In January 1999, my wife and I moved to Washington DC so I could serve as an intern in the Congressional office of Rep. Chris Cannon (R, when that term connoted far less than it does now). It was an eventful time in the Capitol. Rep. Cannon was one of the 13 House “managers” appointed to conduct the impeachment of President Bill Clinton through the House of Representatives.1One of the few managers still prominent in American politics today? Lindsey Graham. The only Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to vote against any of the charges brought against Bill Clinton at the committee stage? Lindsey Graham. The phones rang all day long with random Americans going through their list of managers, roughly half urging impeachment and half voicing outrage. I answered nearly all of these calls. Many callers assumed I was keeping a running tally—if any of you called Rep. Cannon’s office twenty years ago to voice your opinion on impeachment, I’m sorry to disavow you of any misconception you may have had.
Indeed, no one ever asked about the calls because their outcome was already easy to assume. Both sides were vigorously pressuring their bases and the media machine was roaring. The result was precisely what one would expect—a lot of noise echoing what everyone already knew about a divided country.
And yet there was no feeling of unsafety, fear, or concern. It was the people’s business, and the people generally conducted their business within the bounds of civic propriety. Not a single call I received was ever memorable. The most memorable call of the entire process was the one I didn’t receive, elsewhere documented, when a KSL television reporter had to call me so he could get a shot of me answering the phones for the 10 pm news.2As noted previously, Grandma and Grandpa, Utah residents, called the next morning.
One of the few times I was not on phone duty was when our office gave Capitol tours to constituents who had called our offices and made reservations weeks in advance. At the appointed hour, the group would invariably appear and I would walk them to the Capitol for a tour. We would walk through Statuary Hall and the Rotunda, and I would share what little I knew about the building. I would ask them where they were from and invariably they were from some quaint Utah County town I was intimately familiar with despite being a California native. But again, none of this felt remotely unsafe and nearly all of it is thoroughly unmemorable. The only fact I can remember is that Brigham Young and Philo T. Farnsworth represent Utah in Statuary Hall.
All of these thoughts flashed through my mind as I watched the Capitol overrun by an armed mob attempting to overturn a presidential election. I was there in 1999. If anyone should have PTSD from being confronted by hordes of demented citizens hellbent on suicidal retribution for attempting to take their leader down, it would be me. I think I may remember a few raised voices, maybe. But I never felt unsafe for even a second. The people’s representatives were conducting the people’s business, and everyone could use their words.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in that building of marble and stone while an armed mob broke in and marauded. What is more, that the event was occasioned by the least controversial thing Congress does—count the electoral votes cast by slates of electors as certified by their individual states—is even more disconcerting.3The media did not help matters by continually referring to the process as “Congressional” certification. Congress does not certify electoral votes. States certify electoral votes. Even as consistent a constitutional contrarian indicator as Mike Lee got this one right. Congress only counts already certified electoral votes. And since each state had only one slate of certified electoral votes, there was nothing to debate. It was either count them or blow up democracy. In related news, the statute governing Congress’s role in the count is a constitutional abomination and should be repealed forthwith. In basketball parlance, the electoral vote count is one of Congress’s few slam dunk moments—up there with post office naming bills and 100th birthday resolutions.
There is now so much misinformation about Congress’s role in the electoral vote count that it seems folly to try and correct it. The Constitution states that electors cast their votes in the electors’ respective state capitols, after which they are certified and transmitted to Congress for counting. Many, many lies were spread about the Vice-President’s powers in this process. Kook law professor John Eastman—last heard dog-whistling Kamala Harris’s racial background—convinced Donald Trump that the Vice President could actually refuse to count certified electoral votes. Eastman and others also claimed that State Legislatures could simply ignore their voters and adopt their own electors, a contemptuous position previously debunked here. In any event, after losing 60 court challenges—in increasingly embarrassing fashion—Eastman, Giuliani, and Trump simply cooked up a premise for defrauding America.4The premise that the election was stolen, or that there were really any serious problems at all, is an absurd one beyond rational consideration, much less rebuttal. To debate it lends it a credence and respectability it does not deserve.
As much as Mike Pence may adore Donald Trump, he was apparently unwilling to face the prospect of life in federal prison for treason just on John Eastman’s say-so. He signaled well in advance that he was ending Trump’s grift. The electoral votes would be counted. Trump could keep packing.
Enter now the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern of modern fascism, Ted Cruz (F-TX) and Josh Hawley (F-MO). Cruz and Hawley are both Ivy League graduates, wealthy, and paragons of smug elitism. Both are also Trump-level narcissists whose politics reflect only which way the wind is blowing. And because Cruz and Hawley are shameless manipulators, gale force winds blowing to the right give them a tactical advantage, as they are among the few individuals soulless enough to conjure the authoritarian bloodlust necessary to survive so far out of what was once the American mainstream.
Cruz and Hawley announced that they would object to counting the electoral votes of the usual suspect states, dragging out the count and creating a false sense of drama around a ceremonial act. Conservative groups paid for thousands of its most reprehensible, unhinged creatures to surround the Capitol. Trump himself showed up to light the fuse. The rest we watched on television.
The building will be repaired, but restoring the conditions of self-government will be harder. Whatever the Founders contemplated, an all-out Executive Branch assault on the Legislature couldn’t have been high on the list. Nor could they have foreseen the Legislature’s own complicity in that scheme. Harder still will be somehow talking down the millions of Republicans ready to bring down American democracy for one big lie.
But these are the obvious costs of insurrection. There are others less apparent. A deliberative body requires space to deliberate. Among the many lessons that the “Constitutionalists” refuse to take from the Founders was their mode of deliberation—in secret, and without a constant barrage of unhinged noise. Social media and the conservative echo chamber have already warped the deliberative process. Now, physical safety is in question. And legitimate access to Congress—that tenuous but important tie between the people and their legislators—undoubtedly weakens as a result of Wednesday’s seditious stunt. The Capitol—already more secure than when I was there because of 9/11–must naturally retrench. The distance can have nothing but a negative effect, but it is better than what the mob has in mind.
Is it fascism? Nihilism? Anarchy? Perhaps it is all of these things. The labels hardly matter at this point. But whatever it is, the Confederate flag flew in the U.S. Capitol for the first time in American history. That was more than just a symbolic gesture. It was a visual reminder that the heart of 2020 conservatism pumps white nationalist blood. And it has won a tactical victory, talking-head noise notwithstanding. In 1864–the last time white seditionists surrounded Washington DC—General Lew Wallace5Later, the author of a relatively obscure story called Ben-Hur. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it. called for a vigorous defense of the capital city for fear that invasion would provoke visions of “President Lincoln, cloaked and hooded, stealing from the back door of the White House just as some gray-garbed Confederate brigadier burst in the front door.” Even if Congress was able to reconvene and finish its primary mission, its inability to function surely emboldened future attempts. God knows how many will get caught in subsequent crossfires.
So now the shoe is on the other foot. America must demonstrate the resolve necessary to show that those images were an aberration, not government policy. That will not happen with Trump remaining in office. Trump is the apotheosis of white nationalist politics: the long-awaited love child of Ayn Rand and George Wallace. But until the government mounts the vigorous defense necessary for its preservation, America remains unsafe. At the beginning of this journey, I said it would be a long walk to November. Now we know we should have brought bigger bags of soup.