Given the past two months of post-election pandemonium and four years of a presidency that was unlike any other in American history, one could be forgiven if the sight of Donald Trump supporters storming the Capitol Building, smashing windows and spinning around in the seats (actual chairs) of legislators registered no real shock.
This was a president, after all, who convinced millions that being off-putting was actually disarmingly presidential. Always playing to his base and faithful to the Trump brand, the president knew his customers. And his core loyalists responded favorably to his irreverence, never recoiling from the base and boorish.
Historians and political scientists will soon try to make sense of it all, but one was always left to wonder whether all that chaos Trump generated was actually intentional, part of some grand strategy in keeping Americans off-guard. He was the patron saint of reckless impulsivity, every day a new unprecedented surprise — presidential antics as political theater.
Civics suddenly became a master class in incivility. The strange ways of this White House represented a new style of governing, one that depended mostly on showmanship and spontaneity. Even during the 2016 election we saw a candidate improbably running for the highest office on the planet with an astonishingly low regard for democratic values and American institutions.
And yet, Trump captured hearts and minds, tapping into a swelling anger among white working-class voters who believed they had been silenced and forgotten, treated with open scorn by cultural elites and the multicultural, progressive left. Already labeled as racists, they long fixated on illegal immigrants and foreign countries as causes of their misery. A real estate mogul and reality TV star was the one elected official, who just so happened to possess a special talent for scapegoating, finally listening to them — and entertaining them along the way.
And, so, five years later, in agitated solidarity over his re-election loss, his supporters traveled to the nation’s capital from the far reaches of the red states, refusing to believe that their lunch pail version of Camelot had come to an end. The election was rigged and stolen. President Trump had actually won by a landslide, they asserted.
The lockdowns necessitated by COVID-19 suddenly made voting from home with a mail-in ballot the winning ticket for the Democratic Party. Election rules were changed without uniformity — even within the same state! Verification procedures were relaxed. Missing information was sometimes ignored or corrected by canvass workers.
Voter-turnout, where Democrats normally have trouble, now could be achieved without even having to lick a stamp. Suddenly, minorities and younger voters joined the electorate — in multitudes. Millions of absentee ballots arrived from large urban population centers.
Showing up for Trump was never a problem for his red-capped legions — whether at rallies or polling sites. But that effort had gone unrewarded. A critical mass of white people believed they had been disenfranchised — their votes didn’t count. Under the cloak of the coronavirus, their in-person ballots had been devalued. And the will of the people had been thwarted.
Conspiracies abounded about election integrity. Mainstream and social media were in on the fix. Their man didn’t stand a chance. The president, his legal team and key Republican leaders poured lighter fluid all over these fears. After all, Trump was always a tweeting, ticking time bomb.
Trump was always a tweeting, ticking time bomb.
How to undo what had already been done? They felt that American courtrooms were closed to them, too. Nearly sixty lawsuits were all dismissed on either procedural or evidentially grounds. But none actually received a full evidentiary hearing. They wondered, could every single one, attached with sworn affidavits, be so baseless? Even the Supreme Court, which before the election seemed interested in the constitutionality of hurriedly re-written election laws, had closed its doors.
A Joint Session of Congress, aborted by an apparent insurrection, could have provided them with the equivalent of a full-day in court, where evidence, statistical discrepancies and constitutional arguments could be openly brought to light and debated — live on television, with both chambers of Congress.
Instead, the curse of his “fine people on both sides” comment, following the Unite the Right rally in 2016, was revived and would forever follow this president on his way out of the White House. It might even prevent him from returning to public life. And yet, he set it all in motion, if not incited it outright.
Never before had a critical mass of Americans laid siege to the People’s House — the very same people who no longer believed their interests were represented there. Those few hours of mayhem at the Capitol will be remembered as the Revenge of the Deplorables.
Perhaps this is not the time to defund the police.
In a parallel universe, a peaceful protest of aggrieved Americans dubious of election results, assembling at the National Mall with both chambers of Congress engaged in debate, could have been a testament to our democracy — indeed, representative democracy at its finest.
Instead, we had desecration.
The rise of Donald Trump was a surprise; his ignominious fall is not. We may have just witnessed the final meltdown of the most self-destructive man in American history. No one has ever torpedoed more opportunities by simply refusing to keep his mouth shut and his Twitter finger in its holster.
In the end he never could reject love — no matter from where it came and how it was expressed.
And, yet, despite the many instances of an executive branch in shambles — Mueller Report, impeachment, Ukrainian phone call, and now the physical storming and sacking of the Capitol — this president got some things right. Before COVID-19, he was the steward of a booming economy. A vaccine arrived sooner than expected. And he unimaginably brought peace and stability to the Middle East, while treating Iran and China, deservedly, as outlaw nations.
The rich ironies of this presidency will linger for eternity. A man who was a menace to democracy was, ironically, placed in charge of the world’s oldest democracy. Now the eyes of the world are upon us — watching luridly and cringing at an America that lost its way.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.”