Armed protesters storming a parliament building over the sounds of mayhem in the streets – not a scene you’re used to seeing in the United States. But after weeks of US President Donald Trump not accepting his election loss and telling his supporters to not let Democrats steal the election from them, that’s exactly what was happening around the Capitol in Washington, DC, on Wednesday afternoon.
Republican House representative Mike Gallagher, who was sheltering in his office after protesters had forced their way into the Capitol, told CNN he had never seen anything like it since he was in Iraq. Others compared the situation in the US capital to recent protests in Belarus.
“This is treason,” political commentator Van Jones said, calling the protesters’ storming of the Capital an act of “insurrection” and rebellion: “This is what it looks like when you don’t have a peaceful transfer of power.”
Both chambers of Congress had come together in the Capitol on Wednesday to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s Electoral College win, a process that under normal circumstances is a mere formality, but has turned into another point of contention in this extraordinary election cycle after several Republican Senators and Representatives had announced they would formally object to the results of the November 3 elections.
The representatives hadn’t gotten far when security interrupted to whisk away Vice President Mike Pence and evacuate the chamber where the certification was underway. Protesters had overpowered police and broken windows on the Capitol’s ground floor. They then made their way to the Senate floor, some of them wearing paramilitary uniforms.
Shortly beforehand, Trump supporters had gathered a short distance away at the Save America March, where the President once again said that he did not accept the election results.
“We will never give up,” he told the crowd just south of the White House. “We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”
Trump then told them to march to the Capitol to give Republican representatives “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
Experts say it is exactly this rhetoric that led the president’s supporters to resort to the level of violence seen on Wednesday.
“Words do matter,” Laura Merrifield Wilson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis, told DW. “What someone [like Trump] says can incite violence, and it’s a fact that the president has continuously doubted the results of the election.”
Free elections and the peaceful transfer of power that follows are the bedrock of democracy. The US has in the past portrayed itself as a beacon of this political system, with formerly autocratic nations taking inspiration from Washington when they first became democracies.
“As Americans we like to think of ourselves as exceptional,” Wilson said. “This could be an opportunity for us to learn to do better – see that we are not impervious to challenges like this, that it can happen on American soil, too.”
Omid Nouripour, a representative of the Green Party in the German Bundestag, told DW that “what happened [in Washington] is a massive breach of political… and democratic culture of the US, and I hope it’s going to be a wake-up call for the people who supported the inciters to hopefully… find ways to break the polarization.”
Wilson said on Wednesday that the events were concerning because democratic elections, “a process we hold very dearly,” only work if the people accept their outcome. But she also stressed that she didn’t believe the US’s democratic foundation to be at risk.
“If our institutions are as true and solid as we believe them to be,” Wilson said, “they will survive long after all of this.”
Storm on the Capitol: ‘Our institutions will survive long after all of this’ The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Deutsche Welle.