By the time Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th U.S. president Wednesday, his scandal-tainted predecessor Donald Trump will already be far away, having helicoptered out of the White House a last time earlier that morning, an official said on Jan. 15.
WILMINGTON, Del.—What, exactly, is Joe Biden supposed to do with this? What is he supposed to say?
Today in Washington, D.C., a mob urged on by President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s decisions led to police tear-gassing protesters in front of the White House in June. His decisions led to the same outcome in the Capitol Rotunda today, and Vice President Mike Pence and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris were rushed away.
But there was neither excitement nor harassment on the streets of Wilmington today. Secret Service agents milled about, but none of them were in riot gear. There were no busloads of white nationalists or conspiracy theorists wandering around outside, no showdowns with police. No buildings needed to be evacuated for safety. No one was accosted. No property was stolen or damaged.
Before he came out to speak, the president-elect watched the TV footage with a mix of outrage and dismay. Between sentences, his mouth would drop into a scowl of disgust as he visibly considered whether he was going to stay on script or tear off. Biden has spent his life dreaming of being president—but not like this. His instinct is to be a conciliator, a dealmaker, the man constantly in pursuit of the middle ground. He’s spent his career insisting that people are good, that they can get along, that America isn’t the country it’s become under Trump. This afternoon, he was supposed to give a short speech about small businesses, some subtle counterprogramming to Trump’s rally in Washington. Biden aides worried about what Trump was up to, but ultimately regarded it as a distraction: They felt they could safely get out the popcorn and enjoy watching the Republicans try to justify Trump’s actions.
But there’s no ignoring what members of Congress have called everything from “banana-republic crap” to “domestic terror.” There’s no reaching across the aisle when the president’s oldest son and self-styled political heir started the day by telling rally attendees, “These guys better fight for Trump. Because if they’re not, guess what? I’m going to be in your backyard in a couple of months!” and then panicked into backtracking when he saw that his words were being taken seriously, literally, and violently.
Throughout the past year, Biden often struggled to simultaneously campaign for president while delivering the message that America needed to hear from its leader. This afternoon, as Trump kicked back in his limo heading to the White House, after telling rioters that he’d be going with them to the Capitol, the role of responsible politician again fell to the president-elect.
“The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent a true America,” Biden said in a speech from the stage of the reclaimed theater that he’s been using for events during the pandemic. “What we’re seeing is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness.” He called the crowd that stormed the Capitol a mob, and their actions an insurrection. He said it “borders on sedition, and it must end now.” He accused Trump of shirking his oath of office by not immediately joining Biden in calling for the mob to go home. (Trump tweeted a video later in the day telling people to go home, but it was removed from the site because in it he still claimed to have won the presidential election by a landslide.)
Biden decided to run against Trump because of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, which Trump at the time described as having “very fine people on both sides.” Never before, Biden has repeatedly insisted with disgust, had a president said anything like that.
Today was the bookend—for the country, and for Trump, as he again failed to condemn far-right insurrectionists during a moment of national chaos and fear. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump tweeted.
Should there be any question of what Biden thought of the day’s events—he’s been constantly accused, even through the weekend, of not taking the attacks on his legitimacy seriously enough—he quoted Abraham Lincoln: “We shall nobly save or merely lose the last, best hope on earth … The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way, which if followed, the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”
If you’re reading this article, you were probably watching live on TV, or saw what he said in news articles or tweets soon after he finished. If you’re reading this article, you probably weren’t among those storming the seat of our federal government, either to pose for pictures in the Senate president’s chair or to steal a lectern or to threaten the reporters, members of Congress, and law-enforcement officers there to do their jobs.
Biden is not speaking to the members of the mob. Like cheese dip that’s been left out in the sun too long, they’re probably spoiled. They won’t ever come back to reality, where sometimes politicians win elections and sometimes they lose elections.
But Biden is speaking to Republicans—Republican leaders, specifically. More than 150 congressional Republicans embraced Trump’s call to challenge the (not close) election, hoping to demonstrate their loyalty to him, or get a leg up for the 2024 GOP presidential primaries. Many, perhaps most, of those members knew that the election wasn’t actually stolen. But those who aren’t in the know didn’t realize it was all a show. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” Mitch McConnell, the majority leader for a few more days, said on the Senate floor in admonishment of what his colleagues were about to do. “If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.”
In the past year, Biden has seen these same Republicans play dumb about Trump’s efforts to barter the integrity of American foreign policy and military aid in exchange for helpful dirt on Biden and his son. He’s seen most say nothing about the Trump campaign’s dragging his son’s addiction into the presidential race. He often said while campaigning that the American people know who Trump is. He knows who Trump’s water carriers are, and he won’t forget. He’ll try to get them to work on common-ground legislation, but now that the two Senate victories in Georgia will give Democrats full control of Congress, he won’t necessarily need to. He will try, but those who have spoken with Biden say he does know that when McConnell and his colleagues call for bipartisanship, they’re often bluffing.
