A rioter inside the Capitol. Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: What were they thinking?

A question to which there is no exonerating answer

What were they thinking? I mean that question literally.

On Wednesday afternoon, as rioters ransacked the Capitol, as police and the mob clashed fatally, as pipe bombs lay unexploded outside the headquarters of America’s two major parties, as journalists were being beaten by thugs asking who they worked for, as young Senate staffers barricaded themselves inside their offices, what was Donald Trump — who 90 minutes earlier had told his supporters on the Mall “We’re going to the Capitol… Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong” — thinking?

What was Ted Cruz, who had just delivered a speech boosting the legitimacy of the stolen election lie at the heart of the crowd’s violent intent, thinking? What was Josh Hawley, who raised a fist in solidarity with the mob on his way to object to the legitimate election of Joe Biden in the Senate, thinking? What was Donald Trump, Jr, who that morning had told his father’s supporters to “stand up and fight”, thinking? What were any of the countless MAGA hangers on who had knowingly misled millions of voters about the integrity of American democracy thinking?

What was the President thinking when he “rebuffed and resisted” requests to send in the national guard? What was he thinking when he later posted a video telling the rioters, “We love you. You’re very special”? What was he thinking when he learnt that one of his supporters had been shot and killed by the police? What was he thinking when it was reported that a police officer had died from injuries sustained in clashes with his supporters?

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Actually try to put yourself inside the head of the president in these moments, as he oversaw delays that might have cost lives, as he doubled down on his stolen-election lie after he had seen its fatal consequences, as he made a moment of national crisis all about himself.

Actually try to imagine what it feels like to be one of the Senators, or one of the Congressmen and Congresswomen who, after seeing their colleagues sheltering under tables, praying in fogged-up gas masks, went into the reconvened Joint Session of Congress and continued to object to the certification of the results of November’s free and fair election. Either they genuinely believe the stolen election myth that led to this week’s horrors, in which case they likely lack the mental capacity to represent their constituents, or they don’t, in which case they lack the requisite moral capacity.

Actually try to imagine how pathetically small-minded you have to be to, like Senator Hawley, start complaining about the “woke mob” when his publisher cancelled his book deal as the wreckage caused by an actual mob was still being cleaned up.

Run these thought experiments and ask these questions and you soon realise that there are no flattering or remotely exonerating conclusions to be drawn about what was going through the heads of these people. There are no answers that lead you to any conclusion other than that they are not fit for public office, deserve no place in American public life and must never be allowed to forget their role in a tragic low-point for American democracy. There are no reasonable explanations for Donald Trump’s behaviour, not just on Wednesday but since last November, that lead you to any conclusion other than that he deserves to be removed from office as swiftly as possible and live out the rest of his years in disgrace, if not an orange jumpsuit.

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