Momentous world events can be both shocking and yet seem utterly predictable. The destruction in Washington, this self-inflicted wound on American democracy by flag-waving Americans protesting their alleged patriotism, clearly falls into that category.
The shock is palpable, and yet the trajectory of four years of Donald Trump’s presidency now, with hindsight, always looked likely to lead to something vile and violent. Donald Trump began his presidency not as a builder but a destroyer; a divider, not a uniter. The good news for America – and the world – is that the Trump project is ending.
The most famous three words in the American constitution are at the beginning: “We the People …”
This constitution that inspired the world came as “the people” rose up against the imperious British and created the world’s greatest democracy. The Capitol building was its symbol – “the People’s House,” which held the great debates of Congress. Now, Americans are reflecting that an armed mob, many wearing Trump merchandise, goaded into action by the President of the United States himself, brought the People’s House to a standstill, in the greatest act of vandalism against American democracy since the British burned down the Capitol building in the War of 1812.
Let us be clear. Donald Trump is personally responsible for these despicable events, and not just because he encouraged his ragtag army of deluded supporters to come to Washington in the first place. They came because over four years they have believed a diet of lies and conspiracy theories from Mr Trump and his enablers in the Republican party, amplified on Twitter and Facebook and validated by Trump-supporting voices in the American media.
First there were the Hillary Clinton conspiracy theories of 2016, including the idea that she was part of a Washington paedophile ring. Even now there are QAnon conspiracies of the “deep state” manipulating and destroying American freedom. All this culminated in the ultimate conspiracy that Joe Biden “stole” the presidential election, despite all the evidence that he won the presidency fairly.
The American historian Richard Hofstadter famously pointed out in an essay in 1964, that the “paranoid style” has always blighted American politics. Traditionally, American presidents have tried to make “the People” less fearful, and less paranoid. Donald Trump did the opposite.
He fanned the fear, and prospered. Donald Trump is personally responsible for four years in which, according to The Washington Post's calculations, he told at least 25,000 lies peaking at 50 a day as he sought re-election last November. It ended with the ultimate and most dangerous lie, that he "won" and the election was "stolen."
Republican Senator Mitt Romney has been clear who to blame for the Washington violence. “This is what the president has caused today, this insurrection,” he said. But Mr Romney has been one of the few prominent Republicans who repeatedly distanced himself from Mr Trump.
Republican Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, only began openly to criticise Mr Trump this week after Mr Trump’s thuggish attempt to bully state officials in Georgia to “find” enough votes to ensure he won the state. Since the Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats in run off elections this week, taking control of the Senate, Mr McConnell is now Senate minority leader.
Only now has he begun to distance himself from the stench in the White House, saying the protesters “tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed.” But it wasn’t only the protesters who tried to disrupt American democracy.
The Disrupter in Chief is Donald Trump, and yet for years Mr McConnell’s Republican leadership stuck by him because it seemed like good news for the Republican party even if it was profoundly damaging for their country.
There are reasons to be hopeful though. America has healed before and will heal again. Abraham Lincoln bound up “the nation’s wounds” after the Civil War. The state of Georgia has in Raphael Warnock its first ever black Senator. Joe Biden is a healer not a divider. The bad news is that the poison of lies and delusion remains.
More than 70 million Americans voted Trump in 2020. Can those 70 million now look at the facts and accept the need to reject Donald Trump’s divisive politics? Possibly. But many of them, in true paranoid style, may simply see just another “conspiracy” of the “deep state.”
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National