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If There Are No Consequences, It’ll Only Get Worse

A member of a pro-Trump mob shatters a window with his fist from inside the Capitol Building after breaking into it on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

At 2:40 p.m. on Wednesday, Senator Ted Cruz sent out a fundraising text to subscribers, a move that was supposed to be coordinated with his effort to reject Electoral College votes and deny Joe Biden's election victory over Donald Trump. "I'm leading the fight to reject electors from key states unless there is an emergency audit of the election results," the message read. "Will you stand with me?"

At roughly the same time, U.S. Capitol Police had constructed a barricade in front of the doors of the House chamber, and drawn their guns at a group of Trump supporters.

The mob had reached that area because they invaded with little to no resistance from law enforcement. They broke whatever they could, roamed in the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other elected officials, and for the most part left after police essentially pleaded with them to be cool. This tactic wasn't uniform: D.C. Police said one Trump supporter was shot and killed by Capitol Police, and three other people died of what was described as "medical emergencies." Authorities found pipe bombs near the headquarters of both the Republican and Democratic National Committees.

“After this, we’re going to walk down—and I’ll be there with you—we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them," Trump had said earlier in the day at a rally near the White House for his supporters, who had flown in for the planned assembly. He did not actually walk down with the mob, but they were already motivated.

Eventually the Capitol was cleared out and secured, and the joint session resumed later in the night. Senator Kelly Loeffler, who made a lot of noise about fraudulent voting especially after she lost a runoff election to Raphael Warnock on Tuesday, said she would no longer dispute the results.

Other Republicans took the same path. The Senate voted 93-6 to reject Cruz's effort to block counting Arizona's electoral votes for Biden. (The House did, too.) While it would feel useful to name the six senators, who saw what happened in the same building they stood in and went ahead with their effort to keep Trump in power, it won't really have any effect. The handful of his supporters whom police bothered to arrest may go through a legal process, but the politicians who let this ride won't face consequences. Four-plus years of deferred consequences led up to this point, anyway.

It would also be tempting to define this as Trump's final effort at trying to retain power or save face, his last gasp. That's a fallacy. The last gasp was supposed to be a brassy toot during a desperate phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State, or Rudy Giuliani's wild gesticulations near a porno shop in Philadelphia, or plenty of other moments since the first week of November. The end of his presidency should not be misinterpreted as a consequence. That is the removal of a privilege. If there are no tangible ramifications for the president because of Wednesday's chaos, what exactly will deter him from continuing to act with the instincts that have guided his entire life?

Once Biden won the election, the transfer of power was perceived as a given. That's why many people including myself were relieved, isn't it? The nightmare was over after the ballots were counted. Trump would sulk for the last two months, eat some fast food, and leave without incident before Biden's inauguration. That was supposed to happen despite Trump's refusal to admit he lost, his pervasive belief that the election was rigged, and practically everything else that is known about his behavior and personality.

In his victory speech, Biden positioned himself as someone who wanted to move on from the past four years, the fundamental message of his campaign. He wanted to be a president who would try to win back Trump voters and return to normalcy, whatever that meant. Later in November he said he'd prefer not to prosecute his opponent but would leave that decision up to the Justice Department.

Donald Trump might be the dumbest president in American history, but he didn't have to be any smarter than he is to come to the conclusion that he could do anything as long as he was the president, and no one would try to come after him. There was a threat of punishment so faint that he could walk through it without getting a chill. What's to stop him from changing at all? What's to stop someone with more cunning and cruelty from repeating the same strategy in the future?

Repeated condemnations from all sorts of public figures didn't work. Impeachment wasn't successful. You could build a mansion out of all the last straws. The careerist filth in D.C., creatures who were so loyal to him for so long, are now shocked and appalled as to how this could happen. It happened last year in Michigan and Oregon, but it seems more serious when it happens where you are. Proximity can be a real nuisance that way. It's as if the factors that led to this outcome haven't been pointed out other times before, in previous, horrific outcomes.

The unwillingness to take this threat seriously is how white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and how James Alex Fields Jr. killed Heather Heyer when he drove his car through a group of counter-protestors. "The absence of consequences acts as a license, always, to push ever further along the continuum of allowable violence," Dahlia Lithwick wrote at Slate. A report by former U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy found that police did not prepare for the Unite The Right rally, and would not cooperate in explaining their lack of preparation. Contrast that with any time departments across the nation treated Black Lives Matter protestors with excessive and vicious force.

Denouncing Trump or removing his tweets isn't going to make a difference. Over 74 million Americans saw what Trump had done in the previous four years and thought it was acceptable enough to give him a second term. His allies will either take the greatest opportunity they've had to cut him loose or stick with him, depending on their constituents. Yesterday may have not been a successful overthrow of the government, but it was a test of the limits, and the limits didn't provide meaningful discouragement.

As for Biden, his reaction to the day's events was to give an uninspiring speech about how America is better than this, though he provided no evidence, and to urge Trump to "demand an end to this siege." The Democratic Party controls all three branches of government, if accounting for Senator Joe Manchin, who voted in line with Trump more than any other Dem. The president-elect's hope is that the problem preceding him will realize the error of its ways and simply solve itself without conflict. Or else what?

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