Now we’ve seen what can happen, even here, when a demagogue has free rein

As the nightmare unfolded inside the nation’s Capitol building Wednesday, commentators, politicians and a host of shaken onlookers wondered how something they’d associate with unstable countries could happen inside those hallowed halls of American democracy. “Banana republic” was former President George W. Bush’s metaphor.–—

The cameras captured folks smashing windows and scaling walls; looters cheerily clutching swag they’d gathered; a goon sprawled in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chair, feet planted on her desk; a bare-chested Viking type in fur headdress and horns, face painted red, white and blue, clutching an American flag in one hand and a megaphone in the other.

Imagine the sheer nerve of thugs proclaiming “God Bless America” while attacking its foundations. Sweden condemned the violence, while South Africa urged everyone to pray for us.

Yes, in the world’s most powerful democratic nation, democracy was horribly breached. But the blood stains and myriad televised images of mayhem and such racist symbols as Confederate flags were just the physical manifestations of a long-growing departure from the founding principles that had bound us together, led by the current president. Our drift away from the Constitution began before or soon after Donald Trump assumed the presidency, inviting foreign interference into our elections. There were wake-up calls in special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings and in Trump’s dismissal of administration officials not unconditionally on his side — signals he held no reverence for basic constitutional principles. But early on, with the nation so politically polarized by the 2016 election, Republican leadership reacted as if Democrats were just sulking because they wouldn’t accept Trump’s win.

The Register’s editorial:We can’t move forward if Republican leaders keep indulging false beliefs

We should also have seen what was to come when Trump declared his unwillingness as far back as September 2020 to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he lost. He has even made quips about staying after two terms were up.

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

“Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” he said when asked about this year’s transition.

And boy, did we. We saw the vengeance with which he crashed through one of the core institutions of American democracy — free and fair elections — by inciting people to storm the Capitol while declaring him the victor. We saw the lies he deployed, and continues to, to claim the election was stolen from him.

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to be strong,” he told protesters early Wednesday plugging what he called the “Save America” walk to the Capitol that he would be part of. (He wasn’t.)

His lawyer Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat.”  

Trump was joined by his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, fresh from receiving Trump’s pardon for twice lying to the FBI. “We stand at a crucible moment in United States history,” Flynn told the crowd. “This country is awake now.”

Straight talk:Trump is an enemy of democracy and his Capitol enablers are co-conspirators

After throngs had invaded the Capitol, smashing windows and dangling from walls, and four people were dead; after someone left a hand-scribbled note on Pelosi’s desk warning he’d be back, and someone had left a van in front of Capitol East steps with a scribbled sign saying, “Pelosi is Satan,” the president remained full of praise. Telling them, “you’re very special,” and “we love you,” he asked them to “go home in peace.” 

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces, as they storm the US Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

What a far cry from how he’s addressed Black protesters standing up for their very lives against unwarranted police stops, arrests and killings. He’s called them “thugs,” “terrorists” and “anarchists.” He deployed federal troops to stop their protests. Looking back on this, the frightening part is the extent of unilateral control he has exerted over so many in power who simply acquiesced to his agenda and tactics. Some 100 Republican members of the House and over a dozen in the Senate had, without a shred of evidence, echoed his claims of election fraud. They were willing to go to the mat over them Wednesday, ignoring the will of voters and electors even in states represented by other elected members. After witnessing the lawlessness, some scaled back on their rhetoric or changed their position to support certifying Biden’s election. 

And what about the Capitol Police? Why weren’t they better prepared or more in control?

Capitol chaos:Donald Trump and his supporters are trying to burn down America. But they won’t win.

Democracy offers safeguards, yes, but those only work when we elect responsible leaders who respect democratic institutions and are willing to set aside political or personal considerations to stand up for them. 

On the other hand, some Republicans with whom I have taken issue for doing Trump’s bidding, such as Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, rose to the occasion Wednesday and did their jobs just as they should have. McConnell spoke powerfully on why Biden’s election must be certified, calling the vote to do so the most important one he would cast in 36 year in the Senate. Discrediting Trump’s “sweeping conspiracy theories” that had been checked and rejected, he said the states and their electors had spoken. “If we overrule them, it could damage our republic forever. … Our democracy would enter a death spiral.”

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the US Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. It demands elected officials do the right things without checking which way the wind is blowing. It demands that members of the public vote, know our rights and responsibilities and hold those officials accountable for their actions and rhetoric. It requires understanding our history and Constitution, where we have gone wrong and what we still need to get right. 

Buildings and symbols can be repaired, but the broader damage Wednesday was to the institution of the presidency. That can only be repaired now by removing Trump from his last few days in office to make it clear that hate-filled lies, incitement to violence and election interference are not compatible with the highest office in the land.