I’ve lived 10 blocks from the Capitol for 25 years, and yesterday I had a chance to see history made: The Army of Northern Virginia, now commanded by General Trump, finally followed up on its 1862 victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run as its inheritors took over the Yankee legislature. They made up for lack of military fitness with sheer numbers and lots of flags and overwhelmed the small Union force defending the home of Congress. It took hours for the federals to gently chase them out, leaving behind destruction and a near-derailing of the presidential transition.
As Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post: “The rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in hopes of holding on to a past — both near and distant. They hoisted Trump flags aloft because it is he to whom they’ve pledged their allegiance, refusing to accept his defeat in the November election... And they let Confederate flags fly on the Capitol steps and inside its hallowed halls, making it plain just how they define the man and the real Americans for whom they claim to be standing firm.”
Personally, I’d spent the day reassuring people that I was safe, that my Capitol Hill neighborhood was safe and that this would be no different from previous right-wing muscle-flexing—dangerous only when confronted. I was wrong about the last, but the fact was, as is usually the case, that the residential area of The Hill was as serene as it normally is. So I advocated Hill residents not to cower in their homes, to go about their business and pay them bullyboys no never mind.
After all, the target was the government, not the liberals living nearby. We took our usual break from the pandemic lockdown and walked around Eastern Market. We saw no Rebs—unless they were disguised as Trader Joe’s shoppers or dogwalkers. But one doesn’t have to be personally threatened to feel a sense of menace.
Much of the menace, though, was the surprise of the ferocity of the attack. I had expected a noisy and obnoxious milling about outside the Capitol as Congress debated—if that’s the word—the legitimacy of Joseph R. Biden’s presidential victory.
But for those of us who had seen some of the abundant public postings of the rebel plans, it was easy to explain our insufficient alarm. That’s because in most of these tweets, Facebook posts, or assorted emails talk of breaking into the Capitol was absent. So, it left us watchers wondering if this attack was indeed carefully orchestrated—by Roger Stone? Moscow? Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel?—or was it just the long-suppressed cry of a downtrodden gang of louts erupting in directed fury?
David Hemmings in Charge of the Light Brigade. That didn't go well, either. And the reviews were worse.
But it appears that there were plenty of such plans, all initiated by Trump’s Dec. 20 Twitter invitation: "Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!" Most of the plotting, according to a Washington Post story, took place, though, on far-right forums not visited by casual social media users. But the idea that the police intelligence was blithely unaware of the plans is inconceivable.
In response William Bratton, who headed police departments in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, told USA Today, "The advance intelligence could not have been clearer. I find it hard to believe that there was not more preparation. This is terrible planning; security perimeters were abandoned. Capitol police leadership has a lot to answer for, as this was an awful day for American law enforcement.”
If Trump personally had signaled that he approved of some sort of assault on Congress, he told the assembled at a rally on The Ellipse that he was still with them. Then it was Donald Jr. who, before the sweaty multitude, pointed toward the Capitol and said, “We’re coming for you.” But the president, and he alone, remains responsible for starting this disastrous and vengeful attack. And Trump’s plan was simply the unknowing channeling of Cyrano de Bergerac’s line, “Perish the universe, so long I have my revenge.”
At first it appeared that a spur-of-the-moment attack, fueled by white grievance and stoked by election delusion, caught the security forces off-guard. Initial reports indicated that the Capitol Police hadn’t planned for the attack because the intel simply hadn’t been there. Later, more questions surfaced.
The riot was unprecedented enough to have left the Capitol police unprepared for the sheer number of rioters, many of them armed, along with reports of explosive devices planted near the Capitol. And the Rebels had an invisible ally in their confrontation with the Capitol’s defenders: the novel coronavirus. Several commentators reported that the Capitol Police were badly understaffed because so many of their number were either out sick with the virus or were quarantining.
None of this explains why the depleted ranks of the Capitol cops -- who number 2200 at the best of times -- were not reinforced by some of the 28 different police forces that operate in D.C. To make matters worse, according to Maggie Haberman of the New York Times: “Trump initially rebuffed and resisted requests to mobilize the National Guard, according to a person with knowledge of the events. It required intervention from White House officials to get it done.”
In the end, though, it’s hard not to think about the selfie one of Rebs took with a smiling Capitol cop, or to avoid the ugly sense that the nation’s police agencies often seem to be constituted to repel people of color and left-wing challenges. Right-wingers, no matter the possible threat, are seen as mere annoyances. As innumerable commentators have noted, if these rioters been Black or left-wingers, the blood in the Capitol would have been knee-deep.
Instead, those surrounding, blocking, and entering the Capitol were by and large simply left to wander out into the city, not unlike Kyle Rittenhouse, who walked past police with his hands up after a fatal shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, only to be ignored. The number of arrests was astonishingly small and except for the one tragic shooting incident, it doesn’t appear that the police cracked any heads, as they usually do for far less provocation.
So yesterday’s Capitol riot was historic, if not as much of a one-off as has been reported. Intrusions into the Capitol are far from rare; barging in and occupying congressional offices has been a pretty frequent occurrence. For instance, one year ago, according to Roll Call , “Demonstrators protesting President Donald Trump and the prospect of war in Iran occupied the Hart Senate Office building.”
In June 2018, in the same building, wrote Voice of America, “U.S. Capitol Police arrested 575 activists, mostly women, decrying President Donald Trump's ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on admission of undocumented immigrants.”
And on the state level, the 2011 Wisconsin rallies at the state Capitol dwarfed today’s swarming insurrection bros. Those Madison protests over pay cuts and labor rights at times reached 100,000 participants and took over the Capitol for days on end.
Notwithstanding these precedents, and simultaneous protests at California’s statehouse, every possible unsupportable cliche was dragged out over and over by both reporters and interviewees. “This is an assault on democracy itself;” “Never happened in US history;” “This is a civilized country;” “What happened to the Shining City on a Hill?” Not content, Joe Biden in his address had to proffer up the worst cliche of them all: “This is not who we are.” At least no one said—so far—that America had lost its innocence.
But it is who we are—at least in part. American never was any more innocent than any other country. What made this incident singular was that it was conceived and urged on by the country’s president. And that it was driven by a demonstrably false and ludicrous delusion—one apparently shared by a number of elected Republicans, not to mention QAnon cult members and the belligerent Proud Boys, whose initiation ritual consists of being beaten while struggling to recall five brands of breakfast cereal. In that, this grotesque happening stands alone.
And, responsibility for this incident can’t easily be fudged—despite the efforts of Matt Gaetz and right-wing media to shift blame onto the phantasmic Antifa. Because there were, unusually, no left-wing counter-demonstrators. Apparently they had read Napoleon, who said, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."
Alec Dubro is a lifelong writer who, in the Sixties and Seventies in San Francisco, covered the pop music scene for Rolling Stone. He lives today in Washington, D.C.