One of the many disturbing video clips from Wednesday’s Capitol Hill riot shows an outnumbered police officer retreating up a staircase after realising that he alone would not be able to stop the pro-Trump mob led by a man wearing a QAnon t-shirt. At first, the footage appeared to be evidence of a policing failure: a demonstration of the lacklustre law enforcement preparation that left the likes of Eugene Goodman unassisted and unable to protect the Capitol.
Closer inspection and further reporting, however, revealed an act not just of bravery, but brilliant heroism. Officer Goodman, a black Iraq war veteran, held the rioters off for a minute before retreating upstairs. As he did so he glanced towards the entrance to the Senate chamber, and swiftly leading the rioters in the opposite direction, away from the elected representatives who some had planned to hold hostage or murder. His actions almost certainly saved lives, kept America’s elected representatives safe and prevented an ugly scene growing uglier still.
There were other heroes in Washington last week. Foremost among them, Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Hill officer who died after he was beaten by the mob whilst protecting the home of American democracy. One of his colleagues who had been on duty during the attack, Howard Liebengood, died by suicide three days later.
To state the obvious, America should not need to test the physical bravery of police officers on Capitol Hill to maintain some remnant of the peaceful transfer of power from one President to the next. Thanks to Donald Trump, it has had to.
Nor should America have to depend on the political bravery of state-level public officials to ensure free and fair elections. Again, thanks to Trump, it has had to.
In the closest swing state in November’s election, the President put as much pressure as he could on Georgia’s Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger. From the bully pulpit, Trump labelled the man he had endorsed in 2018 an “enemy of the people” for refusing to indulge his stolen election fantasy. In November, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, until last week a close ally of the president, urged Raffensperger to throw out legally cast ballots. In a threatening call just a few days before last week’s attack on the Capitol, Trump pressured Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes”. Throughout, Raffensperger held firm.
“At the end of the day, you know, I’m going to stand on the principle of integrity. I think that it still matters,” Raffensperger said in an interview last November.
In a healthier political system, the secretary of state for Georgia would not find himself in such a position. And certainly none of us would know the name of his junior colleague responsible for voting system implementation in the state. But, again, thanks to Trump’s attempt to steal an election we do. “It has all gone too far,” said Gabriel Sterling, his voice shaking as he addressed Trump in a November press conference. Listing threats of violence, he said, “Mr President, you have not condemned these actions or this language.”
“This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much,” he added. “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed.”
Six weeks later, he was proved right. Thankfully, there were Raffenspergers and Sterlings in other states too, defying violent threats, seeing past blind partisanship and ensuring a free and fair election was conducted in the middle of a pandemic while the president and his legal team did everything they could to cast doubt on that process.
Some have seen Trump and his refusal to accept defeat as a stress-test for the system, and one that the system has, by the skin of its teeth, survived. But to appreciate the bravery of a few Americans is to realise how close things were to being so much worse, not just during a dark few hours last week, but over the last two months.
Consider what would have happened if those overseeing a presidential race in Georgia decided by just 12,000 votes had not been as principled as Raffensperger. Imagine instead that a party hack had been on the other end of the line when Graham or Trump called asking them to throw out ballots or find extra votes.
Imagine if the vice-president had done Trump’s bidding last Wednesday. Mike Pence hardly deserves the label “hero”. He went along with the President’s election lies for far too long. But he at least did the right thing when it mattered most, complying with the constitution and overseeing the Congressional certification of the electoral college vote.
Think how different things might have been were it not for the decisions of a few individuals at crucial moments of intense stress, and things look a lot more fragile.
A mix of malevolence and cowardice brought America to this low moment. It has taken physical and political bravery to survive it. And it will take further bravery to come back from it.
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