The 'jaws of mobocracy' muzzled by a growing National Guard presence on Capitol Hill

Ben Riley-Smith
·5-min read
Members of the National Guard try to get some sleep inside the US Capitol in Washington - Shutterstock
Members of the National Guard try to get some sleep inside the US Capitol in Washington - Shutterstock

At first glance, the National Guard members posted in the US Capitol building on Tuesday morning were the picture of nonchalance. Some had their eyes closed, grabbing rest while they could. Others idly scrolled on their phones. But the fact that they were there, dressed in camouflage with guns propped against walls, could not have been starker.

Above one handful of soldiers sat the gleaming white bust of Abraham Lincoln, the president who saved America from itself during the Civil War.

A plaque nearby commemorated the troops who quartered themselves in that very building 160 years earlier – a reminder of how fragile the Union once was.

Others gathered below a statue of George Washington, the country’s first president, who by giving up the role willingly set in train the peaceful transfer of power on which the US political system depends.

Almost exactly a week earlier, that statue had been topped with a red cap bearing a single name in capitals, “TRUMP”, by the mob which had swept the building causing mayhem.

Now it was ringed by the US military.

Similar scenes could be found across the building. In the ornate Capitol Rotunda, some 20 soldiers were slumped on the cushioned benches usually used by tourists to take in the vast oil paintings depicting scenes from American history, or were relaxing on the polished marble floor. Others had slept all night under corridors with chandeliers.

The Capitol, the heart of American democracy, looked like occupied territory. Historians struggled to think of a time when so many National Guard members had been stationed in the building. Certainly nothing comparable has happened in recent memory. And yet the deployment was entirely understandable.

One reason was that another moment for the history books was happening on Wednesday. Just 13 months after his first impeachment, Donald Trump was set to become the only US president ever impeached twice, an indelible black mark placed next to his name just a week before he leaves office.

Another reason is that any illusion about the inherent security of the Capitol, situated on a hill overlooking the long sweep of Washington DC’s National Mall, disappeared in the violent clashes that played out in Mr Trump’s name.

Hints at the destruction caused were still found inside the Capitol on Tuesday. Windows boarded up with wood. Marks on the walls where some of the scuffles took place. The most obvious reminder of what happened could be seen before you even reached the site.

The imposing 7ft black chain fence installed around the Capitol just after the riot had been expanded to include the whole centre of Capitol Hill, including the Supreme Court. Huddles of National Guard members were found there too, groups of half a dozen manning the perimeter with face masks on and guns in hand.

It recently emerged that as many as 20,000 troops from the National Guard could be stationed in Washington for the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20. That is four times as many US soldiers as are stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

Political commentators said it was a bigger security footprint in DC than in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, which had launched those wars. The National Guard protecting the Capitol reportedly have been given permission to carry lethal weapons.

Members of the National Guard prepare in the Capitol Visitors Center on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 13, 2021, ahead of an expected House vote impeaching US President Donald Trump. - The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives on Wednesday opened debate on a historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump over his supporters' attack of the Capitol that left five dead.Lawmakers in the lower chamber are expected to vote for impeachment around 3:00 pm (2000 GMT) -- marking the formal opening of proceedings against Trump. - BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the National Guard prepare in the Capitol Visitors Center on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 13, 2021, ahead of an expected House vote impeaching US President Donald Trump. - The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives on Wednesday opened debate on a historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump over his supporters' attack of the Capitol that left five dead.Lawmakers in the lower chamber are expected to vote for impeachment around 3:00 pm (2000 GMT) -- marking the formal opening of proceedings against Trump. - BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Yet the threat they face, unlike 9/11, comes not from outside the country but within, from extremists riled up by the president himself.

To even get the House of Representatives, where the impeachment vote was to be held, congressmen, aides and journalists had to go to a few select entrances to penetrate the fence.

Inside the Capitol, the troops there (safe behind not just the fence but the building’s walls) seemed relaxed. Some were found in the cafeteria, pouring themselves black coffee in their uniforms and sharing jokes.

Others wandered round National Statuary Hall, one of the best-known parts of the building, a circular room with statues of prominent Americans around the edge. Many were young, perhaps in their early twenties. They had been sent in from states across the country.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Pro-Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. ( - Samuel Corum/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Pro-Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. ( - Samuel Corum/Getty Images

For those hoping to enter the House chamber there was another step: going through newly installed metal detectors. House members had been reminded in a memo circulated on Tuesday night that any guns they had should be left in their congressional offices.

When proceedings finally began a few seconds after 9am, a prayer was said. Some 20 House members, socially distanced and wearing masks, stood with heads bowed and crossed their hands. Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben, the House Chaplain, asked God for guidance over “today’s momentous decisions”.

“While yet unsettled by the events of this past week, we find ourselves seizing the scales of justice from the jaws of mobocracy,” she said. “Almighty God, wield your sword, and penetrate the confusion and discontent of our country.”

In the silence that followed, one balding congressman in a blue suit made the sign of the cross.