The size of the crowd in the Ellipse outside the White House that morning was surprising. The swiftness of the movement of the angry Trump supporters, many of them heavily armed, to Capitol Hill was surprising. The breach of the Capitol walls was surprising. The account of the 187 minutes of American democracy’s most perilous moment – from presidential rallying call to presidential video reluctantly seeking to calm the mob he summoned to Washington – set out Thursday night was surprising.
But the biggest surprise may be that Americans were surprised at all.
In truth, the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and Donald Trump’s role in fomenting it, tolerating it, taking succour from it, failing to apologize for it and then defending it, was startling – but after five years on the political stage and decades as a tabloid boldface name, few of the details aired in the latest hearing into the insurrection should have been surprising.
Not the image of the president sitting in his dining room defying the pleas of his allies and family to call off the rioters. Not when a Trump national security official employed the word “coup” when describing what was unfolding that day. Not when former deputy White House press secretary Sarah Matthews said that it would have required “less than 60 seconds” for Mr. Trump to make a statement that day and that the presidential tweet excoriating former vice-president Mike Pence gave a “green light” to the rioters. Not when White House counsel Pat Cipollone said “very forcefully” that he called for “an immediate and forceful … public statement” but the president refused.
“I’ve studied democracies across the world and over time and have looked at unconstitutional succession crises globally, and what happened on Jan. 6 was a typical interruption of constructional rule for lots of places – but it is a huge shock for Americans,” said Victor Menaldo, a University of Washington political scientist and co-author of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy. “These things happen all the time in our backyard – 10 or 12 in Latin America, for example – but they’re not supposed to happen in the United States. We don’t expect this sort of thing here.”
From the moment he emerged in the political arena – from the moment he transformed himself from a louche, social-climbing tycoon into a legitimate, mass-appeal presidential candidate – Mr. Trump represented a shock to the system: a shock to the public (because of his habit of belittling his opponents and taking on established notions of civic comportment) and a shock to the political system (because of his ability to attract blue-collar voters to a party that was the province of bluebloods and his contempt for established conceptions of how presidents, and how superpowers, comported themselves).
But before long Americans’ psychic shock absorbers simply grew to accept the Trump tumult. As a result, his vaunted ability to surprise evolved into the 45th president’s ability to survive – and flourish. The element of surprise simply was leached out of the public. Mr. Trump’s critics worried that his behaviour, and his contempt for political norms and established legal procedures, had become normalized. But what really happened is that the American public became anesthetized.
The president who lost the 2020 election also lost the capacity to surprise.
And so, in a way, much of the new evidence that emerged Thursday night about what Mr. Cipollone called “a terrible day for this country” was more startling than surprising.
By this time, it should not have been surprising to learn that Mr. Trump knew the Capitol was under siege as early as 11 minutes after his Ellipse speech. Nor that there is no record of any presidential telephone call for more than eight hours that day – even though he repeatedly called senators in an effort to put off the counting of the electoral votes that would affirm Joe Biden’s victory.
Nor that, as a former White House security official testified, “the president didn’t want to do anything” that afternoon. Nor that at the very hour Metropolitan Washington Police were declaring the episode a “riot,” Mr. Trump tweeted out a video of his Ellipse speech. Nor even that, as a security officer testified, members of vice-presidential security team expressed a need to “say goodbye” to family members.
Throughout these hearings, the (slightly preachy) panelists expressed in polished performances their outrage at what they have uncovered; Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois Thursday night spoke of the president’s “dishonour and dereliction of duty.” But there is some evidence that these House hearings have hit home. According to the Quinnipiac poll released earlier this week, two out of three Americans don’t want Mr. Trump to run again.
At the same time, a bipartisan group of senators won agreement Wednesday to overhaul the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act in a way that would insulate Congress from the sorts of pressures Mr. Trump and his allies tried to use to overturn the election of Mr. Biden.
The question that these hearings raise is whether the committee’s findings are sufficient to lead Justice Department prosecutors to charge Mr. Trump with inciting insurrection by concluding that he was someone who, in the words of the federal criminal code, “incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, … shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
Whether he faces the judgment of the law, Mr. Trump will face the judgment of history.
“Trump successfully directed his firehose of misinformation against the election system itself, turning much of his party against the foundation of our democracy,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist who is the a co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a watchdog group that monitors the status of American democracy. “This threat has not been mitigated despite what happened immediately after the insurrection. If anything, the threat that a legitimate U.S. election will be overturned is greater now than it was even that day.’’
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.