‘Death spiral’: US’ horrifying new normal
US President Donald Trump personally addressed a largely maskless crowd, filled with the badges of conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It went downhill from there. An avalanche is set to follow.
"Stop the steal!" he shouted.
The crowd erupted with enthusiasm.
Among them were The Proud Boys, an armed gang of extreme-right social-media trolls. Mr Trump had told them to "stand back and stand by" during the September presidential debate.
They were done with 'standing by'. Now, Trump unleashed them.
As he watched his crowd storm the nation's Capitol, the President tweeted: "We love you, you're very special."
It won't stop there.
'WE'RE COMING FOR YOU'
The crowd was primed.
For months, Mr Trump and his enablers had been spreading a message of fear. The presidential election would be rigged. The presidential election had been rigged.
He hadn't lost a contest of the popular vote, he insisted. The election had been 'stolen' from him.
Not a shred of substantiated evidence has been presented.
But, as Mr Trump arrived - 45 minutes late - that didn't matter to his enthusiastic believers waiting on the National Mall.
His microphone didn't work. But that didn't stop the familiar litany of the President's woes washing through all those below.
He attacked Hillary Clinton. He attacked Attorney-General Bill Barr. He attacked Vice President Mike Pence.
"We're going to have to fight much harder," he urged his believers.
Trump's heir-apparent - Donald Trump Jr - had primed the same crowd just moments earlier: "If you're gonna be the zero and not the hero, we're coming for you," he said.
He was referring to the Republican Senators, Congress Representatives and the Vice President. They had sided with the US Constitution. Not Trump.
Trump took up the threat.
"We gotta get rid of the weak Congresspeople," he said of his own Republican Party's membership, "The ones that aren't any good."
So the crowd did.
PAWNS OF PROPHECY
They were warned.
They didn't listen.
Since before Trump's election in November 2016, political scientists and historians have been vainly pointing at the authoritarian threat panning out on our television screens, courtrooms, political party rooms, social and mainstream media.
In May 2016, Emeritus Professor of Psychology Norman Feather, author of the influential book Values, Achievement And Justice, warned Trump's appeal represented a dangerous convergence of extreme trains of thought. And that gives him an unexpectedly broad appeal - and power.
"When 'we live in a competitive world' is conjoined with the right-wing authoritarian 'we want traditional things, we want security, and we live in a dangerous world', that can spell a lot of trouble, especially in terms of prejudice, black-and-white statements - and anger," he warned.
That anger is now being openly expressed.
Threats of violence. Baseless slander. Wild, fanciful claims.
For years, such outrageous acts had gone unpunished.
If anything, they'd received tacit approval from those who it would benefit.
One extreme example emerged in October: The FBI foiled a domestic terrorism plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Armed extremists had already occupied that State's Capitol buildings in protest - upset at COVID-19 containment measures and its largely Democrat leadership. Now the Wolverine Watchmen militia group plotted to set off bombs across the country, overthrow the Michigan government and initiate a new nationwide civil war.
The President refused to condemn the plotters once it all fell apart.
Trump's address to the Washington D.C. throng was emboldening. Empowering. Encouraging.
And the steps of the nation's Capitol were strangely unguarded.
Just months before, ranks of camouflaged, body-armoured troops with assault weapons had lined its steps in the face of Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
This time, those troops couldn't be seen.
Republican Senate Majority Leader "Moscow" Mitch McConnell - previously one of Trump's most ardent supporters - dared to contradict the bombast unfolding outside.
"We cannot simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids," he said. "If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral."
The ordinarily quiet - but earnestly loyal - Vice President Mike Pence solemnly refused to obey Mr Trump's demands that he overthrow the election.
"It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not," he said.
The usually hallowed US Constitution, however, is irrelevant in the eyes of Trump supporters.
It's now all about "patriotism" and faith in their great leader.
WE, THE PEOPLE, VERSUS 'THEM'
Political scientist Paul Musgrave is blunt in his assessment.
"Rioters incited by President Donald Trump have stormed the Capitol building. Both the House and the Senate have suspended their counting because of security threats. Shots have been fired. A photograph of a rioter occupying the House speaker's chair shows that the Capitol is, essentially, being occupied."
To him, this ticks all the boxes.
"It's undeniable at this point. The United States is witnessing a coup attempt - a forceful effort to seize power against the legal framework," he writes for Foreign Policy.
We were warned, he says. "Yet right up until this moment a chorus of voices was telling us not to worry … There has been a profound divide between those who believed that institutions would save us - that the United States' democratic traditions would be preserved - and those who were clear that we faced a period that could end with a standoff of this magnitude."
MAGA hats, QAnon shirts, Nazi tags and Confederate Flags have stormed the heart of all US democratic institutions - Capitol Hill.
'ON THE ABYSS'
The US is "standing on the abyss of the destruction of our democracy," former Defence Secretary William Cohen said shortly before the day's events unfolded.
"We have to come back to the key principles," he said. "You have to have truth in every facet of our lives. And when you don't, you will not have the trust of the people."
But Trump's followers have their own truth.
It's a truth built on "alternative facts".
These alternative facts have been created - and distributed - by ardent social and traditional media pundits. And, US intelligence agencies warn, considerably helped along by Russian and Chinese "influence operations".
It's a truth distorted through the lens of Nazism, white-supremacy and the "prophet" QAnon.
Every "alternate fact" has failed when tested against an impartial legal system.
But that same impartiality is being widely interpreted as "treason" against Trump.
Expect more to come.
"This is not something new," Mr Cohen said. "This is how he has operated during most of his lifetime."
Trust has been undermined. Faith in the rule of law is no more.
In the US, that equals the law of the gun.
"We talk about the rule of law, and people have to understand: If there is no rule of law, if people are allowed to abuse it and misuse it, then all of us are in danger," Mr Cohen warned.
That danger is real.
Mr Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is calling for "trial by combat" to determine the 2020 election results.
If it comes to pass, that combat will be played out in Washington D.C.'s streets before spreading to suburbs across America.
"These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots," Trump declared as his followers occupied the Senate and the House.
Expect more to come.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as 'Death spiral': US' horrifying new normal