What passed before our eyes yesterday seemed almost too extraordinary to believe.
The president of the United States assembled thousands of angry protesters in Washington. He appeared before them to announce the election was stolen and that he would never concede. He called them patriots and told them “to fight”. After dozens of them invaded the Capitol and the chambers of Congress, he released a video telling the rioters “I love you” and “you’re very special”.
Four people are now dead.
As Joe Biden noted, this was not a protest but an insurrection. It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump himself did not storm the legislature. This was not an attempted coup by a motley band of cranks. We must call it what it was: an attempted coup by the President of the United States.
The damage to Congress’s building and offices is shocking enough, but buildings can be mended and furniture replaced. The graver damage by far is to American democracy and the country’s idea of itself. This was the first breach of the Capitol since 1814 and its trauma may prove just as historic.
Anyone who thought Trump would "pivot to being presidential" was lost in illusion.
Let us then be clear about one thing. What happened was a profound shock, but it was not a surprise. The events of the last five years have been building almost inexorably to this point. Nothing is inevitable in life, but last night came pretty close.
There is no great mystery to Trump. There is little to unpack. He is who he has always told us he is.
Since he announced his candidacy for president in 2015 with the declaration that Mexican immigrants were “criminals and rapists”, Trump has not hidden his identity or beliefs for a single day.
Anyone who thought that he would “pivot to being presidential” was lost in illusion. It was, too, entirely predictable that he would never concede an election loss. In one debate against Hillary Clinton, he refused to commit to accepting a democratic verdict and simply declared he “will look at it at the time”. This man is so crippled by insecurity and narcissism that he has never been able to admit defeat in his life.
The litany of Trump’s outrages is not short. Whether placing children in cages, praising neo-Nazis or attempting to blackmail Ukraine into damaging his electoral opponent, the United States simply became another set for Trump’s reality show and another vehicle to feed his ego.
Trump treated the White House as an extension of his family company and used the presidency to boost private business interests. He lied so often and so brazenly it was hard to discern if he was consciously lying or simply had no concept of the truth. He told Americans not to worry about the pandemic even as it killed hundreds of thousands of them. His denunciations of the “enemies of the people” in the “fake news media” and his overt white supremacy came straight from the fascist playbook. His unfitness for office has never, for a second, been in doubt.
Republican legislators denounced the violence with wide-eyed horror as though they had not, for months and years, legitimised and stoked it.
When it came to the 2020 election, his corruption and racism were nakedly transparent: white Republicans’ votes in the suburbs should count, and Black Democrats’ in the cities should not. He has spent every day since the election burning faith in American democracy to the ground because he simply couldn’t accept a fair loss. He has repeatedly alleged electoral fraud, baselessly contested the results in every unfavourable swing state, complained when his appointees to the Supreme Court refused to repay his favour, and a few days ago incited officials in Georgia to “find” the votes he needed to win. There was nothing to suggest that it would not come to this. He, indeed, did everything to suggest it would.
Now, then, comes the moment of reckoning. We have come to expect little better of the Republicans. Four years ago, its entire leadership dropped all principle in the pursuit of presidential favour. For two months after the election, the party indulged Trump’s delusional histrionics.
Perhaps the deepest soul-searching needs to come from the global community. The first in line is our own government.
Finally, last night, former adviser Kellyanne Conway pleaded for calm and peace as the consequences of her careerism predictably played out. Republican legislators, meanwhile, denounced the violence with wide-eyed horror as though they had not, for months and years, legitimised and stoked it.
The media, too, must take its share of the blame. For years, it normalised Trump, and used the language of objectivity and balance to mask the truth of what he was. The British media routinely dubs politicians like Marine Le Pen “far-right”, but has never given Trump the same label, even though his views are arguably more extreme than hers and his behaviour more abhorrent. Right-wing pundits, meanwhile, have consistently jeered liberals’ dismay at Trump’s behaviour, and accused them of melodrama and hysteria.
But perhaps the deepest soul-searching needs to come from the global community. The first in line is our own government. In January 2017, Theresa May scrambled to be the first foreign leader to meet Trump, declaring that “opposites attract” and holding his hand outside the White House. By this point, he had already promised to ban Muslims from entering the US, and over the next two years, May offered almost no comment or critique of his regular outrages.
Indeed, she consistently defended his behaviour and, with unprecedented haste, invited him on a state visit, all in desperate pursuit of a trade deal, which never came. In return, he humiliated her in a newspaper interview the day he arrived, publicly rebuked her approach to the EU, and forced the Queen to entertain someone who’d once blamed the Duchess of Cambridge for getting pictured topless and dubbed the Duchess of Sussex “nasty”.
It didn’t have to be this way. Angela Merkel greeted Trump’s victory with a cautious statement offering cooperation “on the basis of [shared] values”. Germany has since managed just fine without the pretence of a special relationship. May’s grovelling and fawning debased herself and her country.
Boris Johnson was an even more devoted follower of Trump. He condemned the “whinge-o-rama” after his election, declared we should “pay tribute” to his achievements, and told US diplomats Trump was “making America great again”.
He of course learnt a great deal from the man. The government’s own attacks on the media, judiciary and civil service, nationalist purge of backbench Tory MPs and prorogation of parliament were tactics lifted directly from him.
Johnson, too, basked in the president’s love of Brexit and appeared to relish his designation of “Britain Trump”. The Tories were not just complicit in Trump’s obscenity. They were responsible.
The US constitution was historic and, in all senses, revolutionary. For all the centuries of disgraces in American suffrage, representation and human rights, its leaders have sought to uphold that constitution.
Its leader today is uniquely different and his contempt unprecedented. Trump’s presidency was not about the constitution but himself. The world knew this about him from the start. He announced what he was going to do. And our government watched him, copied him and cheered.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of pro-EU think tank British Influence, and a political writer and commentator.