WASHINGTON – Since the dark days of the Civil War and its aftermath, Washington has seen a day like Wednesday.
In a Capitol teeming with heavily armed soldiers and newly installed metal detectors, with the physical wreckage from last week's siege cleared away but the emotional and political wreckage still on display, the President of the United States was accused of attempting American democracy overthrow.
Somehow it felt like the predetermined coda of a presidency that repeatedly pushed all boundaries and frayed the ties of the political body. With less than a week to go, President Trump's tenure is reaching its peak in violence and impeachment at a time when the country is deeply broken and has lost the sense of itself. Concepts of truth and reality are blurred. Trust in the system has eroded. Anger is the only common ground.
As if it wasn't enough for Mr. Trump to become the only president to be impeached twice or for lawmakers to try to remove him with days to go, Washington fell into a miasma of suspicion and conflict. A Democratic congressman accused Republican colleagues of helping the crowd scout the building ahead of time last week. Some Republican members bypassed magnetometers designed to keep weapons off the floor of the House or kept going even after they were turned off.
All of this took place against the backdrop of a pandemic that, although attention has drifted, has become catastrophically worse in the final weeks of Mr Trump's presidency.
More than 4,400 people in the United States died from the coronavirus the day before the House vote, more in one day than were killed in Pearl Harbor or on September 11, 2001, or during the Battle of Antietam. It was only after several members of Congress became infected in the assault on the Capitol and new rules put in place, did they finally consistently wear masks during Wednesday's debate.
Historians struggle to define this moment. They compare it to other periods of tremendous challenge, such as the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Civil War, the McCarthy era and Watergate. They remember Charles Sumner's caning on the Senate floor and the operation to sneak Abraham Lincoln to Washington for his inauguration for fear of attack.
They quote the gruesome year 1968, when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed as campuses and inner cities broke out about the Vietnam War and civil rights. And they think of the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when further violent death on a massive scale seemed inevitable. And yet none of them are quite the same.
“I wish I could give you a wise analogy, but I honestly don't think anything like this has happened before,” said Geoffrey C. Ward, one of the country's most venerable historians. "If you had told me that a president of the United States would have encouraged a delusional crowd to march to our Capitol, weeping for blood, I would have said you were deceived."
Jay Winik, a prominent chronicler of the Civil War and other periods of strife, also said there was no exact analogy. "This is an extraordinary moment, virtually unparalleled in history," he said. "It's hard to find another moment when the glue that holds us together fell apart as it is today."
All of this puts the United States' reputation on the world stage on the back burner, making what President Ronald Reagan call the & # 39; radiant city on a hill & # 39; Like mentioned, a distorted case study is in the challenges that even a mature democratic power can face.
“The historic moment of modeling is actually over,” he said Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian of authoritarianism. "We now have to earn our credibility again, which may not be too bad."
On Wednesday at the Capitol, the scene brought back memories of Baghdad's Green Zone during the Iraq War. Troops camped in the Capitol for the first time since the Confederates threatened to march across the Potomac.
The debate over Mr Trump's fate took place in the same room of the House, where just a week earlier, security agents drew their guns and barricaded the doors as lawmakers threw themselves to the ground or fled the back to escape a marauding horde of Trump supporters. Outrage over that breach was still in the air. Just like the fear.
But the shock had subsided somewhat, and the debate at times felt numbly familiar. Most lawmakers quickly retreated to their partisan corners.
While Democrats demanded accountability, many Republicans pushed back and charged them for a hasty judgment with no hearings or evidence or even much debate. Mr. Trump's prosecutors quoted his inflammatory words at a rally just before the attack. His defenders cited provocative words from speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Maxine Waters, and even Robert De Niro and Madonna to claim there was a double standard.
That the equations were apples and oranges didn't matter as much as the prisms through which they were reflected. Trump tried to reverse a Democratic election he lost on false claims of widespread fraud, pressuring other Republicans and even his vice president to go with him and sending an unruly crowd of supporters to march to the Capitol and "fight like hell". But his allies complained that he had long been the target of what they considered to be unfair partisan attacks and investigations.
"Donald Trump is the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office," said Texas Democrat Representative Joaquin Castro.
"The left in America has incited much more political violence than the right," said Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz.
The widely divergent views encapsulated America in the Trump era. At one point, Maryland Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the leader of the Democratic majority, expressed resentment at the portrayal of events on the other side. "You don't live in the same country as I do," he exclaimed. And at least everyone could agree on that.
Mr. Trump offered no defense and chose to virtually ignore the momentous events taking place in the Chamber of the House. After the vote, he released a five-minute video message in which he issued a more elaborate indictment of last week's violence and denied those who committed it. “If you do any of these things, you don't support our movement, you attack it,” he said.
Unlike Mr Trump's initial impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to help sully the Democrats, some of his party left him this time. Finally, 10 House Republicans joined every Democrat to approve the only article of impeachment, led by Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, the third-placed Republican. It was a testament to how much the party has changed under Mr. Trump that the Cheney family, once themselves considered ideological provocateurs, emerged as defenders of traditional republicanism at this time.
Ten breakaway Republicans were not that many compared to the 197 party members who voted against impeachment. On the other hand, 10 more than voted to impeach Mr. Trump in December 2019 – and most members of a president's own party support impeachment in US history.
Other Republicans tried to draw a more nuanced line, agreeing that Mr. Trump was responsible for inciting the crowd, while insisting that it either did not amount to an untouchable offense or that it was unwise, unnecessary, and divisive to just days before president-elect to prosecute Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes the oath of office.
"That doesn't mean the president is free from debt," California Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican minority leader and one of Mr. Trump's most staunch allies, said as he spoke out against impeachment. "The president is responsible for Wednesday's attack on Congress by rioters. He should have denounced the crowd immediately when he saw what was going on."
Yet the allegiance that so many House Republicans demonstrated for a president who lost re-election and has done so much to harm their own party was striking. “If the overwhelming majority of elected representatives in either of the two American parties cannot reject the hold of a demagogue, even after openly plotting to overturn an election, threatening their lives, then we have a long way to go, ”said Frank O. Bowman III, an impeachment scientist at the University of Missouri School of Law.
Brenda Winanas, the author of & # 39; The Impeachers & # 39; on President Andrew Johnson's trial in 1868, said that in Wednesday's debate she acknowledged some of the arguments against the belief – that it would be a bad precedent, that it would only further divide the country.
She also saw another echo, a desire to move beyond the polarizing Johnson to his anticipated successor, Ulysses S. Grant, who, like Mr. Biden, was seen as a healing figure. & # 39; It gives me hope & # 39 ;, she said. "We must have hope."
But as far as the United States needs to be fixed, it is a project that can be overwhelming for any president without a broader consensus across party lines. Mr. Trump could be impeached, but he will almost certainly finish the last week of his tenure and he has no intention of sneaking out in shame or disgrace as other one-off losers have done, potentially leaving him a residual force in the future. American life is even as diminished.
Moreover, the people who see his defeat as a call to arms remain a force. Security officials bolster troops in Washington for Mr Biden's inauguration next week, concerned about a repeat invasion of the Capitol. After Trump falsely told supporters time and time again that the election was stolen, polls suggest millions of Americans believe him.
On the eve of the 1940 election, F.D.R. said democracy is more than just a word – & # 39; It's a living thing – a human thing – composed of brain and muscle and heart and soul & # 39; Said Susan Dunn, a Williams College historian and biographer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Now, she said, after the events of the last days and years, "we know that democracies are fragile and that the brains and souls of our democracy are in grave danger."