For someone who has witnessed many coups and revolutions as a foreign correspondent, mainly in the former communist world, Wednesday’s images from Washington were both familiar and jarring: a parliament being stormed, insurrectionists lounging in the presiding officer’s chair, legislators cowering in the corridors of power, doors being barricaded by outnumbered security forces, a sea of newly minted flags and banners, a bloody body on the floor.
As the scenes unfolded on live television, it was difficult to come to grips with the notion that this was taking place not in Moscow or Kyiv, Tbilisi or Belgrade, but in the U.S. Capitol.
Something else was not quite right. The leader of the insurrection was not some youthful rebel protesting decades of dictatorship, but the president of the United States, seeking to prevent a constitutional handover of power to his duly elected successor.
Despite the frequent comparisons with autocrats elsewhere, President Donald Trump is an American creation. He owes his success not to his control over the military and secret police, but to the way in which he was able to worm his way into our minds through his mastery of modern communication. His ability to take over the national conversation makes him more dangerous, but also more vulnerable, to being challenged forthrightly.
We are already seeing signs of the spell being broken. As television channels carried the horrifying scenes of pro-Trump protesters breaking into the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, my immediate thought was that this was the beginning of the end of Trumpism.
I based that perhaps counter-intuitive conclusion partly on my experience as a Post reporter in Poland in December 1981, when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law to try to suppress the anti-communist Solidarity movement. Far from a victory, the Jaruzelski coup was a devastating moral defeat.
Trump’s desperate attempts to cling to power represent the failure of Trumpism as clearly as Jaruzelski’s actions signaled the failure of communism. The never-Trump wing of the Republican Party has received a considerable boost, as witnessed by the principled stand of numerous Trump-appointed judges, Republican election officials, former defense secretaries of both parties, and former presidents and presidential candidates, such as George W. Bush and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
As the afternoon and evening wore on, it became clear that our would-be national savior’s most loyal acolytes and enablers had abandoned him: Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and even Sen. Kelly Loeffler. It was as if a dam had suddenly broken. By the end of the evening, he had been thrown off Twitter (at least temporarily) and Facebook.
The next few days leading up to Biden’s inauguration will be exceptionally perilous as we negotiate a hopefully peaceful transition of power. But both as a historian and as a former journalist, I have reason to hope. I think we may be witnessing a Joseph Welch moment.
We can date the end of McCarthyism to the appearance of the chief counsel for the U.S. Army before McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee on June 9, 1954, and his celebrated retort, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
Let us hope that Wednesday night’s Senate debate was at least the beginning of the end of Trumpism.
Michael Dobbs covered the collapse of communism for The Post.