all of that.
As the Capitol building was in the process of being secured, and violent wannabe insurrectionists ejected, we were told that the certification of the electoral college votes assuring Joe Biden's victory would move forward within hours — and indeed, this is what happened, despite continued Republican objections, with the proceedings wrapping up shortly before four o’clock in the morning, Washington time. The last technical step required to formalize Donald Trump's end of tenure has thus been achieved and we have only two weeks to go before Biden is officially sworn in.
The sense of relief is fleeting.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon issued a statement saying that it had activated the National Guard, after conferring with several senior Washington officials — not including Trump. Many are interpreting this as a quasi-coup in its own right. Trump has been effectively cut from the chain of command, at least where directing the Guard is concerned. This should offer a degree of both discomfort and relief; the military is not with him, but it also sets a bad precedent.
Shit, even Twitter has now cut Trump off.
Evidence yet again, that the one thing protecting Americans from the prospect of a truly tyrannical and undemocratic tenure of Donald Trump is Donald Trump himself. The man may captivate the GOP base, but he has been unable to secure the requisite loyalties within the Washington establishment to maintain an unlawful hold on power.
What would the outcome be if America had elected a cannier narcissist to power? I dare not ask.
The real question now, is what happens next?
A significant mob has been convinced of a monstrous conspiracy theory; that the American election was stolen from its rightful president. This claim is without proof, merit, or evidence, but Trump has managed to stoke it well and hard enough to raise questions of legitimacy in the minds of his devoted followers.
There are a few plausible paths open from here and, I'm sad to say, none of them look great.
For the immediate threat of mobbery, it's a question of dissolution or escalation.
The thugs who stormed Congress appear to lack the internal organization or institutional support to maintain any kind of sustained insurrection. But we do not know how much more violence we can expect — if any — in the coming days.
The longer-term problem they pose is deeper and more existential. Legitimacy in a democracy is fragile; it relies not just on brute force, but also on traditions, and a mutual respect for shared symbols. The sight of the Senate chamber dominated by a half-naked man in a viking hat is not going to be easily forgotten.
All power is an illusion, a kind of glamour. That the sanctum of American authority could be so easily breached, so brazenly defiled and corrupted, shook most of us in a way that I suspect we'll long remember.
The incentive for the Trumpists, now, will be to continue to chip away at that symbolic legitimacy, and to continue to attract momentum and fellow travellers to take to the streets. The risk is that this will continue to escalate up to and past inauguration day on Jan. 20.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans are going to be able to win back either the global gravitas, nor the institutional legitimacy, that was lost on Wednesday with such ease. The latter party especially is learning that when you ride the dragon, you get eaten. They’ve ridden Donald Trump awfully long and high. Those GOP Senators and House members who insist on continuing their cynical objections to the electoral college votes should be known in history as traitors to their own republic.
Wednesday was the day when all of us began to learn the consequence of playing politics as if it were just a game. For most politicians, politics has devolved into a form of elite extreme sport. But all sports are a form of sublimated tribal violence.
What happens when sports gets real is war.
Let’s not be hasty. The safe bet is still for a steady return to some kind of political normality within the coming weeks. The U.S. constitution will prevail. But thanks to Trump and those who enabled him, nobody can now be totally assured of that outcome, and America as a whole will suffer for it. We all will.
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