Critic's Notebook: With Capitol Building Attack, Trump's America Hits New Low on Live TV

Trump Supporters Rally Protest
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

January 6 marks a day in the American electoral calendar that many Americans — most Americans, if we're being completely honest — either didn't know existed or knew only as a formal item on a checklist.

The certification of electoral college results is something that, in a typical year, even the most rigorous of non-CSPAN cable news entities wouldn't even bother to televise. And we got a taste of why that is during the 10 minutes of coverage in which Mike Pence and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle had brief discussions about parliamentary procedure; decided that these discussions constituted "debate"; and then agreed that "debate" was not a part of the allowed process. Alabama and Alaska quickly certified their results with a few boilerplate verbal exchanges.

This isn't even as dramatic a process as the convention delegate roll-call, a piece of procedure with room for bursts of personality and state-by-state flair. No, this is designed to be so boring that only the wonkiest of democracy wonks would watch it, proof that the mechanics of the American semi-democratic process work best when you see them least.

For 10 minutes, this was America and it was comfortingly boring. There was no reason to object to Alabama and Alaska, because Trump won those states, and the only states accused of anything untoward in this election — or, in fact, in any previous election, if you listen to Republicans — are states that Democrats won. Democrats are great at rigging elections, apparently, but on Nov. 4 they must have forgotten to rig things to result in an expanded advantage in the House or a decisive edge in the Senate.

Anyway, I apologize for the attempted punditry; I'm a TV critic, and no TV critic in the history of our republic has ever needed to write about January 6 and the quadrennial certification of electoral college results. It's like doing episodic recaps of Criminal Minds: Nobody needs to be told that the creepy white guy played by the recognizable actor looking to dirty up his image menaced the poor pretty white women, or that Thomas Gibson eventually got his man.

But I'm also not here to write about the organized objections against the electoral college certification, something future Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claims have also commonly been staged by Democrats — as if there aren't YouTube clips of none other than Joe Biden aggressively shouting down the Democratic protest in 2016 within mere seconds. No, I'd braced myself for a purely amateur viewing of Ted Cruz's straw man arguments and whatever "I wanna be president in four years!" grandstanding Josh Hawley was going to do before the results were certified.

That, at least, is all still America, with gradations of discomfort and discourse built-in.

What isn't America, or at least doesn't play like America on TV, is the literal attack on the Capitol by "protesters" who conservative pundits promised us would be peaceful. Because liberal protesters are violent and chaotic and conservative protesters exhibit the stately decorum of budding debutantes lining up to be blessed by the Queen on Bridgerton.

Boring parliamentary procedure is America. Heck, Robert's Rules of Order got to be a plot point on The Wire in an arc that mocked the idea of something as televisually enticing as the drug game being conducted with formalized rules and a meticulous agenda.

Bloviating politicians are America as well. Go back and read any text about an 18th- or 19th-century politician and you'll find out that they would give speeches, sometimes extemporaneous, that could last three hours — and that those speakers were revered as the great orators of their day (something Ted Cruz is not).

But I'm writing something here, because fairly soon after the process began — with speeches seemingly limited to five minutes apiece — those dainty demonstrators outside decided they couldn't wait any longer and began bursting through the doors of the Capitol. They charged at the Capitol police, aggressively forcing themselves past armed officers. They began dangling themselves from windows, climbing atop monuments.

After both legislative chambers were cleared, those would-be Lords and Ladies burst into those rooms and began posing for grotesque photos. Rumors flew about fire extinguishers and gunshots and all manner of speculation because at a certain point there were no more television cameras in the rooms. That last fact makes it hard for me, as a TV critic, to process anything. It was so un-American. So gauche! What would Lady Whistledown say?

News networks were forced to try to capture the moment through poorly placed outdoor camera positions and repeated invocations of phrases like "banana republic" or references to government overthrows in various former Communist countries. CNN had a few talking heads and anchors willing to call it an attempted coup, but the reliable folks at Fox News had pundits like Laura Ingraham on to continue her Twitter dog whistles suggesting or implying that the transgressors today so closely resembled Antifa protesters that they just might be Antifa. (Because, again, we all know that those uncouth Featheringtons would never protest violently.)

Where was President Trump? Well, he was out there with the rioters only an hour or two earlier giving a speech Fox News definitely gave oxygen, but several other cable entities opted to skip entirely. Trump repeated a long laundry list of mostly disproven fraud allegations — "lies," I believe we call them — and continued his claims of a "landslide" victory, an absurdity that you really might have thought would be a bridge too far even for his supporters. But no.

Trump departed his podium after stirring up the mob and reemerged on Twitter to stir them up against Mike Pence, and then to toothlessly tell them not to be violent. A similar process of enrage-then-barely-diffuse was followed by figures like Cruz and Hawley. Ditto Kayleigh McEnany, who uses her official Press Secretary Twitter feed to say things like "We reiterate President Trump’s call against violence and to remain peaceful" and her personal Twitter feed to stoke paranoia about election fraud and socialist infiltration of the government.

Trump's video statement to the Capitol-attacking domestic terrorists — made only after President-elect Biden condemned the unrest and demanded Trump say something — led with reminders about the alleged stolen election, his alleged landslide victory and his love for his supporters. He closed with "Go home and go home in peace."

Guess which part of the statement Fox News concentrated on.

As of the time I'm writing this, it's unclear when America is going to go back to being a boring, reliable, competently run television show. It's going to be tempting for lazy people to say that what they saw today was America as a reality show gone awry, but that leaves out the fact that Jeff Probst would never tolerate disorder like this. Nor would any of his Emmy-winning hosts in the reality space. Only a reality host without an Emmy to his name would allow anything to be this chaotic or this mismanaged.

It's also notable how many of the reality shows we love and devour are actually based on international formats, so if you're a snob you can blame the Koreans for The Masked Singer or the Swedes for Survivor.

We only have ourselves to blame for this one.