Commentary: In America’s capital, a day of terrifying images from a failed state — our own

Supporters of President Trump storm the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Supporters of President Trump storm the U.S. Capitol and halt a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The footage might have been mistaken for that beamed in past years out of Chile, Sudan, Thailand and other locales: armed men overpowering police, storming a government building, breaking into the offices of elected officials and leaving a trail of fear and destruction — not to mention at least one improvised explosive device found nearby — in their wake.

But these insurgents wore MAGA hats. And their flags were red, white and blue.

Washington, D.C., resembled a banana republic on Wednesday when a violent mob of radicalized Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building during a joint session to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win in November, staging an incoherent insurrection at the behest of a leader who refuses to relinquish power.

“I have not seen anything like this since I was deployed to Iraq in 2007, 2008,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who spoke on the phone to CNN after Congress was evacuated and locked down in an undisclosed, secure area. “This is America. This is what’s happening right now.”


What we witnessed today on social media and TV news is what we in the United States usually frame as the kind of political crisis that happens someplace else. But if you are from a country that’s fallen to fascism, have family from places where coups are part of recent history or know someone who’s lived through the fall of a government at the hands of paramilitary forces or a military junta, you likely saw this coming. Stoking division for personal gain has consequences, even in America.

Trump’s dangerous mantra that the election was stolen, his calls for domestic terrorists to “stand back and stand by,” Rudy Giuliani’s suggestion that the election should be settled through a “trial by combat” and, indeed, the entire Republican Party’s attempts to sow chaos to stay in power finally had their reaping Wednesday. Long before night, and a 6 p.m. ET curfew, fell on its capital city, America no longer looked like the democracy it’s so long purported to be — and crowed about “exporting” abroad as if it were a gift.

Shirtless men resembling Lost Boys rather than Proud Boys donned face paint, fur headgear, horns and shirts with witless slogans. They were caught on cameras lumbering through the statuary, taking selfies gloating in the dais above the Senate floor, facing off with armed law enforcement and posing at an office desk of Nancy Pelosi’s before leaving the threatening note “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN.”

We’re far past slippery slopes and broken norms and speculative fiction now. In fact, we’re no longer predicting the future: The future we worried about has arrived.

As reporters were harassed, their equipment trashed by rioters, the chaos was televised, live-streamed, and shared on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Midday reports on the scene showed little police presence, and early on the National Guard was nowhere to be seen. In a call to MSNBC, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Norwalk) was on the verge of tears as she she took shelter somewhere inside the Capitol. She said she could hear explosions outside and recounted the conversation she’d just had with her husband about her last will and testament.

The misguided and frankly idiotic revolt was an incredible turn of events in a news cycle that started 24 hours earlier with a pivotal dual runoff election in Georgia to determine the balance of the Senate. Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow and Bret Baier found themselves pulling all-nighters as they pivoted to cover the Trump rally, the D.C. march and, finally, the surreal and frightening scene at Capitol.


While the futility of the march and the attack on Congress was underscored by news that broke an hour or so into the breach — Sen. Mitch McConnell, while sheltering in place, was demoted by the American people to minority leader when the second Georgia race was called for Democrat Jon Ossoff — Fox, Trump’s unofficial media arm, grappled with how to cover a breakdown of order it had played a part in fostering. Star personalities such as Tucker Carlson have been fueling the flames along with the president, urging viewers to reject the election results and embrace the absurd conspiracy theories of fraud.

As reports rolled in that guns were drawn on the Senate floor and that a woman had been shot and killed inside the Capitol, though, the networkturned to its more level-headed contributors. “It’s tragic,” said lawyer Andrew McCarthy. “What we’re seeing before our eyes is what I prosecuted terrorists in the 1990s for conspiring to do: to attack our capital. To attack our patriotic and other installations of the government.”

Wednesday’s violent attack cannot be seen as yet another preparatory “stress test” for democracy. It was the real thing. We, as a nation, are not immune to the crises in which we are so often intervening overseas, parachuting in to save the day — and frequently mucking things up further by trying.

“It seems that the United States needs the intervention of the United States,” tweeted one observer from Santiago, Chile, a country that knows a thing or two about American interference. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sounded a note that the organization usually aims at nations under the rule of despots: “Shocking scenes in Washington, D.C. The outcome of this democratic election must be respected.”

As of this writing, democracy seemed poised to prevail, with Congress to resume its joint session late Wednesday, presumably in a more fortified Senate chamber, to confirm America’s choice for its next leader. We are not Iraq or Turkey. But we should never again assume we’ll be saved from the fate of nations that have fallen victim to tyrants by mere privilege alone.