COMMENT

First of all, an apology. This article is five days late.

I first sat down to start writing it at 2:20am on Thursday, US time, as the House of Representatives debated one final objection to the electoral college results. But the words just wouldn't come, and they have remained elusive since.

To be honest, I still have no real idea where to begin expressing my disgust and despair at what happened in Washington D.C. last week, or at the years of moral cowardice that preceded it.

So let's just start with the one piece of footage from that day which has stuck with me more than any other. It shows President Donald Trump's supporters chanting: "Hang Mike Pence."

It is tempting, particularly if you are sympathetic towards Mr Trump, to seize on the sillier aspects of what happened. The shirtless guy with the horns, maybe, or the grinning man waving at the camera while lugging around one of Nancy Pelosi's lecterns.

It's easier, that way, to downplay the seriousness of the event. To pretend it's yet another example of the so-called "fake news" blowing things out of proportion, and move on to the next confected outrage.

But this wasn't just some convention of clowns and weirdos giving themselves a free tour of the Capitol. It was a deliberate, violent assault on the heart of American democracy, with the aim of overthrowing it.

That sounds like an overstatement. It isn't one. The mob wanted Congress to reject the certified results of the election and install Mr Trump, the losing candidate, as an unelected president.

Some of the rioters were carrying zip tie handcuffs, of the sort used by police during mass arrests. They wore tactical gear and brandished semiautomatic weapons.

Others erected a gallows outside the building. A vehicle found nearby contained almost a dozen molotov cocktails. Two pipe bombs were planted. A police officer was murdered.

Many people inside the throng were overheard saying Mr Pence, the Vice President of the United States, should be executed, perhaps by hanging him from a tree.

We have no idea what would have happened if these lunatics had actually got their hands on Mr Pence, let alone a political opponent of the President, such as Ms Pelosi. It is an immense stroke of luck that we never found out.

And make no mistake, we came very, very close.

This photo of rioters right outside the Senate chamber was published by Huffpost reporter Igor Bobic at 2:16pm. According to notes taken by a Washington Post reporter inside the chamber, the Senate was sealed mere moments earlier, at 2:15pm.

It could have been so much worse.

RELATED: President Trump piles pressure on Mike Pence

You might wonder what Mr Pence, an unfailingly loyal deputy to Mr Trump for the past four years, could possibly have done to provoke such vicious intent from the mob.

The answer is that he refused to violate US law, not to mention the Constitution, by unilaterally rejecting the result of a democratic election.

Mr Trump shamelessly lied to his supporters, again and again, about Mr Pence's role in the joint session of Congress and the authority he held to influence its outcome.

"All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people," the President told his supporters at a "Save America" rally just before the riot.

"I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do. And I hope he doesn't listen to the RINOs and the stupid people that he's listening to.

"If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. All he has to do. He has the absolute right to do it.

"We're going to have to fight much harder, and Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. If he doesn't, that will be a sad day for our country."

All of these quotes from Mr Trump are lies. There is no other word for them. Mr Pence had no such power, and the President was asking him to do something both impossible and, more importantly, illegal.

But the mob believed him, and whether by design or by accident, Mr Trump unleashed it on his own Vice President. He put Mr Pence's life in danger, in retaliation for following the law.

This is what you get when a political movement, formerly one with coherent principles and ideological goals, transforms into a personality cult which exists to support whatever the leader says or does.

It's what you get when that leader has no understanding of the responsibility on his shoulders, no respect for the rule of law, and no concern about the danger his rhetoric might unleash.

And it's what you get when others fool themselves into thinking the words of a President don't matter.

RELATED: What Americans just don't seem to get

 

"People took him literally," Mick Mulvaney, the former White House chief of staff, said after the riot. His tone was incredulous.

"I never thought I'd see that. I never thought I'd see a day in our country where people from any side of the political spectrum would storm the Capitol in order to intentionally stop the constitutional transfer of power."

Imagine! A throng of people who worship Mr Trump, hang off his every word and believe he is the only person who tells them the truth, taking his words literally! As though he actually means what he says!

Of course they took him literally. How is that remotely surprising?

Mr Trump's core supporters are not like the staffers who work for him, or the Republicans in Congress, all of whom have been known to humour the President to his face but harbour contempt for him in private.

These people idolise the guy.

So when the President of the United States tells them they are "not going to have a country anymore" unless they "fight like hell", as he did on Wednesday morning, they believe him. And they act on it.

When he tells them the coronavirus pandemic is a fake news media beat-up; that America is "rounding the turn" and it's "going away", they believe him. And they act on it. Why do you think every Trump rally is full of people packed together without masks on, even as the US records hundreds of thousands of infections each day?

