Carnage Comes to the Capitol

Donald Trump decried ‘American carnage’ in his 2017 inaugural address on the Capitol steps. His rhetoric made it a reality in 2021.

Police officers attempt to push back a mob supporting U.S. President Donald Trump as the rioters try to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
Police officers attempt to push back a mob supporting U.S. President Donald Trump as the rioters try to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Incited by the president of the United States, a violent mob of Trump supporters broke through barricades and stormed the U.S. Capitol yesterday as lawmakers gathered to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Four people died, one after being shot by police. Across the nation’s capital, several explosive devices were identified and defused. Legislators donned gasmasks and hid under furniture, fearful of being attacked by roving gangs marauding through office buildings on Capitol Hill.

In late October, in Foreign Policy, we warned that Election Day violence was likely. Thankfully, most of the country was spared that day. We also argued that “the dangers may only grow should Trump lose,” and the only way to avoid violence was if “the president tones down his rhetoric and should he lose, gracefully concede defeat.”

What occurred yesterday in Washington, D.C. happened because of outgoing President Donald Trump’s violent rhetoric and relentless incitement of his most fanatical and deranged supporters, enabled by feckless politicians motivated more by ambition than principle. In a moving prayer, the Senate chaplain warned, “We always reap what we sow” and that “these tragedies have reminded us that words matter, and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”

The violence and lawlessness that unfolded was without question politically and ideologically motivated. The throngs of Trump supporters who gathered to engage in property destruction, trespassing, and acts of physical violence—including attacking U.S. Capitol Police—should not simply be dismissed as people distraught over the loss of their preferred candidate.

[To read FP’s ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, click here.]

The throngs of Trump supporters should not simply be dismissed as people distraught over the loss of their preferred candidate.Some have labeled it a terrorist incident, although that specific label doesn’t fit this event neatly because it does not appear intended to create a broader psychological effect and because of its links to the president himself, making it more akin to pro-government violence. Indeed, yesterday’s events have also been labeled a coup and an insurrection, in part because of the central role Trump has played in fomenting the unrest. Among the violent mob were conspiracy theorists, anti-government extremists, and white supremacists. Within hours of the storming of the Capitol, white supremacists were using images from what took place and turning them into propaganda online. (Such public boasting might come back to haunt them as it will provide evidence of their crimes if the government decides to prosecute them.)

Abroad, allies looked on in horror, while adversaries trolled the United States in official media releases. Russia’s first deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, referred to images from the Capitol as “Maidan-like,” in an effort to equate, and discredit, democratic protests in Kiev with American violence. China’s state media mocked comments that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had made about protests in Hong Kong, calling the scene in Washington, D.C. “a beautiful sight to behold.” U.S. efforts to promote democracy and calls for order, already damaged by four years of Trump’s embrace of autocrats, have suffered yet another blow. The complete abdication of U.S. leadership is now perhaps more glaring than at any point in recent memory, laid bare for all to see.

Social media companies have stepped up efforts to fight conspiracy theories, but too often they have been playing defense, addressing problems only after they became too big to ignore. Twitter temporarily froze Trump’s account and Facebook and YouTube removed a video he posted. It was too little, too late.

The president is already back online and may incite again, although it appears that this morning he was banned indefinitely from Facebook. Yesterday was the result of four years of violent rhetoric, demonization, and delegitimization of political opponents, and a relentless effort to bring bizarre conspiracy theories into the mainstream.

Traditional media, including some programs on Fox News, have provided Trump with a platform for lies and to exploit, rather than correct, efforts to delegitimize the political system. This gains ratings and rallies supporters—and contributes to violence. Conspiratorial thinking is no longer fringe, it has entered the mainstream, and it has done so with deadly consequences.

Security agencies often downplay the threat from anti-government extremists and white supremacist voices.The lackluster police response has come under intense scrutiny, as it should. Despite years of planning for terrorist attacks and other dangers, the Capitol Police seemed shocked and unprepared for the assault. In one video circulating online, a police officer appears to remove the barricade to let the screaming mob stream onto the Capitol grounds. The storming of the Capitol was far from a spontaneous act, and law enforcement had weeks to prepare for yesterday’s events. Yet this was more than a simple tactical mistake that can easily be fixed.

Rather, it reflects how security agencies often downplay the threat from anti-government extremists and white supremacist voices, despite increased recognition of the danger they pose. Security agencies have focused far more on jihadists than anti-government and white supremacist extremists despite the growing danger of the latter groups. Trump’s obsession with Antifa has added to the confusion, leading to a focus on far more minor dangers over the deeper threat we saw yesterday.

Those who invaded the Capitol did so with impunity. It is painfully clear that Trump supporters were treated differently—in many cases with kid gloves—compared to similar scenes from Washington this summer during Black Lives Matter protests, when federal troops looked more akin to storm troopers than riot police.

The storming of the Capitol should be a turning point. Social media companies, television programs, and politicians alike need to take more responsibility to push back against fringe movements rather than stoking their rage. Already we are seeing conservative media figures and pro-Trump politicians trying to blame Antifa for the violence and otherwise denying reality. This attempt to shift blame must be nipped in the bud. If it isn’t, yesterday’s violence may prove a harbinger rather than an outlier.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor in the Institute for Politics & Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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