Even the shared experience of a violent insurrection is unlikely to bridge massive political rifts.
It was months after a disputed election and charges of an “illegitimate” president were dominating an era of deep political divisions that were growing deeper by the day.
Then terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.
Hours after planes were flown into buildings in New York City and Washington, DC, and nearly 3,000 perished, Congress put politics aside and came together at the US Capitol in a moment shaped by fear, followed by resolve.
“When people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress and as a government stand united,” said then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, on the steps of the Capitol, hours after members and staff were told an airliner might be headed for the building.
“And we stand together,” he said, flanked by Democratic leaders and hundreds of members of Congress.
“We are here to declare that our resolve has not been weakened by these horrific and cowardly acts,” added then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, before the group spontaneously began singing God Bless America.
The congressional unity that emerged from that tragedy had a residual impact, at least until the next presidential election in 2004, when rifts over the Iraq War signalled a new era of political polarisation.
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s pro-Donald Trump siege of the US Capitol, an event fomented by a president pushing the false narrative of a disputed election and his charges of an “illegitimate” president-elect, it seemed for a moment that Congress was potentially heading towards another period of unity.
Resuming the session that set off the riots, the constitutionally mandated congressional electoral vote tally, Vice President Mike Pence echoed Hastert from two decades prior.
“As we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy,” said Pence. “For even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism at this Capitol, the elected representatives of the people of the United States have assembled again on the very same day to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Within hours, it became clear that the response of rank-and-file members of the current Congress would not echo that of their post-9/11 predecessors.
Continuing the divide
Instead of singing a spontaneous rendition of God Bless America, a half-dozen Senate Republicans and more than 100 House Republicans picked up where they left off prior to the siege: objecting to the electoral vote count in an effort to placate Trump and his supporters as well as slow down, if not halt outright, Joe Biden’s legitimate victory.
Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, who led the Senate effort to object to Biden electoral votes, did not back down after the riot. Several of his fellow Republicans reversed course in the wake of the violence and dropped their objections. Hawley, however, forged ahead with his challenge, even after the editorial board of The Kansas City Star had declared he had “blood on his hands” for perpetuating false allegations of widespread voting irregularities.
Pennsylvania Democratic Representative Conor Lamb had enough of Republicans’ objections and, on the House floor, he directly tied their “lies” to the riot.
“We know that that attack today, it didn’t materialise out of nowhere, it was inspired by lies, the same lies that you’re hearing in this room tonight,” Lamb said.
“And the members who are repeating those lies should be ashamed of themselves, their constituents should be ashamed of them,” he continued, drawing the ire of his Republican colleagues, who confronted Lamb, forcing a dozen members out of their seats to prevent a fight.
Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz went as far as to promote a conspiracy theory that members of the left-wing Antifa movement infiltrated the pro-Trump mob, contradicted by video and images that clearly show otherwise.
“[S]ome of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters and in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa,” Gaetz declared, prompting audible jeers from some of his House colleagues.
The heated rhetoric and the peddling of misinformation, all in the name of politics, returned almost as quickly as it seemed to be tamed in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol attack, raising the question: What is the path forward, especially for Republicans, who will be so closely tied to the man at the centre of Wednesday’s violence?
There were pro-Trump Republicans who indicated they are ready to turn the page.
Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, someone who closely chained her political fortunes to Trump and who lost her election on Tuesday, struck a serious tone on the Senate floor Wednesday night when she announced she was rescinding her objection to electoral votes for Biden.
“The events that have transpired today have forced me to reconsider and I cannot now, in good conscience, object,” she said.
Another Trump confidant and occasional golf partner, Senator Lindsey Graham, said after four years of trying to work with Trump, he had had enough.
“Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way. Oh my God, I hate it,” Graham said. “From my point of view, he’s been a consequential president, but today … All I can say is a count me out. Enough is enough.”
If enough is truly enough, politicians in both parties will look at Wednesday’s violence and realise that encouraging white-hot political rhetoric fuelled by deep-seated anger is a path to danger – much more than just a way to build a passionate, enthusiastic voting base.
However, if Congress’s post-riot actions are any indication, any lessons to be learned and an effort to bridge the massive political chasm might be an impossible dream, even after an historic attack on the heart of US democracy.