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There’s a reason we expect presidents to say that they support the peaceful transfer of power. President Trump has never committed to it, and we saw the bitter fruit on Wednesday afternoon, when, shockingly, pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol and disrupted the counting of electors.
The breaching of the building during one of the longest-running ceremonies under our system of government is the starkest domestic assault on our democracy in memory — and means that in 2021, we indeed failed to have a peaceful transfer of power.
The rioters themselves bear ultimate responsibility for their acts, but Trump egged them on.
He fed them poisonous lies about the election, including lunatic conspiracy theories worthy of QAnon that, if true, would justify violent revolution.
He encouraged them to come to Washington and said they wouldn’t stand for his “landslide” victory getting taken away.
He whipped them up on Wednesday with one of his typically high-octane speeches about how the election was stolen from them and urged them to march on the Capitol to give “weak” Republicans the “pride and boldness they need to take back our country.”
When the mob overwhelmed security and made its way to the Senate and House floors, sending Mike Pence and lawmakers fleeing, Trump tweeted about how he’d been wronged by Pence’s entirely correct view that he lacks the power as vice president to unilaterally declare him the victor.
It was only a couple of hours later that Trump released a pro-forma video calling on his supporters to go home — but, of course, repeating all his same attacks on the integrity of American democracy that motivated the rioters in the first place.
Trump has been engaged in a grotesque but utterly characteristic display of failed leadership since he insisted late on election night that he’d won big.
As a matter of sheer ego, he hasn’t been able to admit that he lost. He hasn’t looked beyond his personal interest or made even rudimentary gestures toward public-spiritedness.
He has misled his supporters, to whom he has told politically convenient fables, whether it was that Mexico would pay for the wall or that the election would be overturned if only Republicans fought hard enough.
He has shown an ignorance of the American constitutional system that would be remarkable in a first-year law student, let alone a commander in chief.
He has used his extraordinary communication skills in the cause of rank demagoguery, meant to inflame and embitter, rather than to edify or soothe.
And his interest in acting how we expect presidents to conduct themselves since George Washington put his stamp on the office at the outset of the republic has been exactly nil.
The story of the Trump presidency has been, by and large, one of the proverbial guardrails holding. It’s been notable how, despite Trump’s flailing attempts to overturn the election, no Republican officeholder or judge with the ability to affect the outcome has budged, despite Trump’s importuning and bullying.
Yet for all that, our institutions are fragile things. They need people who honor and respect them and allow those institutions to form and constrain them.
It was a painful contrast Wednesday afternoon, when outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an institutionalist to his bones, gave a compelling, carefully crafted speech on why it would be wrong to reject Biden electors, just as the rabble was preparing to roust him and his colleagues from their work.
McConnell’s speech was the handiwork of someone who cares about our system enough to admit defeat, when appropriate. The mob didn’t.
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