Would Trump have got away with this? Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

January 22, 2021   4 mins

The US military is routinely shown to be one of the most trusted institutions in American life — so it wasn’t as though their mere presence on the streets of Washington automatically provoked universal horror. After the massive nationwide riots last summer, virtually everyone I spoke to expressed satisfaction with the National Guard’s handling of the chaos. Similarly, the vast number of soldiers deployed to DC this week to ward off a potential “insurrection” were greeted with plentiful selfies and free cheeseburger deliveries.

But this operation, which reportedly consisted of 25,000 military personnel — not including the innumerable federal, state, and local law enforcement officials on the ground — was another thing altogether. Downtown DC had been transformed into a brazenly fortified, militarised zone unlike anything in living memory. Roads were blocked off by oversized armoured vehicles which had been stationed for maximum visibility. The boarding-up of endless storefronts — a result of both the Covid-related economic downturn and prolonged riot-induced anxiety — added to the sense of dystopia.

Soldiers patrolled with large rifles slung around their shoulders, directing traffic and checking the “papers” of motorists. One Guardsman from Pennsylvania told me that “legitimate business” was the standard by which they were to adjudicate whether cars would be allowed to pass through.

The rifles brandished by many of the troops were conspicuously without a magazine loaded. This is not uncommon for a peacetime mission. The aim was evidently not to subdue any kind of imminent, actionable threat that would require live ammunition, as many politicians and journalists had frantically warned was the case, but to simply act as a gigantic deterrent.

That objective was apparently accomplished. I did not see a single protester anywhere in the city on Inauguration Day, much less any “insurrectionists” or “armed rebels” trawling around, as had been so gravely forecast. The FBI (then still technically under the jurisdiction of Donald Trump) had warned that all 50 state Capitols were at severe risk, and therefore also needed to fortify their defences with military deployments and obtrusive fencing and barriers. Then the day came and went, and… nothing. In both Albany, NY, and Sacramento, CA a total of one Trump hat-wearing man showed up at each.

And so Joe Biden was sworn in without incident, appealing for “unity”, while the city surrounding him was essentially under full-scale military occupation. The night before, I saw multiple platoons marching the streets in two-by-two formation — en route to who knows where. The general public couldn’t get anywhere close to the Inauguration site, the interior of which had been cordoned off with barbed wire. The few stragglers who hopelessly tried to enter the outskirts of the National Mall — mostly foreign media desperate for a story — were fooled by the Secret Service into standing in a line-to-nowhere that never moved.

It was the refusal of American media to question the necessity of these extraordinary measures that will be one of the longest-lasting consequences of the entire bizarre affair. It confirmed that journalists will uncritically accept extravagant shows of intrusive state force, so long as the political incentives are correctly aligned. During the riots in the summer, the US media generally reacted with horror to the prospect of the American military being deployed to allay “civil unrest,” with many claiming that it would be tantamount to white supremacy for soldiers to deter arson attacks against small minority-owned businesses and private residences.

But place DC under complete military occupation as a final rebuke to Trump and his shameful supporters, and the show of state force is to be celebrated rather than adversarially probed. Particularly with Democrats now controlling the House, Senate, and Presidency, the wisdom of this occupation is probably never going to be examined in any meaningful way. Will we ever learn how much it cost taxpayers? Doubtful.

The rationale for the occupation was made all the more questionable by the feckless behaviour of Trump, who, after the goofball mob intrusion at the Capitol, essentially retreated from public view: the opposite of what you’d expect from a tyrannical ruler desperate to cling to power. He admitted defeat, denounced those rioters who’d been under the illusion that he was some kind of Messiah, and actively discouraged any further action that could be remotely described as “insurrectionary”.

Perhaps his Twitter ban has shattered his world more than we thought. As he slunk away to Florida on Wednesday morning in humiliation and disrepute — the first former president to not attend his successor’s inauguration since the also-impeached Andrew Johnson in 1869 — the hysterical fantasies of him leading some bonafide “coup” attempt dissipated into confirmed absurdity.

Ultimately, Trump was a master at commercialising and, later, politicising a mass market audience — it is, after all, the skillset he cultivated over 12 years on primetime reality TV. He was never a political visionary of any sort, and so the bold image ascribed to him, by both his most diehard boosters and detractors, was always bound to crumble into tragicomical nothingness.

He issued a series of pardons in the dead of night just before leaving office that typified the personality quirks that defined his spasmodic approach to governance. Rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black received clemency, as well as corrupt former Congressmen and assorted others whose representatives successfully gamed the process with the flattery required to get him to do anything. Meanwhile, the cross-ideological lobbying push for pardons for Edward Snowden and Julian Assange — each genuine antagonists of the “Deep State” that Trump always claimed to despise — failed.

The idea that Trump’s ideological emptiness was ever going to result in a genuine “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the government, or could ever challenge the full weight of the American national security state, was a total farce. And although it has now congealed into unassailable mythology, the further idea that what occurred at the Capitol on 6 January amounted to anything more than a temporary self-defeating mob outburst should be put permanently to rest.

But what is not a myth is that such an event can be quickly seized upon to institute all manner of reactive authoritarian measures. Imagine if Trump had deployed that kind of force to suppress protest and imagined “threats” ahead of his second inauguration. There would have been a meltdown of epic proportions, and rightfully so. But because this was done to bookend Trump’s rule and usher him into ignominious retirement, everyone seems content to just move on.

Either way, he’s gone. The Left-liberal establishment has successfully restored itself to power after five years of all-consuming mania, which has probably inflicted irreparable damage to the collective psyche of the body politic. “Fascism,” in other words, was defeated — with a gargantuan military crackdown. Whether the irony will ever be noted remains to be seen.

Michael Tracey is a journalist in Jersey City, NJ