"I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful," President Donald Trump tweeted after some of the supporters he had urged to gather in Washington, D.C., for a "Save America March" aimed at preventing President-elect Joe Biden from taking office stormed the Capitol, where lawmakers had gathered to officially tally the election results. "No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order—respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!"
Before today's riot, Trump also asked his followers to protest peacefully, and the responsibility for the violence lies first and foremost with the individuals who committed it. Yet it was predictable that at least some Trump supporters would go beyond peaceful protest after he spent two months insisting that he actually won the election by a landslide, a fact that he said would be apparent but for a massive criminal conspiracy that delivered a phony victory to Biden. Today is the day when Congress was scheduled to affirm that victory, which Trump has persistently portrayed as an intolerable threat to democracy.
"These people are not going to take it any longer," Trump declared at a Washington, D.C., rally that began an hour before the joint session of Congress convened. "They rigged an election. They rigged it like they've never rigged an election before…Hundreds of thousands of American patriots are committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious republic. All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they're doing, and stolen by the fake news media. That's what they've done and what they're doing. We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn't happen. You don't concede. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore….We will stop the steal."
Trump made the stakes clear. "We're going to have somebody in there that should not be in there," he said, "and our country will be destroyed. And we're not going to stand for that."
How did Trump propose to "stop the steal"? He held out the vain hope that Vice President Mike Pence would reverse the election results by rejecting electoral votes for Biden from several swing states—a power the vice president does not actually have. "I hope Mike is going to do the right thing," Trump said. "If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election….He has the absolute right to do it….Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn't, that will be a sad day for our country, because you're sworn to uphold our Constitution. "
But Pence decided that "the right thing," in terms of Trump's personal desires, was the wrong thing under the Constitution. "I do not believe that the Founders of our country intended to invest the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress, and no vice president in American history has ever asserted such authority," Pence said in a statement he issued as Trump was speaking. "It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not."
Predictably, Trump responded by slamming Pence on Twitter: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!" As Christian Britschgi notes, "that tweet came roughly 10 minutes after it was reported that Pence had been escorted off the Senate floor" in response to the pro-Trump riot.
Once unconstitutional intervention by the vice president was off the table, what other options were left for Trump fans outraged by the installation of a president their leader portrays as illegitimate? "It is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy," Trump said. "We're going to walk down to the Capitol…and we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong."
After Trump told the protesters that their country was about to be destroyed by an illegal usurper, the idea of cheering the "brave" lawmakers who side with Trump and booing the ones who side with reality must have seemed like pretty weak tea. Some of them evidently thought that "show[ing] strength" required more than that, especially after it became clear that Pence was not riding to the rescue of the republic.
"We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated," Trump said. "I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard today."
No doubt the president's supporters will cite the "peacefully" part in his defense. But after two months of bizarre conspiracy theories, constant presidential complaints about a stolen election, declarations that conceding Biden's victory is not an option, and repeated warnings that the fate of the nation hangs in the balance, that is more weight than a single adverb can bear.