The efforts of President-elect Joe Biden to calm and unify the nation have become more complex
Never in recent memory have the events of a single 24-hour period so shaken two presidencies, the very Capitol of the United States and the nation itself as they did on Wednesday.
The remarkable scenes of political violence that broke out amid what was to be a peaceful confirmation of the transfer of power are testing America’s democratic institutions, and it’s far from clear how they will respond. President Trump’s term, which began with Republicans fully in charge of Washington and the promise of a new kind of populist leadership, effectively came to an end Wednesday with his party aflame and out of power, some of its top leaders excoriated by a president they had loyally supported, and a mob of Trump supporters occupying and vandalizing the Capitol.
The effects will ripple out for years to come, and the full consequences will be left for historians to sort out. It seems likely, though, that the chances that other Republicans will see Mr. Trump as the leader of their party after he leaves office have been diminished significantly. As Mr. Trump himself tried to remind his supporters after violence broke out, Republicans like to be seen as the party of law and order, and that is hardly the image he is now projecting.
Meanwhile, the efforts of President-elect Joe Biden to calm and unify the nation have become more complex. On the one hand, the willingness of Trump supporters to resort to violent behavior on the Capitol grounds shows how deeply they question his legitimacy, and how unwilling they are to accept him as their president.
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On the other hand, it’s possible that the sheer horror that most Americans felt, and that most Republicans expressed, at the scenes of mayhem will cause everyone to take a step back from divisive political behavior and look harder for common ground. It’s surely an exaggeration to say the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol did Mr. Biden a favor, but they lent some new urgency to his calls to back away from the bitter politics of the last few years.
Mr. Biden sounded that note when he delivered a televised response to the violence, calling for “the renewal of a politics that’s about solving problems, looking out for one another, not stoking the flames of hate and chaos.”
A key question now is how, far beyond the streets of Washington, the country at large reacts. Will voters on both sides of the partisan divide now see compromise and consensus as preferable to continued deep divisions, or will they see the day’s events as further evidence of how far apart they are from countrymen with whom they disagree?
The day began with the electoral process playing out according to the mandate of the Constitution. Results of two runoff elections for Senate seats in Georgia were arriving, with both seats falling to the Democrats. Those results, if confirmed, give Democrats control of the Senate as well as the House.
Meantime, the Congress convened to conduct the normally constitutional process of counting the Electoral College votes that will officially make Mr. Biden the next president. There figured to be hours of debate as Republican lawmakers lodged protests over alleged election irregularities and potential fraud, but the outcome was assured: Mr. Biden’s victory would be confirmed.
But Mr. Trump was hearing none of it. At midday, he appeared at an outdoor rally his team had organized just beyond the White House grounds and launched a full-scale verbal attack not just on the election process, but on his own party and its leaders.
He repeated a long list of complaints about voting irregularities and alleged fraud, and proclaimed: “We will never give up. We will never concede.” He excoriated “weak Republicans, pathetic Republicans” who weren’t supporting him, criticizing some by name. And he urged the crowd to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. The fire was set.
At the Capitol, Mr. Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, was presiding over the task of counting the nation’s electoral votes. Mr. Pence had just proclaimed that he would defy the president’s wishes that he seek somehow to unilaterally overturn the results of the presidential election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in his own break with the president he had steadfastly defended, said that none of the alleged election irregularities, even if they took place, were nearly large enough to change the outcome. He declined to support any effort to overturn the results.
And then the mob arrived. Mr. Pence had to be whisked away in protective custody to protect him from supporters of his own boss. The task of counting electoral votes—a process the nation’s leaders have previously carried out in good times and in bad, during war and peace—was suspended as the nation’s elected leaders went into lockdown.
By nightfall, the nation’s capital was under a curfew, and lawmakers were under guard. But in a show that Congress, though shaken and damaged, wasn’t broken, lawmakers then reconvened to finish the job the Constitution assigned them, telling one another that maybe they could become stronger for the shock they had just endured.
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