Donald Trump’s Last Picture Show
“I’ll be watching,” the president said.
President Trump said it at a rally of his supporters Wednesday, about the proceedings in which he was demanding that Congress toss out the results of an election that he lost. At a rally where his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani called for “trial by combat.” At a rally where the crowd chanted “Fight! For! Trump! Fight! For! Trump!” At a rally where he said he would lead a march to the Capitol to “cheer on” legislators — though in the end he quickly returned to the White House.
“I’ll be watching,” he said, “because history is going to be made.”
A short time later, a mob of his supporters made horrifying, violent history on live TV, overwhelming the U.S. Capitol to interrupt the democratic transfer of power, invading the room where representatives and Mr. Trump’s own vice president were carrying out the constitutional process of certifying his defeat.
For paralyzing, terrifying hours, news anchors could hardly contain their shock as what they expected to be a day of dramatic but anticlimactic legislative theatrics turned into a scene of failed-state chaos.
Two decades ago, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the common refrain was that the chaos looked like a scene from a disaster movie. This time, it was a set piece from an “it can happen here” dystopian story of American anarchy, and it was the most inside of jobs.
And everyone knew he was watching. They would have known even if he hadn’t announced it. Donald Trump has been an obsessive binge-watcher of TV coverage of his own presidency, for hours a day. Of course he would be glued to its next act.
He didn’t tell his followers, in so many words, what to do. But they had every reason to guess what he liked. As a candidate and president, he rationalized and waxed nostalgic about violence. He reminisced about “the good old days,” when football players and police officers hit harder. He wished he could punch a protester at one of his rallies in the face. He excused violent supporters as “very passionate.”
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he said at Wednesday’s rally in Washington. “You have to show strength.”
And many of the insurrectionists attacking the Capitol on live TV seemed to be producing a kind of dangerous performance for themselves. They marched through the halls, unimpeded by police, holding up their phones for selfies. They posed for pictures in legislators’ offices. They held up their own cameras as someone bashed in a window.
They carried flags, few of them American. Confederate flags, so-called thin blue line flags, dozens of “Trump 2020” flags. In the middle of a live ABC News shot, someone strolled past carrying a flag with an unfit-for-broadcast curse for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
They unfurled billowing Trump flags from the Capitol steps. It was unclear what they wanted to do, having taken democracy hostage. But they wanted to be seen doing it, which created its own issues. As MSNBC aired a photo of an intruder behind a congressional speaker’s rostrum, the anchor Chuck Todd asked to take it down, saying, “Let’s not glorify this.”
When this sort of thing happens in another country, the American news has plain words for it: insurrection, sedition, coup. Now it was happening here, and it was something more than “polarization” or “incivility.” Some anchors initially referred to the occupiers as “protesters” before it sank in that something much more frightening was going on.
On CNN, Jake Tapper framed it quickly: “We are witnessing an attempt at a forceful overthrow of the U.S. government, or at least of the U.S. constitutionally prescribed proceedings.”
The spoken or unspoken question behind much the coverage was: What did the man watching think of all this? Anchors, commentators and allies speculated on-air while Mr. Trump issued two tweets asking his supporters to “remain peaceful” (there was already on-camera violence) and “support our Capitol Police,” but not asking them to disperse.
It was Mr. Biden who spoke first, giving the equivalent of a de facto presidential address, both pained and stern, denouncing the “assault on the people’s representatives” and calling on the president to go on national TV himself. “The words of a president matter,” he said.
Minutes later, we got those words, in a one-minute video Mr. Trump posted to his Twitter feed. (The social-media platform flagged it against sharing, for “risk of violence.” Facebook removed it from its platform as well as Instagram.)
In June, the president made a point of making a prime-time display of force against Black Lives Matter protesters, having a crowd dispersed with tear gas in a choreographed show of ruthlessness. This time, he stood on the White House lawn and opened with concern for the mob’s feelings.
“I know your pain,” he said. “I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us.” Only after that did he tell his supporters, “You have to go home now,” before again ratifying their, and his, sense of grievance. He added, “We love you.” (A later tweet falsely claimed that the election was stolen from “great patriots” and closed, “Remember this day forever!” as if the president were signing a yearbook. Twitter eventually deleted the tweet and locked Mr. Trump’s account.)
The crowd — many, presumably, with access to his message through all those smartphones — did not, by and large, go home. As darkness fell and the National Guard deployed with riot shields, the chilling and uncertain drama played on.
But from the Watcher-in-Chief, it had gotten its first review.
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