WASHINGTON — Let’s be clear about what happened Wednesday: The president of the United States invited a crowd of his supporters to Washington, ginned them up with lies about a stolen election, attacked members of Congress for being complicit in that theft and then sent them to the U.S. Capitol. “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople,” Donald Trump declared at his “Save America” rally on the Ellipse, urging the crowd to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” and “take back our country.”
Soon, thousands of his supporters tried to do just that — overwhelming police barricades, storming the Capitol, and fighting their way into the House and Senate chambers. Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California — first and second in line to the presidency — were whisked away to a secure location. House members donned masks designed for a biological attack to protect themselves against tear gas. Officers drew guns on the House floor. A woman — 35-year-old Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt — was shot and killed, one of four people to die during the violent rioting.
It was one of the darkest moments in the history of our democracy. And Trump is responsible for it. As the smoke cleared Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Trump said in a tweet since removed, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.” Sorry, these things didn’t “happen.” Trump formed and incited the mob. He stoked their anger with self-serving lies. He betrayed his followers. He betrayed his office. And now he has blood on his hands.
But amid the darkness, we also saw our democracy’s resilience. Within hours, the Capitol was cleared and Congress reconvened. By early Thursday morning, both houses had confirmed Joe Biden’s victory with bipartisan support. Despite Trump’s unprecedented assault on our democratic institutions, our institutions did not falter. The lower courts — including many led by Trump-appointed judges — have rejected Trump’s bogus claims. The Supreme Court, with its Trump-appointed 6-3 conservative majority, has refused to entertain his calls to intervene. While some Republicans have pandered shamefully to Trump, many GOP elected officials at all levels of government — federal, state and local — have stood up for the integrity of our electoral process. All 10 living former secretaries of Defense — including Republicans Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — have united to back military leaders in resisting any efforts to involve them in the election dispute. Pence did his constitutional duty and refused to go along with Trump’s scheme to reject the election results, as did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
In other words, despite the harrowing scenes on Capitol Hill, our democracy is not — to use McConnell’s phrase — in a “death spiral.” Our constitutional guardrails have held. Trump will leave office on Jan. 20, and Biden will be sworn in as our 46th president. The system works.
But as we reflect on Wednesday’s events, and the president’s responsibility for what transpired, it is worth noting that one institution has failed us: the media. Trump was able to convince millions of Americans to believe that they were being disenfranchised through electoral fraud. Why did so many believe his lies? Because the media — which is supposed to be an objective arbiter of facts — has lost its credibility. An August 2020 Gallup/Knight Foundation poll found that 83% of Americans believe that there is “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of political bias in news coverage, and 80% of Americans say that these inaccuracies are intentional — either because the reporter is misrepresenting the facts or making them up entirely. In the eyes of Trump supporters, many in the media have spent the past four years doing just that, hyping flimsy allegations such as the Steele dossier and the conspiracy theory that Trump colluded with Russia in an effort to bring him down. So now they are unwilling to believe those same news organizations when they report the truth — that the president’s claims that the election was stolen are patently untrue.
In fewer than two weeks, Trump will be gone — and thanks to Wednesday’s events, he probably will not make a political comeback. The damage to our Capitol soon will be repaired.
But it will take work to repair the fabric of trust that binds us as a nation. Perhaps our shared revulsion at what we witnessed on Capitol Hill finally will force an examination of conscience on all sides — and prompt us to seek greater unity.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.