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Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol is truly unprecedented

The U.S. Capitol has not been invaded since the War of 1812.

Smoke fills the walkway outside the Senate Chamber as supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

In August of 1814, British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned most of our newly established capital city, including the White House and United States Capitol building, which had only recently been constructed and occupied.

Until Wednesday, this was the only time in which the United States Capitol — the center and greatest physical symbol of our representative democracy — had ever been invaded and occupied by a hostile army, militia or mob of any kind. That precedent, sadly, was broken Wednesday when a group of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol building. These people were encouraged to come to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and were provoked to do violence by the president himself earlier that day.

The group of insurrectionists broke windows and doors, looted offices and forced members of the House of Representatives and Senate to evacuate and shelter in a secure and undisclosed location. Furthermore, multiple members of the Capitol Police were injured and hospitalized while one of the rioters was shot and killed during the insurrection.

This all took place in an effort to disrupt the constitutional process of counting the electoral votes cast several weeks earlier by the states that declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Some might say that this comparison is inappropriate, and that a group of angry Trump fanatics is a far cry from a hostile foreign government invading our capital city. To these arguments I say that, in fact, the former is far more dangerous than the latter. In this case, the enemy came from within, encouraged and egged on by our very own president.

While 1814 provides the rare precedent for the violent invasion and looting of the Capitol building, this episode is truly unprecedented in another, more important way. The fact that the sitting president of the United States openly encouraged these people to lay siege to the Capitol is an amazing and dangerous breakdown of the separation of powers and constitutional order of our federal government.

Never before in our history has the president of the United States encouraged a violent assault on the Congress of the United States: a co-equal — if not preeminent — branch of the federal government. This is a dramatic example of exactly what the founders feared when they struggled to figure out how to design an executive branch that was appropriately powerful, but also appropriately constrained in that power.

Again, some might say that a few hundred thugs with Trump flags roaming the Capitol building for an afternoon is hardly a severe and extraordinary breakdown of our constitutional order. But consider for a second what might have happened. What if the mob had barricaded themselves in the well of the House or Senate chambers? What if they had succeeded in entering the House and Senate chambers before our members of Congress had been safely evacuated? Would they have taken hostages? What would have been their demands?

Imagine, for a second, this mob of Trump supporters holding Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell or the Vice President of the United States hostage until the legislative branch declares Donald Trump the true victor of the 2020 election.

The alternative endings to this insurrection are horribly frightening. Can the president of the United States really encourage and direct a violent mob to storm the Congress to physically pressure them to enact whatever fantastical demands he might have at the time? If so, then we have truly realized one of the worst nightmares of the Founding Fathers, who wrote frequently of the “danger of demagogues.”

As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 1: “… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Considering the damage done by this event, it is absolutely necessary for Congress to impeach and remove President Trump immediately, and to further disqualify him from holding or enjoying “any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States,” as described in Article I of the Constitution. Trump has manufactured and encouraged one of the most dangerous attacks on our political institutions in the history of the country — both the physical buildings themselves as well as the democratic norms and procedures that take place within those buildings.

Even if Trump’s term as president expires in a mere two weeks, the prospect of him ever again holding elected office in the United States is reason enough to remove him now and be done with him forever.

Mike Barber is an associate professor of political science and faculty scholar at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. He lives in Provo.