They’re mostly a lost cause too, he knows. Biden is still trying, desperately, to talk to the people outside the Washington bubble. Trump made fun of him in the debates for looking right into the camera and talking to the people at home, calling that a politician’s trick. But Biden is hoping he can reach people like the Georgians who abandoned Trump since voting for him on November 3, or those who maybe looked away from the cable coverage today to see the Trump-Pence lawn signs they still had up, and began to think about taking them down.
Trump is interested only in talking to those who already like him, and places value on people in direct proportion to how much they can do for him. Biden is never going to spend his days yelling at the TV about MSNBC coverage. He likes being told that he’s wonderful (most people do), but he builds his own faith in himself on the idea that he can win over those who do not agree with him.
Three days before the election, at a campaign stop outside Miami, I asked Harris whether she was worried about Trump trying to seize power if he lost. “I really do believe that the American people have a line that they will be unwilling to cross—and that line is, whoever they vote for, that there will be a respect for the election and the outcome, and they want a peaceful transfer of power, and they will stand for our democracy, whoever they vote for.” On Monday evening in Washington, I asked her if she would call what Republicans in Congress had planned—raising objections to the Electoral College results, as they were starting to do when the mob poured in—a coup. She was more succinct. “Let me just tell you something: We’re going to be inaugurated. Period.”
Biden will be hoping his vice president is correct: that there is a line the American people won’t cross, and that he and Harris will be inaugurated. Right now, though, they’re only sure of the second part.
“I am not concerned about my safety, security, or the inauguration. I’m not concerned,” Biden said today, stepping back toward reporters to add something to his prepared statement. “The American people are going to stand up, and stand up now. Enough is enough is enough.”
Insurrection Day, 12:40 p.m.: A group of about 80 lumpen Trumpists were gathered outside the Commerce Department, near the White House. They organized themselves in a large circle, and stared at a boombox rigged to a megaphone. Their leader and, for some, savior—a number of them would profess to me their belief that the 45th president is an agent of God and his son, Jesus Christ—was rehearsing his pitiful list of grievances, and also fomenting a rebellion against, among others, the klatch of treacherous Republicans who had aligned themselves with the Constitution and against him.
“A year from now we’re gonna start working on Congress,” Trump said through the boombox. “We gotta get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world. We gotta get rid of them.”
“Fuck Liz Cheney!” a man next to me yelled. He was bearded, and dressed in camouflage and Kevlar. His companion was dressed similarly, a Valhalla: Admit one patch sewn to his vest. Next to him was a woman wearing a full-body cat costume. “Fuck Liz Cheney!” she echoed. Catwoman, who would not tell me her name, carried a sign that read Take off your mask smell the bullshit. Affixed to a corner of the sign was the letter Q.
“What’s your plan?” I asked her. People in the street, dozens at first, then hundreds, were moving past us, toward Pennsylvania Avenue, and then presumably on to the Capitol. “We’re going to stop the steal,” she answered. “If Pence isn’t going to stop it, we have to.” The treasonous behavior of Liz Cheney and many of her Republican colleagues was, to them, a fixed insurrectionary fact, but Pence was still in a plastic moment. Across the day, however, I could feel the Trump cult turning against him, as it turns against most everything.
I told the woman in the cat costume that I would walk with her group. “Only if you take off your mask,” she said. The media is the only real virus, she explained, knowing that I was a part of the media. I told her I would keep my mask on. Trumpists had asked me periodically to remove it. Some were polite about it, a few others not. It seemed to me that only 5 percent or so of the thousands of people gathered for the insurrection wore masks. At one point, when I was caught in the thickest part of the crowd, near the Ellipse, a man told me, “Your glasses are fogging up.”
“Yep, masks,” I said.
“You don’t have to wear it. It’s not a mandate.”
“No, I do.”
“There’s a pandemic.”
We will find out shortly if today’s insurrection was also a super-spreader event. What I do know, after spending hours sponging up Trumpist paranoia, conspiracism, and cultishness, is that this gathering was not merely an attempted coup but also a mass-delusion event, not something that can be explained adequately through the prism of politics. Its chaos was rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety. One man I interviewed this morning, a resident of Texas who said his name was Don Johnson (I did not trust this to be his name), told me that the country was coming apart, and that this dissolution presaged the End Times. “It’s all in the Bible,” he said. “Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible. Get yourself ready.”
The conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally. “Give it up if you believe in Jesus!” a man yelled near me. People cheered. “Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!” Louder cheers.
I would not compromise on the matter of my mask, but the woman in the cat costume and her friends allowed me to come along anyway. We turned from 14th Street into the sea of people moving down Pennsylvania Avenue. It did not strike me, even then, that this mob would actually storm the Capitol. I assumed, in a non-insurrectionary failure of imagination, that they would gather on the Capitol’s sloping lawn, sing Lee Greenwood anthems, and curse Mitt Romney. There were Proud Boys—or at least Proud Boy–adjacent boys—in this group; they would not speak to me but were also not overtly hostile. (I noticed on two occasions groups of Proud Boy–looking men smoking marijuana, which, all things being equal, was a good thing.)
