To see her unremarkable – watching mixed images bounce, live, across the endless screens of the world – it was, as an American, a struggle to believe your eyes. But there, in the US capital in early January 2021: real-time breakout and entry-times the republic has never seen before.
The U.S. Capitol was swept by violent supporters of Donald Trump, who urged them to march through the domed building while lawmakers inside were performing their constitutional duties by sanctioning his electoral defeat. Procedures were soon abandoned as the selfie crowd smashed windows, walked through corridors and searched through MPs’ offices.
Fourteen days before Joe Biden was due to open at the same location, elected officials were protected in their places in their building. Agents barricaded themselves inside Congressional chambers, and guns were withdrawn. The stars and stripes – high above public property – were lowered, then replaced with the rise of the blue Trump flag.
In one of the most indelible photos of the day, a hooded intruder sat on a chair overlooking the Senate floor – minutes after it was evacuated by Trump’s Vice President himself, Mike Pence – waving his fist in front of a thick, patterned curtain designed to invoke semblance of democracy.
This was not the “peaceful transfer of power” the American tradition had enjoyed. Not even remotely. “This is an absolute shame,” said Republican Senator Pat Tommy of Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, the United States appeared in danger of becoming the very country it had always insisted it helped: a fragile democracy.
“This is not an opposition,” Biden said in a televised address. “It’s a disorder. It’s a mess.”
Part of the goal in building magnificent structures like the Capitol in the first place was to create actual physical representations of an abstract system of government – intentional, sturdy edifices that do not change and do not violate as their people hope democracy itself will be. “This temple of democracy” is what Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, called the Capitol after things had calmed down.
So to see wooden furniture used as a barrier to keep American rioters out of the US Congress room, to watch Americans smash American windows as they stare through who knows which American stars over the decades – which somehow spoke of something more, something deeper.
They tried to disrupt our democracy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said when the body met again Wednesday night after the Capitol was evacuated.
Regardless of which side you are on, the events of the day confirm that the monuments of a nation of laws – and even the very site in which these laws appeared – can be upended by a group of its members if they are angry enough and designed enough.
“I’m very disappointed, to be honest. It’s a pity,” said Michael Hobson, 61, a lifelong Republican in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“It does not represent the presidency,” Hobson said. The Republican Party has been tarnished. Someone needs to climb onto the board. We need to find a good strong leader to change the vision. “
Trump continued to foment divisions on Wednesday, both in tweets – until his Twitter account was closed in the evening, for the first time – and in a passing taped message from the White House, less than two miles from the Capitol. In the video, which was recorded as the chaos continued to unfold, a number of things were said, many of them inaccurate. At least one, though, was absolutely correct and hard to challenge: “There has never been a time like this.”
But is this really an inflection point, or is it just another escalation – an escalation in a chain that has gradually unfolded in recent years to the point that the unthinkable in 2015 becomes a mere repetition in 2021? Are these the last moments of something linked to the current administration, or the emergence of something that will become a dominant thread in the national DNA for decades?
“It’s like a different country, in one of those places where coups are happening,” said Bev Jackson, president of the Cope County African-American Caucus in Georgia, where two Democrats won two US Senate seats in Tuesday’s run-off election.
“I think people were afraid that a moment like this would come,” Jackson said. “It’s really sad and it’s really tragic, but I think people were preparing for that.”
Throughout American television and on social networks there have been various variations of the same phrase: This is not America. But what if it is him? In fact, many Americans who watched the movie all had similar reactions about how this could happen here, echoed by newscasters and interviewees who used phrases like “Banana Republic” and more badly “Like a third world country.”
It raises the question: What does this look like on the ground abroad, where the United States has long established itself as the stabilizer of such things?
“I feel like I’m watching an American movie,” said Laurie Bezeron, founder of the Black Literature Writers Club who lives in the suburbs of Paris. “I just hope it doesn’t end in a civil war.”
Which brings us back to the Senate, shortly before infiltrators infiltrated it. While discussing the objection to the Arizona ballot, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, one of the presidential candidates in early 2020, cited Benjamin Franklin’s famous (and possibly actually spoken) words: “Republic, if you can keep it.”
Barely an hour later, the floor chaos reigned.
Associated Press reporters Claire Gallofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, and John Lister in Paris contributed to this report.