Images of bare-chested men in red face, aging Nazis in “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies, and grinning white supremacists ransacking Nancy Pelosi’s office make it clear just how much Donald Trump’s racist white base was behind the insurrection on Wednesday. But those same images, and the speed with which Congress returned to business that evening, also makes the whole thing seem a little … silly. Sickening and violent, yes. But also something where the outcome was absolutely a foregone conclusion. It was not.
As much horror and disgust as the the rampaging mob brought to the nation as the surreal scenes played out across the televisions of stunned observers, it could have been much, much worse. There are several ways in which this situation could have gone much more wrong than it already did. Some of those ways might even have given Trump exactly what he wanted: enough confusion, fear, and uncertainty to justify his holding onto power.
America wasn’t just under assault yesterday, it was in serious danger.
What sort of things might have happened to give Trump the excuse he needed to “cross the Rubicon” and simply end the republic? Well, how many times has the news—any news you happen to be watching—repeated the statement about “quick-thinking Senate staffers” who went back to retrieve the mahogany boxes containing the certified Electoral College ballots? It’s been one of the favorite talking points of Thursday morning, but suppose that in the attempt to get everyone out safely, that didn’t happen. What if those boxes had still been sitting there when the insurrectionists forced their way onto the House floor?
Yes, had Trumpist terrorists carried off the official forms, or shredded them, or decided to start a bonfire on the House floor, there are other copies of the certificates, complete with all necessary signatures, waiting over at the National Archives. But what are the chances that those copies could be retrieved, certified by the clerks, and run through the process without Republicans in both House and Senate protesting that these were not the “real” documents? Jackasses like Josh Hawley and Louie Gohmert could easily have used such a situation to, at a minimum, object to the vote in every state. That would trigger 50 two-hour debates, plus all the time necessary to gather the joint session, send everyone to separate chambers, debate, vote, and come back together, for each state. On Wednesday, objections on just two states easily added seven hours to the schedule for what should have been a brief ceremony. It’s not hard to imagine such an extended disruption opening the door to still more breakdowns of the system.
And that’s just paperwork. Terrorist Ashli Babbitt was killed, she was part of a crew trying to smash through the doors of the House at a point when House members were still inside, sheltering in place. A few minutes later, Capitol Police managed to get those House members out through another door, but that was not guaranteed. When Trump’s terror squad finally broke through into the House, they were absolutely hoping to find some House members still in place.
When the protesters broke into the House chamber, not all of them were wearing horns and faux bearskin. Some were dressed in tactical gear and armor several grades better than what the police were wearing. And they were carrying large zip ties—zip ties that had already been fashioned into loops to make them easier to pull over the hands of hostages. It’s already shocking to see terrorists who ransacked Nancy Pelosi’s office, stole items off her desk, and ripped down her speaker’s sign. [Trigger warning] Now imagine Nancy Pelosi bound and dragged down the steps of the Capitol to the makeshift gallows those terrorists erected on the lawn. Or imagine the same for Mike Pence, who Trump had just finished singling out for the crowd as a traitor to their cause.
This scenario was anticipated by Rep. Jason Crow, who warned other representatives to remove their identifying pins when trapped inside that House chamber. Crow was concerned that the invaders would use those pins precisely to target members of Congress, either for violence or as hostages. It is not at all difficult to envision a situation in which insurrectionists entered the House or Senate chambers in time to secure the hostages they wanted. Or a situation in which significant members of America’s leadership were incapacitated or killed outright. It’s not hard to see how such a situation might gift Trump with exactly the fear and confusion he wanted at the start of the day. After all, the difference between a lusciously bumbling assassination plot and the beginning of World War I came down to nothing but simple coincidence.
Individual deaths are not the only thing that might have tipped a terrible day into annus horribilis. At least three improvised explosive devices, including two pipe bombs along with additional bomb-making materials, were located and either detonated safely or removed over the course of the afternoon. Those devices all appear to have been on the outside of the Capitol itself, but it didn’t have to be that way. It didn’t even have to be a bomb. The Capitol is an old building full of wooden furniture, oil paintings, and cloth banners. Proficient use of a few matches might have left the nation mourning a ruin.
The period of late December now seems like a century ago. But that was when Trump was summoning his followers for a wild time. And well in advance of the actual rally, it was clear that wild time was specifically designed to appeal to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and militias who would bring violence to the streets of Washington, D.C. It was also the time when one of the most popular hashtags on the right was also the most ominous: #CrossTheRubicon.
That statement represents the understanding that Trump’s supporters had even before they left for Washington, D.C.—the understanding that what they were doing was attempting not to save the republic, but to end it. To replace the idea of a democratically elected leader with a self-justified dictator.
America should not be complacent that they did not succeed. This time.