Elephants in the Room

The Military Stayed Out of the Insurrection, but It Isn’t Over Yet

Trump failed because key Republicans backed down and the military stayed out—yet critical questions remain.

U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door broken by pro-Trump extremists during a joint session of Congress in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6.
U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door broken by pro-Trump extremists during a joint session of Congress in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The angry mob that attempted an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol yesterday failed. Congress, presided over by Vice President Mike Pence, reconvened to fulfill its constitutional duty to formalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

To be sure, the insurrectionists succeeded in a number of things. First, they breached the defenses of the Capitol building and put the lives of legislators and staff at risk. Second, they created scenes of chaos that will stain the United States’ reputation for the rest of history. Third, they underscored once again that outgoing President Donald Trump is the least capable leader in a crisis that Americans have had in their lifetimes. The spectacle of a president unwilling to denounce those physically attacking another branch of government is the gravest failure of a failed presidency precisely because what was required of Trump at that moment was so easy. Fourth, the insurrectionists wrecked the political careers of numerous Republicans hoping to challenge Biden in 2024—most prominently, I suspect, that of Trump himself.

The angry mob that attempted an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol yesterday failed. Congress, presided over by Vice President Mike Pence, reconvened to fulfill its constitutional duty to formalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

To be sure, the insurrectionists succeeded in a number of things. First, they breached the defenses of the Capitol building and put the lives of legislators and staff at risk. Second, they created scenes of chaos that will stain the United States’ reputation for the rest of history. Third, they underscored once again that outgoing President Donald Trump is the least capable leader in a crisis that Americans have had in their lifetimes. The spectacle of a president unwilling to denounce those physically attacking another branch of government is the gravest failure of a failed presidency precisely because what was required of Trump at that moment was so easy. Fourth, the insurrectionists wrecked the political careers of numerous Republicans hoping to challenge Biden in 2024—most prominently, I suspect, that of Trump himself.

But the mob failed in its larger goal of thwarting the constitutional order and handing the presidency back to Trump—or perhaps one should say that they will fail, since there is still a mopping up that need to be completed. First, all those who stepped beyond their right to peaceful protest by crossing police barriers and entering the Capitol Building need to be held accountable in courts of law. Second, those who went further still and prepared explosive devices and other violent mayhem that was thwarted must likewise face justice. Third, whatever conspiracies fomented the insurrection need to be uncovered and prosecuted. Fourth, any attempt to replicate Wednesday’s chaos elsewhere in the country needs to be nipped in the bud with a decisive and preemptive response by law enforcement. And finally, every single Republican must denounce both the criminal actions of the insurrectionists and what drove them: the massive and baseless allegations promoted by Trump and his misguided enablers about the legitimacy of the November elections.
Trump failed for the simple reason that the vast and powerful U.S. military remains committed to upholding the Constitution.

Because this was the closest the United States has come in modern times to a violent takeover of political power, critical questions remain. Two of the most pressing: Why was the protection of the Capitol building and the Joint Session of Congress so inadequate after Trump had been telegraphing a confrontation for many weeks? Was the U.S. Defense Department slow in mobilizing National Guard units to back up the beleaguered Capitol Police—and if so, why?

Nevertheless, Americans can be grateful not just that the insurrection failed, but why it failed. First, many responsible Republicans, beginning at the state level and extending ultimately—if slowly—to principled leaders at the federal level, rejected the lie that Trump had lost through fraud and refused to bow to his demands to subvert the transition of power. Certainly, too many Republicans took the coward’s way out, engaging in performative pandering to the base in the knowledge that Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election would fail. That had pernicious consequences, including the insurrection itself, but it remained an impotent act precisely because the majority of Republicans with real power to do mischief chose not to.

Second, supporters of the legitimate president-elect have thus far resisted the temptation to match violence with violence, which would create the pretext the insurrectionists hope for to escalate this to the next level.

Third, there was never any danger that this insurrection would escalate into a full-scale coup. No organized military units and no senior military leaders joined those attacking democratic institutions and process. The U.S. military rejected the demented calls by former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to topple the constitutional order. To be sure, in a mob as large as the one that stormed the Capitol, it is all but certain that it contained quite a few veterans who have dishonored their former service by joining in the mayhem; we already know that one of the reported fatalities was a former member of the U.S. Air Force. Perhaps we will learn that some misguided active-duty personnel also joined in. But if so, these were aberrant individuals whose actions do not in any way reflect the values of the U.S. military nor the military oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
In the more likely scenario that a dangerously deluded Trump remains in office, the military faces a delicate challenge.

For at least a year, specialists in civil-military relations and many others have worried that Trump might attempt to use his powers as commander-in-chief to remain in office even after losing the election. Perhaps yesterday was his last-gasp attempt to do just that. He failed for the simple reason that the vast and powerful U.S. military remains committed to upholding the Constitution. However imperfectly, they fulfilled that oath yesterday. Not only in what they did, but most importantly in what they did not do.

For the next two weeks, Trump will still be commander-in-chief, unless some unlikely but possible steps are taken to remove him from office, either by means of the 25th amendment of the U.S. Constitution or a last-minute impeachment trial by Congress. In the more likely scenario that a dangerously deluded Trump remains in office, the military faces a delicate challenge. It must stand ready to obey legal orders from Trump, particularly if a foreign or domestic adversary seeks to take advantage of the country’s disarray to do further grievous harm. And it must stand ready to reject any illegal orders. Wednesday’s events give reason to hope that the military will be up to the task.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.