This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
One of the most striking images yesterday was of a crowd of pro-Trump insurrectionists entering the Capitol for the first time, ambling about between the velvet ropes as if they were tourists, awed by the majesty of the building and contemplating dinner later on at Western Sizzlin’. Their wandering — not directed or motivated, seemingly without any plan for what to do after they got into the building — indicates a profound disbelief that they could ever be successful. It seems clear that no one, except Donald Trump and perhaps Rudy Giuliani, actually believed the mob would gain entry to the Capitol and delay the certification of the presidential election, least of all the rioters themselves. That disbelief is now dispelled.
Trump’s opponents and especially his supporters now know that they can strike directly at the core of our democracy and elevate Trump’s power using violence. Abetted by Trump’s cronies in Congress, the mob succeeded in delaying the peaceful certification of a national election by many hours. Even once Congress had returned to session to certify the election, more than 100 GOP Congressmen and a handful of Senators continued to object to certifying the results. That indicates real power on the part of Trump and the mob.
It became instantly clear as the rioters tore through the Capitol building, put lawmakers under siege and threat and ransacked offices, that even without a plan, the putsch was more than capable of jeopardizing (at least temporarily) the function of democracy, blocking the transfer of power and propping up Trump’s power in very real terms. The insurrection exposed a profound weakness in the American government and how tenuous our democracy has become. Moreover, yesterday’s breach of the Capitol, the first since the War of 1812, may be nothing more than a prelude to more acute political violence, the hardening of extremist groups (not just on the right), and a sustained assault on the democratic functions of our government.
Trump’s most hardcore supporters have now learned that the President is willing and able to issue direct orders to them from a podium — exhorting at his rally for his supporters to go to the Capitol. They have also learned that the police and law enforcement will treat them with kid gloves. It’s a fact that Trump has been incredibly popular in the law enforcement community, and so it was not surprising to see members of the Capitol police snapping selfies with the insurrectionists as they overran the building. These officers appeared to be an accessory to the sack. Yesterday’s events were a putsch, and Trump and his followers learned that many in law enforcement will tacitly support them.
More worrying, though, is what appears to be behind the scenes jockeying around using the National Guard to reinforce the Capitol and conflicting reports over the circumstances of its deployment. Over the summer, the nation witnessed soldiers deployed against peaceful protestors to clear a path for a Trump photo op. Yesterday, the Guard was nowhere to be seen until the insurrectionists had nonchalantly strolled back out of the building.
The Washington D.C. National Guard is unusual in that it is the only Guard unit whose chain of command ends with the President, rather than a governor of a state. That authority is, in turn, delegated to the Secretary of Defense, but Trump should have been the ultimate authority on their deployment. Reports give the impression that, for awhile, Trump simply refused to deploy them to put down the attack on the Capitol, or that Defense Department officials chose to go around the President. Some reporting suggests that commanders of the D.C. Guard went to Vice President Pence and top congressional leadership for permission to deploy, rather than to Trump.
This is a problem. It indicates that either Trump had no interest in quelling the insurrection on his behalf and was willing to stand down troops in order to facilitate it or that the chains of command within our armed forces are not as clear as they should be. Military commanders are looking for leadership in a vacuum, and if there’s one thing Trump is capable of doing, it’s filling a vacuum. Exacerbating this, as with the police, Trump is popular within the military, although Biden developed a significant edge in the final months of the campaign. Thankfully, those in charge of the D.C. Guard took their duty to the Constitution seriously, but the possibility of a Trumpist fifth column within the military is a terrifying spectre.
Yet, more troubling than all of that, is the possibility that this has now gotten bigger than Trump. He is and always has been a demagogue and wannabe dictator. But he’s also recently lost a popular election, is quite old, and has lost his grip on his allies in the media. This doesn’t mean the problem will go away. Whoever replaces Trump as the galvanizing force of the movement, likely campaigning or holding office while directing and inciting political violence in the streets, could be far more dangerous than Trump has been if history is any indication.
In 1923, long before the Nazi party had subverted the Weimar democracy in Germany, Hitler was a local political radical in Bavaria. He was virtually a non-entity outside of hardcore Nazi party members. Yet he was inspired by Mussolini’s recent seizure of power in Rome and organized a march by 2,000 National Socialists to kidnap the leaders of the Bavarian government. Ludendorff, a prominent World War I general, marched alongside him. This was the Beer Hall Putsch, and it was quickly put down by local police; 14 insurrectionists were killed, and Hitler was arrested and imprisoned. Ten years later, he had wrested control of Germany from an elderly establishment statesman, President Paul Von Hindenburg. As historian Robert O. Paxton notes in The Anatomy of Fascism, after the failure of the Beerhall Putsch to depose the government, Hitler “resolved never again to try to gain power through force. That meant remaining at least superficially within constitutional legality, though the Nazis never gave up the selective violence that was central to the party’s appeal, or hints about wider aims after power.”
Trump is a very real danger in America today, but the long-term threat to our democracy may reside among those who carried out the attempted putsch at the Capitol yesterday. When Trump leaves office—and he will leave or be removed on January 20—it is the likes of Republican West Virginia State Assemblyman Derrick Evans, who helped storm the Capitol yesterday, or Republican Senator Josh Hawley with his arm raised in support of the insurrectionists before they reached the Capitol, who will carry the mantle of Trumpism. The attacks on American democracy—both political and physical—will not stop just because Trump leaves office. Dark forces are on the move—they have already sought to kidnap the governor of Michigan and have stormed the American Capitol—and it will take a concerted effort by leaders on both sides of the aisle, as well as within law enforcement and the Justice Department, to keep them in check.