Congress hasn’t been immune to violence among its members over the past 200 years. In her book The Field of Blood, which delves into lawmakers’ unruly behavior in the early republic, historian Joanne Freeman wrote that she had uncovered “more than seventy violent incidents between congressmen in the House and Senate chambers or on nearby streets and dueling grounds, most of them long forgotten,” between 1830 and 1860. Nearly every American high school student learns about Preston Brooks, the Southern representative who bludgeoned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in the prelude to the Civil War.
But after the war was won and the rebellion put down, these brawls rapidly became a relic of an antique era. Lawmakers no longer assault one another in and around the Capitol. Duels of honor have not been a feature of American culture for more than a century, despite the fleeting wishes of Georgia Senator Zell Miller during the 2004 presidential election. And when it comes to sitting lawmakers who organized or sanctioned third-party violence against each other or against Congress itself, there is no clear precedent anywhere in American history.
That changed this month with the Capitol Hill riot. President Donald Trump took the lead in inciting a deadly attack on Congress, both in the immediate run-up to January 6 and throughout the last four years. But some members of Congress played a secondary role in encouraging his supporters to march aggressively on the Capitol, showing a reckless disregard not just for American democracy but also for Congress itself and their fellow lawmakers. Their actions—and their lack of contrition—raise an open question: Can members of Congress trust one another to keep each other safe?
Multiple House Republicans appeared at pro-Trump rallies shortly before the riots took place, including Alabama’s Mo Brooks and Arizona’s Paul Gosar. “You get to go back home once we conquer the Hill [and] Donald Trump is returned to being president,” Gosar told attendees at one “Stop the Steal” rally. Ali Alexander, a right-wing activist who helped lead the planning for the January 6 rallies, attributed their creation to Brooks, Gosar, and Arizona Representative Andy Biggs, who leads the far-right House Freedom Caucus. “We four schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting,” Alexander claimed in a December livestream with supporters, “so that who we couldn’t lobby, we could change the hearts and the minds of Republicans who were in that body hearing our loud roar from outside.”
Other Republican lawmakers expressed solidarity with the protesters before they turned violent. Lauren Boebert, a freshman representative from Colorado, wrote on Twitter that January 6 “was 1776.” Boebert later drew criticism for live-tweeting from inside the House chamber during the attack, including a tweet noting that Speaker Nancy Pelosi “has been removed from the chambers.” Pelosi was a key target of the rioters’ attack, leading others to criticize Boebert for giving away information that could make the House speaker easier to locate.
North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn, another newcomer to Capitol Hill, also appeared to encourage conservatives to intimidate their elected officials over Trump’s voter-fraud lies. “Call your congressman and feel free—you can lightly threaten them and say, ‘You know what, if you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you, Madison Cawthorn is coming after you, everybody’s coming after you,’” he told a Turning Point USA audience in December. Cawthorn, who was carrying a firearm in the Capitol during the riot, has now tried to backtrack on some false claims of election fraud, without taking responsibility for his role in spreading them.
The impact is obvious and ongoing. New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she felt unsafe in an evacuation place for lawmakers during the attack “because there were QAnon and white-supremacist sympathizers and, frankly, white-supremacist members of Congress in that extraction point who I know and who I have felt would disclose my location and would create opportunities to allow me to be hurt, kidnapped, et cetera.” Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley’s chief of staff provided The Boston Globe with a chilling detail: While bunkered in their offices during the melee, they were surprised to discover that the panic buttons installed in Pressley’s office had been mysteriously “torn out” at an unspecified point before the riot. New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill even claimed on Tuesday that she saw members of Congress “who had groups coming through the Capitol that I saw on January 5 for reconnaissance for the next day.” (She did not identify the lawmakers in question or provide further details, but said she would push for further investigations.)
Basic legislative comity is so thoroughly broken down that a half-dozen Republican lawmakers refused to wear face masks while members were sheltering in place during the attack, despite the ongoing pandemic and despite the presence of elderly Democratic lawmakers in the room with them. Three House Democrats have now tested positive for Covid-19 since the attack, each attributing their infection to the irresponsibility and callous disregard of their putative colleagues. One of them is Bonnie Watson Coleman, a 75-year-old cancer survivor who represents New Jersey’s twelfth congressional district.
“I feel like I have a mild cold,” Coleman wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday. “But even more than that, I am angry. I am angry that after I spent months carefully isolating myself, a single chaotic day likely got me sick. I am angry that several of our nation’s leaders were unwilling to deal with the small annoyance of a mask for a few hours. I am angry that the attack on the Capitol and my subsequent illness have the same cause: my Republican colleagues’ inability to accept facts.”
How in the world did we get here? I could cite no shortage of structural factors. The collapse of the legislative process means that most members now play a more performative role in Washington than a substantive one, which incentivizes outlandish or viral behavior over more durable accomplishments. A decade of extreme partisan gerrymandering created districts in which the party primary is the real competitive race in numerous House elections, hamstringing moderates and encouraging extremists. Conservative media outlets, especially in the Trump era, have created an alternate universe where the press’s role in keeping elected officials accountable breaks down entirely.
But the most immediate problem is with Republican members of Congress themselves. Many of them have consciously chosen to embrace Trump and his most toxic views about American democracy. They have chosen to describe their fellow lawmakers as radical extremists, regardless of their actual beliefs or stances. (Look no further than the common conservative belief that President-elect Joe Biden, of all human beings, is about to carry out a Communist revolution.) They have chosen to traffic in corrosive lies about American elections, weakening public confidence in elections when that confidence is more imperative than ever. It’s an open question whether some of these lawmakers actually believe in democracy or would favor something more malign in its place.
While Democrats in Congress receive the lion’s share of this attention, they aren’t the only recipients of it. Colorado Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat, told NBC this week that he had spoken with multiple House Republicans who wanted to vote in favor of impeachment but were afraid that Trump’s supporters would murder them and their family, citing death threats they had received over the past few days. It’s a remarkable coda to the post-9/11 era, when “not giving in to terrorism” was put forward as a basic principle of American life. That any member of Congress would be coerced into a vote instead of resigning or following their conscience is also a dark sign for the future of American civic life.
What’s most striking about all of this is that it shows no signs of abating. One would think that some of these lawmakers would be more cautious in avoiding further incitement after a riot in their own workplace. If anything, some of them seemed more interested in staying the course. “I don’t know why there aren’t more uprisings all over the country,” Texas’s Louie Gohmert remarked during the impeachment debate on Wednesday. “These Democrats are the enemies to the American people who are leading the impeachment witch hunt against President Trump,” Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, wrote on Twitter that morning. “They will be held accountable.” Whether that meant through a legitimate democratic process or by more diabolical means, she did not specify.