(Bloomberg Opinion) — Donald Trump got what he wanted.
He was able to give yet another rambling, ludicrous speech claiming that the presidential election was riddled with fraud and stolen from him. He told throngs of his supporters assembled in front of the White House that he loved them, and they shouted back that they loved him, too. He asked them to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol so they could give Republican legislators certifying the election “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” And they marched.
When the Trumpistas reached the Capitol, they breached police lines and swarmed the building, eventually breaking windows, occupying offices, parading through hallways and storming the floor of the Senate. As the “Save America” rally Trump hosted Wednesday erupted, prompting guns to be drawn inside the Capitol, reportedly leaving a woman shot dead and offering a searing image of democracy under assault, the president watched his insurrection unfold on a White House TV.
He couldn’t initially bring himself to ask his seditionists to leave the Capitol. Because he was getting what he wanted. “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country,” he tweeted amid the ferocity. “No violence!” Translation: “I lit the match, poured fuel on the fire, adore the flames and revel in the heat — but please, support your local firefighters.”
Fomenting violence wasn’t a solo act. Trump was surrounded by enablers at his rally and propped up by loyalists in Congress. It has been thus ever since he rolled down a Trump Tower escalator in the summer of 2015 to announce his presidential bid. Too few resisted him back then, and too few took him seriously until it was too late. Even now, after Trump’s lawlessness and malice have been on display for years, many in his party and inner circle keep facilitating his predations.
Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who was one of the ringleaders in a push Wednesday to scar, if not stop, the certification of the presidential election, was fulminating about voting fraud on the Senate floor just as rioters began stalking the Capitol. Claiming that he was “not arguing for setting aside the result of this election,” he nonetheless said that voters’ concerns that the election might be rigged should be “taken seriously.”
This is all too precious. Like another Republican, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Cruz is trying to say he respects the election’s results, but only up to a point. And if voters have doubts about whether the election was fraudulent, it’s a simple matter of respect to investigate their concerns. What this leaves out is that Republican voters are suspicious because of the lies and myths that folks like Trump, Cruz and Johnson have planted in their minds. They’re calling for investigations of a problem they — not Republican voters — invented.
Examples of some of the more unvarnished enabling that has attended Trump’s rise was on display at the “Save America” rally itself.
“These guys better fight for Trump. Because if they’re not, guess what? I’m going to be in your backyard in a couple of months!” Donald Trump Jr. shouted at attendees as he strutted, swearing, across the dais. “This gathering should send a message to them: This isn’t their Republican Party anymore! This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party!” Later, as violence ensued, Trump Jr. threw up his hands. “This is wrong and not who we are,” he tweeted. But this is exactly who they are.
Rudy Giuliani, a former law enforcement official turned carnival barker, was just as militant. “Over the next 10 days, we get to see the machines that are crooked, the ballots that are fraudulent, and if we’re wrong, we will be made fools of,” he noted. “But if we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail. So let’s have trial by combat!”
But the entire affair was Trump’s show, from beginning to end, and he’s responsible for how it unwound and the chaos it unleashed. At the end of the day, when he finally tweeted a video calling on rioters to abandon the Capitol, he couldn’t stop himself from continuing to smear the election as fraudulent.
Still, there’s something useful to recognize about the tar pit Trump inhabits. A reminder is buried in there that the damage he has visited on the country might stay with us long after he departs the White House. It was inevitable, perhaps, that one of his final presidential acts would involve stoking an assault on the Capitol. It’s not inevitable, though, that the Pandora’s Box he inherited and so gleefully opened will remain a permanent fixture.
The Georgia runoff election demonstrates that other choices are still possible. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a glimmer of hope that the president’s most unyielding enablers might recognize the damage that he’s done and change course. “Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth,” McConnell said as he told senators on Wednesday that he planned to vote in favor of certifying the election, a vote he called the most significant of his career.
Trump has spent decades getting away with things. He may get away with a few more between now and Jan. 20. The challenge for the rest of us is to make sure he doesn’t get away with anything again after that.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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