At the United States Capitol, the Senate and House abruptly ceased debate as Vice President Pence was whisked from the Senate chamber, lawmakers were given gas masks and told to lie on the ground. The joint session of Congress held on Wednesday was supposed to be a ritual of American democracy, memorializing Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. By many, the rioting by a group of Trump supporters that had engulfed the building was perceived as unprecedented.
Despite Trump’s belated effort to remind his supporters for a peaceful protest, that the law enforcement needs to be protected, and Republicans like to be seen as the party of Law and Order, it was way too late. Trump received criticism due to his provocative statements in the recent days prior to the event. He wasn’t seen as flatly condemning the riots until the next day.
On that fateful Wednesday, Trump spoke at “Save America March.” In an otherwise standard speech, he gave the crowd some direction. “We’re going to the Capitol,” he urged the crowd, to “try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
After the riots, he released a video on Twitter saying, “This was a fraudulent election but we can’t play into the hands of these people, we have to have peace,” he added, “So go home, we love you, you’re very special.” Later, the video was removed from Twitter, along with another tweet from him that said, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace.” His account was also locked for 12 hours.
Ever since the election, Trump had been insisting that he was in fact the winner. Additionally, 70% of Republicans believed that the election that was held on November 3 was not free and fair, as what had shown by a POLITICO/Morning Consult survey. In the months leading up to the election, Trump had warned about the election fraud, since the pandemic had resulted in chances to expand mail-in voting in many states, including the hotly contested state of Georgia.
According to law enforcement officials, in order to avoid flaming as a show of force had done during major unrest in Portland last year, federal authorities planned to handle the protest with a relatively small, minimally visible presence. The Capitol Police was outnumbered by the rioters who broke into the building. Five people died as a result of the violent protests. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, Robert Contee, said that two men and a woman suffered medical emergencies during the incident and subsequently died. A woman fatally shot by a police officer was identified as a 14-year Air Force veteran. While the Capitol Police said that some officers are hospitalized, while an officer, Brian D. Sicknick, died on Thursday night.
Although Trump had already acknowledged on Thursday that the new administration would begin on January 20 and promised an orderly transition, Democrat lawmakers remain dissatisfied and are now pushing for his impeachment. The House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said that if Trump did not leave the office at once, “Democrats would move forward with the impeachment proceedings.” She also pushed Vice President Pence to invoke the Disability Clause of the 25th Amendment, a constitutional provision which “specifies that if the president is unable to perform the functions of his office, the vice president will serve as acting president;” otherwise, she would back impeachment.
The pandemonium of the past several days was possible in part because the United States has for more than two centuries strongly embraced speech rights as a fundamental freedom which the government may not abridge.
As in many countries with democratic traditions, politicians in the United States are no strangers to controversial commentary. President Trump has insulted countless opponents on social media and on television, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has accused both Trump and Senate Majority Leader of taking orders from Russia. During the violent and deadly left-wing protests that engulfed many parts of the country over the summer, she wondered aloud if an “insurrection” against the government might be in the public interest. While Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer made what some observers considered threats to two Supreme Court justices if they voted the wrong way on an abortion-related case. All of these comments were quite inflammatory but legal.
The Constitution grants its citizens generous leeway in terms of acceptable conduct. Freedom of speech is a First Amendment right and it applies to words that are both friendly and hateful, popular and unpopular. According to the Supreme Court, words may only be considered illegal if the “speech is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” There is little evidence that Trump’s remarks at the rally that directly preceded the riot would qualify. (The same might not be true for other speakers.) Comments he had made on social media days and weeks earlier appeared considerably more provocative, including one post in which he predicted the protest on the 6th would be “wild.”
It is also worth noting that this was not the first time hundreds of activists had occupied a building inside the Capitol complex. During the Senate 2008 confirmation vote on Brett Kavanaugh, protestors illegally occupied a Senate office building in opposition to his nomination to the Supreme Court. After Kavanaugh arrived at the Court later that day, the protestors attempted to break into the building to disrupt his swearing in ceremony.
In terms of political fallout, there have been calls on Trump to resign, efforts are fast underway to secure a second impeachment trial and (this time) a conviction, and a few critics have even raised the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment’s Disability Clause — all of this being contemplated even as he prepares to leave office in a matter of days. It is unlikely that any of these three measures will happen. Another concern is the reaction from social media. With Trump seen as politically impotent, tech companies have pounced, for example permanently disabling his Twitter account, citing “risk of further incitement of violence.” There are reports too of social media companies de-platforming those who still dispute the integrity of the November election or even popular sites that merely promote pro-Trump views.
While under the Constitution the private sector has no obligation to protect an American’s freedom of speech, the enormous power social media companies wield in the country will undoubtedly worry some as an unacceptable overcorrection. After all, if a President, even an outgoing one, may successfully be deprived of access in a digital world to increasingly essential services, then what hope to ordinary citizens have? This is perhaps the greatest worry Americans, who have long taken pride in upholding both their constitutional freedoms and security, will have in the coming months.