The Trump Insurrection and America’s Civic Religion

The Capitol is a sacred institution. Trump’s supporters violated it last week.

The January 6th riot at the Capitol. Source: CNN

Trump supporters’ January 6th attack on the United States Capitol was a seminal moment of the current administration. Five people have died, while the rioters caused significant property damage and scarred the psyches of millions of Americans. The day threw into sharp relief all of the lawless, violent, and irreverent tendencies that have characterized the president’s supporters for the past five years.

In many ways, the riot was more powerful than countless other scandals and transgressions committed by the outgoing president. It has led, like nothing else, to a bipartisan call for impeachment and removal. Democrats want to impeach Trump without detailed deliberation or the customary presentation of evidence. They want to ban him from ever running from office again, and some members want to refuse admission to members who supported his insurrection. Big social media platforms have banned Trump with days still left in his presidency. Even conservative media has moved away from the Trump insurrection. On Monday, talk radio giant Cumulus Media instructed its hosts to refrain from discussing the “stolen election.”

The January 6th riot at the United States Capitol was not just a violation of government property. It was an attack on the American civic religion, one that caused the same response that the sacking of a medieval church might have. This civic religious aspect has led to the consequences that continue to reverberate for Trump and his supporters.

Civic religion is the set of symbols, ideas, and institutions considered essential to the abstract ideas of American governance and national identity. This phenomenon arose from America’s secular founding and refusal to establish a state church. Instead of a governmental church, the country has instead attached much of the same symbolic meaning to its political aspects. As a result, what appear to be secular institutions on their face turn out to be immensely more important. Congress and the White House are not just buildings but temples. George Washington is viewed not only the country’s first president but a semi-messianic figure. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. all serve the role of martyrs who died for American principles and for their people.

America’s civic religion is a primary reason why the backlash to Wednesday’s events was so strong. There was no reasonable chance that the storming would reverse the outcome of the 2020 election. Joe Biden had already secured the original votes from the Electoral College. Mike Pence had announced he would supported the counting, much to the chagrin of President Trump. The day truly was a pro forma day for Congress. The insurrection could not attain its goal.

Rather, the event affected the buildings and people considered sacred by America’s political culture. The United States Capitol was breached by a hostile group for the first time since 1814. Extremist Trump supporters rampaged through the halls of Congress and even made their way into the Senate chamber, a place where few Americans can set foot regardless of a pandemic. The rioters physically threatened many members of Congress, some of whom are part of the line of presidential succession.

Then, these extremists stayed in the halls of power long enough to take pictures and grin at the camera. The impact of simply hearing about the protest was magnified by these images. There were thousands of them. They were seared onto the brains of millions of Americans. They led to immediate calls for prosecution from pundits and observers across the political spectrum. Even many erstwhile Trump supporters hated those images. They were evidence that the sacred had been damaged, and revulsion was inevitable. It was as if Romans could have disseminated images of the Goths invading their churches, or the English could show Vikings looting their monasteries.

There was also, of course, the profane motivation that pushed these Trump-supporting extremists into Congress. One or two mentally ill people who slipped past security and ended up in the Senate chambers would not horrify the American people. But these extremists were violating a sacred place to attempt to overturn the sacred act of voting. The ideal of democracy is, in many ways, its own sacred symbol. The Electoral College is a quasi-religious body, loaded with symbolic rituals and officers set to perform certain duties. Its meeting is akin to one of the sacraments, a violation of which would horrify many Christians. It was clear that by breaching the Capitol during the electoral count, the insurrectionists were following Trump’s orders to try again at the last minute to overturn the results of the election. Such a profane act could not possibly go unpunished.

Americans have not been in a situation like this since the Civil War, when the nation split in two and the Capitol was under threat from armies led by generals like P.G.T. Beauregard and Jubal Early. This time, there are no rules of war or military conventions to guide the nation forward. The key is to make it clear to Trump and his supporters that lawlessness has consequences. Hopefully, the recent spate of arrests and Trump’s impending impeachment will achieve that goal.

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