And when Mr Trump insists he won the election in a "landslide"; that it's being "stolen" from him and Mr Pence has the power to fix it, they believe him. And they act on it.

Five people are dead now because they acted on it.

 

From the moment Mr Trump entered politics, his defenders pretended his critics were a bunch of insufferable pedants wagging their fingers over his combative tone, as though the problem were merely a few rough edges and a lack of manners.

No. The problem was always the content of Mr Trump's words. His malicious treatment of others, his hostility towards democratic institutions, his conflation of the national interest with his own personal interest, his susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and more than anything else, his chronic dishonesty.

Mr Trump hasn't changed since 2016. The ingredients for this catastrophe were always there. Some just chose to ignore them.

I want to stress here that all politicians are dishonest to some extent. All of them. They omit inconvenient facts, exaggerate their achievements and twist their opponents' words. Sometimes they lie.

I'm particularly well acquainted with this maddening reality, because as someone who covers politicians for a living, it's part of my job to unravel their spin - to give readers the context their leaders decide to leave out for whatever self-serving reasons.

With that in mind, let me be blunt.

Donald Trump is, by a monumental margin, the most dishonest politician you or I have ever seen in a democratic country (autocrats like Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin have their own separate category).

He says things that are unambiguously false, and he does it all the time. Pick any public appearance, whether it's a rally speech, a media conference or an interview, and it will be riddled with lies.

This is not normal. You just don't get the same experience when you fact-check Scott Morrison, or Anthony Albanese, or any garden variety politician.

Too many otherwise sensible and intelligent people have spent the past four years acting as though that doesn't matter. They have allowed themselves to avoid confronting the reality of who Donald Trump is.

Worse than that, they have actively given him cover, telling Republican voters Mr Trump is the one telling the truth, and everyone else is just out to get him.

They have helped the President construct an alternate reality impervious to facts or evidence, where whatever he says, no matter how preposterous, must be true.

That is the world his core supporters live in. It's a world where the election really was stolen. Where the death toll of the virus has been inflated to make Mr Trump look bad. Where Mr Pence, and everyone else who was in that Capitol building on Wednesday, is a traitor to the United States.

Here's another clip for you to watch. I'm particularly drawing your attention to the rioter at about the 2:30 mark, right before the guy so charmingly shouts "string them up!".

"Every single bastard in there is a traitor. Every single one!" he says.

He's not just talking about Ms Pelosi, or the Democrats. He's talking about everyone in Congress, each of them a duly elected representative of the American people.

And why wouldn't he think they're all traitors? As far as this man is concerned, everyone in that building is about to help Joe Biden steal an election, knowing the result is fraudulent. The President told him so.

The interesting thing about Mr Trump, and the reason I'm more disgusted with his enablers here than with the President himself, is that it's never really been clear whether or not he genuinely believes his own rubbish.

But the Republicans who aided the deception, insisting his claims about widespread voter fraud had merit even after they were all thrown out of court - they knew better. They knew the danger of indulging Mr Trump's theories, and they did it anyway.

I'll give you two examples: Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

Both are extremely intelligent men with prestigious educations; lawyers with the expertise to know exactly how hollow their rhetoric was as they fuelled the hopes of voters who wanted Mr Biden's victory overturned.

Both persisted with their objections to the electoral college results even after the assault on the Capitol, and you don't need a fancy Harvard law degree to figure out why.

These guys want to run for president in 2024, and to that end, they were courting the support of Mr Trump's hardcore fans by telling them exactly what they wanted to hear.

Never mind the fact that it was nonsense. Never mind the damage it would inevitably cause to American democracy. Mr Cruz and Mr Hawley thought their ambition was more important.

This is the definition of political cowardice. It is typical of the moral rot that has infected conservatism during the Trump years.

RELATED: Republicans lose control of the Senate

There is a reason we hold presidents and prime ministers to a higher standard of behaviour than the random conspiracy theorists on your Facebook feed.

When a leader speaks, millions of people listen. And yes, those words are taken literally.

The democratic convention that losing candidates concede and facilitate a smooth transfer of power also exists for a reason. It maintains faith in the system, and stops violent insurrections like the one we witnessed last week from ever happening.

Mr Trump decided he didn't care about any of that, and the sycophants who have spent years ignoring his worst impulses were, once again, too cowardly to stand up to him.

Now we see the result: an attack on American democracy, incited by the man who swore an oath to defend it. A mob calling for the Vice President to be hanged.

Mr Trump's words mattered. His lies mattered. None of us should ever have pretended otherwise.

Sam Clench is the United States correspondent for news.com.au

Twitter: @SamClench

 

Originally published as Three chilling words from Capitol riot



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