“Where are you all from?” I asked the woman in the cat costume. “Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Illinois, all kinds of states,” she said. “Are those guys Proud Boys?” I asked. “They’re American boys,” she answered. “Do you believe in the ideas of QAnon, that there’s a deep state that is a cult of pedophiles?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said, attitudinally. My mask continued to bother her. “It’s very rude,” she said.
The streets became more crowded the closer we got to the Capitol. I lost track of my group. I tried to interview a bunch of other Trump supporters, mostly unsuccessfully. Earlier in the day, just west of the Washington Monument, a group of insurrectionists turned on another reporter—I was not able to figure out the identity of my masked compatriot—chanting the word guillotine (“Make guillotines great again” was one rally-poster theme).
The crowd continued to grow. It was then that I sensed the mob, goaded by its master, would not be pacified. “Stop the steal!” someone near me said to his companions.
We were close to the Capitol. Large formations were now approaching the building. It stood there gleaming, not yet defiled.
The Ellipse was a deep sea of delusion. Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters drove or bused or flew from all corners of the United States to meet here, in the treeless space beside the White House, in their quest to overturn the results of the 2020 election with the help of congressional Republicans. “As I live and die, we will never give up until we have a fair-and-square election!” a small child in a rainbow hat yelled into a megaphone.
But the morning’s fevered theorizing about election fraud and “Stop the steal!” chants, which at first felt more pitiful than threatening, gave way to violence by the afternoon. The mob stormed the Capitol, chased police officers up the marble steps, and forced the evacuation of the vice president as hundreds of lawmakers and congressional staff huddled under desks and reached for gas masks. It was a grave moment for American democracy, and a clarifying one as well: Today was one of the few times that Trump’s most extreme supporters actually encountered the Republican lawmakers who have stoked their anger and encouraged their delusions for years.
The politicians who enabled Trump did not expect the president’s followers to ever break through the glass windows of the Capitol and ascend the Senate dais. They did not anticipate that a man wearing a Camp Auschwitz shirt or others, with Confederate flags or dressed as fur-clad Vikings, would breach the building; that a woman would lie dying by one of the building’s entrances, shot by Capitol Police. Trump, for them, has been a blunt instrument they can use to retain power, appoint conservative judges, and pass tax cuts. Today, these Republicans finally confronted the monster they’ve created.
The insurrectionists started their march to the Capitol before Trump had even finished his midday address at the Ellipse. Members of Congress had just begun to debate the certification of Arizona’s electors. “Move in—let them hear your voice!” a man shouted from the West Lawn, urging people across the barricades that other members of the mob had crushed earlier. As the area around the Capitol filled up, insurrectionists began climbing the scaffolding set up for Joe Biden’s imminent inauguration. Capitol Police fired pepper balls. Some Trump supporters, recognizing that their rally had turned into something more sinister, left the area. (“I was just trying to demonstrate peacefully,” I heard a man tell his female companion as the two quickly fled the scene.) But many others moved in closer, pulling gas masks out of their backpacks, apparently well prepared for this moment.
Steve and Wendy Meek, who’d driven to the nation’s capital from northeast Ohio, were watching the chaos from a few yards away, covering their faces to avoid choking on the swirling clouds of pepper spray. “There will never be another fair election in this country” if Biden is inaugurated, Steve told me, as the crowd around him chanted, “Whose house? Our house!” He and Wendy could see plainly the mob attempting to storm the Capitol building. “I get what those people are feeling,” Steve said. “These congresspeople, they just lock themselves in behind their doors and they don’t care what we think out here, just as long as they get what they feel this country needs. It’s not about the people anymore. It’s just about the people in that building.”
Behind the Meeks, three grimacing, middle-aged men passed a bottle of water between them, pouring it directly into their eyes. A few minutes earlier, after they had pushed through a set of gates and climbed the Capitol’s western steps, police had sprayed them twice with tear gas. “We’re trying to occupy the Capitol to show them what we’re about as Americans,” a man named Tom told me, his eyes shut tight. “We’re trying to occupy the Capitol building with a million people or however many will fit in there.”
Just before we spoke, the House and the Senate had abruptly adjourned their session as the mob infiltrated the building. Vice President Mike Pence, who’d been presiding over the chamber, was rushed to a secure location. By early afternoon, the entire Capitol complex was locked down. Insurrectionists took photos of themselves posing in the House speaker’s office. Reporters inside the House chamber said shots had been fired inside. The woman who was shot in the building was pronounced dead. The mayor of Washington, D.C., declared a 6 p.m. curfew, and the National Guard began arriving to clear the seat of the country’s legislative power. The president had all but encouraged this revolt in his rally speech just hours before, and in a video released on Twitter this evening, Trump appeared to justify the insurrection. (Twitter subsequently removed the video.)
At sundown, metal bike racks that had been used as barricades lay in heaps on the east plaza. A line of police stood sentry halfway up the Senate steps as demonstrators walked back and forth below, wearing gas masks and resting Trump flags on their shoulders like rifles. “Traitors! Socialists!” one of them shouted at the police.
A man near the steps called for people to gather around. “I’m going to get my weapons, and I’m coming back,” he told them.
Peter Nicholas and Russell Berman contributed reporting.
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