WASHINGTON – Not since the dark days of the Civil War and its aftermath has Washington seen a day quite like Wednesday.
In a Capitol bristling with heavily armed soldiers and newly installed metal detectors, with the physical wreckage of last week's siege cleaned up but the emotional and political wreckage still on display, the president of the United States was impeached for trying to topple American democracy.
Somehow, it felt like the preordained coda of a presidency that repeatedly pressed all limits and frayed the bonds of the body politic. With less than a week to go, President Donald Trump's term is climaxing in a spasm of violence and recrimination at a time when the country has fractured deeply and lost a sense of itself. Notions of truth and reality have been atomized. Faith in the system has eroded. Anger is the one common ground.
As if it were not enough that Trump became the only president impeached twice or that lawmakers were trying to remove him with just a week left in his term, Washington devolved into a miasma of suspicion and conflict. A Democratic member of Congress accused Republican colleagues of helping the mob last week scout the building in advance. Republican members complained about security measures intended to keep guns off the House floor.
All of which was taking place against the backdrop of a pandemic that, while attention has drifted away, has grown catastrophically worse in the closing weeks of Trump's presidency.
More than 4,400 people in the United States died of the coronavirus the day before the House vote, more in one day than were killed at Pearl Harbor or on Sept. 11, 2001, or during the Battle of Antietam. Only after several members of Congress were infected during the attack on the Capitol and new rules were put in place did they finally consistently wear masks during Wednesday's debate.
Historians have struggled to define this moment. They compare it with other periods of enormous challenge like the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil War, the McCarthy era and Watergate. They recall the caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate and the operation to sneak Abraham Lincoln into Washington for his inauguration for fear of an attack.
They cite the horrific year of 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated while campuses and inner cities erupted over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Or the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when further violent death on a mass scale seemed inevitable. And yet none of them is quite comparable.
"I wish I could give you a wise analogy, but I honestly don't think anything quite like this has happened before," said Geoffrey C. Ward, one of the nation's most venerable historians. "If you'd told me that a president of the United States would have encouraged a delusional mob to march on our Capitol howling for blood, I would have said you were deluded."
Jay Winik, a prominent chronicler of the Civil War and other periods of strife, likewise said there was no exact analog. "This is an extraordinary moment, virtually unparalleled in history," he said. "It's hard to find another time when the glue that holds us together was coming apart the way it is now."
All of which leaves the United States' reputation on the world stage at a low ebb, rendering what President Ronald Reagan liked to call the "shining city on a hill" a scuffed-up case study in the challenges that even a mature democratic power can face.
"The historical moment when we were a model is basically over," said Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian of authoritarianism. "We now have to earn our credibility again, which might not be such a bad thing."
At the Capitol on Wednesday, the scene evoked memories of Baghdad's Green Zone during the Iraq war. Troops were bivouacked in the Capitol for the first time since the Confederates threatened to march across the Potomac.
The debate over Trump's fate played out in the same House chamber where just a week earlier security officers drew their guns and barricaded the doors while lawmakers threw themselves to the floor or fled out the back to escape a marauding horde of Trump supporters. The outrage over that breach still hung in the air. So did the fear.
But the shock had ebbed to some extent and the debate at times felt numbingly familiar. Most lawmakers quickly retreated back to their partisan corners.
As Democrats demanded accountability, many Republicans pushed back and assailed them for a rush to judgment without hearings or evidence or even much debate. Trump's accusers cited his inflammatory words at a rally just before the attack. His defenders cited provocative words by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Maxine Waters and even Robert De Niro and Madonna to maintain there was a double standard.
The starkly different vantage points encapsulated America in the Trump era. At one point, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic majority leader, expressed exasperation at the other side's depiction of events. "You're not living in the same country I am," he exclaimed. And on that, at least, everyone could agree.
Unlike Trump's first impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to help tarnish Democrats, some in his party abandoned him this time. In the end, 10 House Republicans joined every Democrat to approve the sole article of impeachment, led by Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican. It was a testament to how much the party has changed under Trump that the Cheney family, once considered ideological provocateurs themselves, emerged in this moment as defenders of traditional Republicanism.
Other Republicans sought to draw a more nuanced line, agreeing that Trump bore responsibility for inciting the mob while maintaining that it either did not amount to an impeachable offense or that it was unwise, unnecessary and divisive to pursue just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office.
Still, the fealty that so many House Republicans demonstrated for a president who lost re-election and has done so much to damage their own party was striking. "If the overwhelming majority of the elected representatives to one of the two American parties cannot reject the hold of a demagogue even after he overtly schemed to reverse an election and in doing so threatened their very lives, well, we have a long road ahead," said Frank Bowman, an impeachment scholar at the University of Missouri law school.