Storming of US Capitol marks an extreme for a norm-busting presidency

From the unrest of the Depression-era Bonus Army to the upheaval of the Vietnam protests and the exploits of armed extremists — historians struggled to identify any previous event in Washington DC’s past to match the magnitude and severity of the pro-Trump mob that over-ran the US capitol on Wednesday.

“Storming the Capitol on the direction of the president is something we have not seen before. There isn’t a historical precedent,” said Nicole Hemmer, a presidential scholar at Columbia University.

“It’s almost beyond belief,” Joanne Freeman, a Yale historian who has written about political violence in the revolutionary era, told WZON radio. 

Much about the Trump presidency has defied historical precedent, from retaining ownership of a multinational corporation while in the White House to his attempts to politicise the military.

But even by the standards of his norm-busting tenure, Mr Trump’s stoking of an angry protest and the subsequent taking of the Capitol by those same rioters left historians stunned.

Fredrik Logevall, a Harvard professor and expert on the Vietnam-era upheaval, called the scenes “astonishing” and unprecedented in the nation’s capital since the British burnt the White House in 1814. That violence, he noted, was unleashed by a foreign military — not US citizens.

“Nothing during the anti-Vietnam war protests in Washington resembled this. Some of the confrontations over the war got raucous, and there were tense moments and skirmishing,” Prof Logevall wrote in an email. “The scenes we’re seeing today are of a wholly different order.”

Many were emotional as they watched the scenes of mayhem and vandalism in the seat of American democracy unfolding on television and social media. An official at the US Capitol Historical Society sobbed on the telephone. 

“In a just world, President Trump would be removed from office immediately for sedition and rebuked by history for betraying the very constitution he swore to defend,” said Jeffrey Engel, the director of the centre for presidential history at Southern Methodist University. 

Prof Engel added that he had been receiving texts throughout the day from fellow researchers around the world who were as shocked as he was. “Each of them has said in their own way: ‘I can’t believe this is happening in the United States’.”

Washington has always been a locus of protest — and sometimes violence. At times that violence has entered the Capitol itself. 

In 1856, amid the build-up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery Republican, was beaten unconscious with a cane by a South Carolina member of the House of Representatives, Preston Brooks. For many, the event presaged the nation’s descent into war.

In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists smuggled weapons into the House gallery and opened fire while the body was in session. No one was injured.

In 1971, the Weather Underground terror group set off a bomb in a Senate bathroom in the dead of night to protest the US bombing in Laos. Again, no one was injured.

More often, America’s capital has been roiled by mass protests. In 1932, tens of thousands of members of the so-called Bonus Army — veterans of the first world war and their families, who were left destitute by the Depression — encamped in the city. As Prof Engel observed, they were not seeking to overthrow the government or interrupt its functioning but petitioning for early payment of their military wages. General Douglas MacArthur led a military force that drove them from their shelters.

Vietnam-era protests were often large. The Moratorium March in November 1969 drew an estimated 500,000 protesters. Some 40,000 police and soldiers were deployed to protect a nervous city, although the protest ended up being mostly peaceful. In May 1970, the entire DC police force was mobilised and a ring of buses was set up around the White House to prevent protesters coming too close.

Legal scholars said the unprecedented nature of Wednesday’s violence made establishing possible legal ramifications for those culpable of provoking the takeover difficult.

“Inciting riot for the purposes of overthrowing the government is sedition, which is criminal,” said one former prosecutor, who asked not to be named. “The president has walked very close, and potentially stepped over the line in terms of what is proper political discourse and what is criminal.”

In every generation there are members of Congress who say things that are “bat-shit crazy”, Prof Engel observed. “The problem is, they are usually only one or two, and they’re not being rallied by the president.”

They have also, until the recent past, not been inflamed and organised by social media, he added.

Just as they struggled to fit Wednesday’s events into an American historical context, scholars were also at pains to judge what its legacy might be. Still, Prof Hemmer drew one damning conclusion.

“This cannot be categorised as a peaceful transfer of power,” she said.

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