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Hard and Soft Threats to Democracy

Conspiracy theorists and militia threats led the House of Representatives to abandon its work.
March 4, 2021
Featured Image
Members of the National Guard gather outside the U.S. Capitol on January 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

Today should be a typical Thursday in Washington, or at least as typical as COVID permits. But on Capitol Hill, security threats have resulted in the clearing of the House of Representatives, which was scheduled to be in session today.

There has been chatter for weeks among the online conspiracy crowd surrounding March 4. That was the date of presidential inaugurations before the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933 changed it to January 20. Much as bizarre conspiracies pop up about the legitimacy of other constitutional provisions, an assortment of QAnon kooks has taken to claiming that Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20 was unconstitutional and that Donald Trump will be returning in splendor on March 4 for the real inauguration.

The rumors swirling about the possibility of violence on March 4 were given legitimacy on Wednesday, when the Capitol Police released a statement saying, “We have obtained intelligence that shows a possible plot to breach the Capitol by an identified militia group on Thursday, March 4.” Within hours, the House announced it was canceling its Thursday session and security officials urged staffers who could to work from home.

Meaning that domestic terrorists have succeeded in shutting down the government again.

This time it happened without anyone breaching a single security fence. The threat of another national security event, however remote, was enough for them to win. Donald Trump may be out of office, but the United States government remains paralyzed by conspiratorial, hostile actors who have taken up his cause. Whether they attack the Capitol today or not.

Does that sound too dramatic? Ho-ho, you might tell yourself, this isn’t a total government shutdown. Or maybe you’re tempted to think, Everything is fine—officials are just acting out of an abundance of caution. Still, neither of those notions changes the fact that enough legislators and the people charged with protecting them have deemed it too dangerous for them to work. That’s not something to brush aside, however uncomfortable the thought.

There is some dispute about the need to do this. The Senate remains in session. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a call that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not. Who is right?

Given that Washington has barely begun to come to terms with the events that led to the January 6 insurrection, it’s hard to fault anyone for acting out of an abundance of caution. That philosophy—better safe than sorry—also explains why 8-foot-high fencing and razor wire still surrounds the Capitol complex. It’s not a good look for the seat of our democracy, but the people who insist on those measures aren’t taking chances. It’s easy to disagree with their choices but hard to assign blame for making them.

Which raises the question: How does this get better? When will the Capitol stop looking like a prison or a military outpost?

One would be hard-pressed to find anything reassuring in the ongoing Senate hearings dissecting the law enforcement response to January 6. At Wednesday’s hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray, for example, instead of focusing on the individuals who planned the attack and the spectacular security failures that allowed it to unfold, senators spent much of their time promoting or refuting, depending on their party affiliation, the claim that Antifa was responsible.

The crucial things that Wray had to say about how domestic terrorism is “metastasizing” barely made headlines. The fact that, for some reason, it took President Trump’s Department of Defense more than three hours to deploy the National Guard to the Capitol on January 6 doesn’t concern former Vice President Mike Pence, who was targeted by the mob. He finally broke his silence on Wednesday—only to push an op-ed based on the big election lie and blasting “leftists” who “want you powerless at the ballot box.”

As on January 6, the physical threat to the Capitol is coming from conspiracy theorists outside Congress, but the threat to our democracy is coming from conspiracy theorists in the Republican party—including many in Congress itself.

Amanda Carpenter

Bulwark political columnist Amanda Carpenter is a CNN contributor, author, and former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz and speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint.