From the bustle of the Depression-era Bonus Army to the upheaval of protests in Vietnam and the exploits of armed extremists – historians have struggled to identify any earlier events in Washington DC’s past to match the he size and gravity of the pro-Trump mob that over-ruled the U.S. capital on Wednesday.
“Storming the Capitol under the leadership of the president is something we’ve never seen before. There is no historical precedent, ”said Nicole Hemmer, presidential researcher at Columbia University.
“It’s almost unbelievable,” Joanne Freeman, a Yale historian who wrote about political violence in the revolutionary era, told WZON radio.
Much of the Trump presidency has defied historical precedents, from maintaining multinational ownership in the White House to his attempts to politicize the military.
But even by the standards of his substandard tenure, Mr Trump stokes an angry protest and more capture of the Capitol by these same rioters have left historians stunned.
Fredrik Logevall, a Harvard professor and expert on the upheavals of the Vietnamese era, called the scenes “astonishing” and unprecedented in the country’s capital since the British burned down the White House in 1814. This violence, has he noted, was triggered by a foreign military – not US citizens.
“Nothing during the anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington looked like this. Some of the confrontations over the war got noisy, and there were tense times and skirmishes, ”Professor Logevall wrote in an email. “The scenes we see today are of a whole different order.”
Many were moved as they watched the scenes of chaos and vandalism at the seat of American democracy unfold on television and on social media. An official from the US Capitol Historical Society sobbed on the phone.
“In a just world, President Trump would be immediately removed from office for sedition and reprimanded by history for betraying the very constitution he had sworn to defend,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Presidential History Center from Southern Methodist University.
Professor Engel added that he had received texts from fellow researchers of the world who were as shocked as he was. “Each of them said in their own way, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in the United States.’
Washington has always been a place of protest – and sometimes violence. Sometimes the violence came in Capitol himself.
In 1856, amid the escalating Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery Republican, was beaten unconscious with a cane by South Carolina member of the House of Representatives, Preston Brooks. For many, the event foreshadowed the nation’s descent into war.
In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists smuggled weapons into the gallery of the House and opened fire while the body was in session. No one was hurt.
In 1971, the Weather Underground terrorist group set off a bomb in a Senate bathroom in the middle of the night to protest the US attack in Laos. Again, no one was hurt.
More often, the American capital has been rocked by mass protests. In 1932, tens of thousands of members of the so-called Bonus Army – World War I veterans and their families left destitute by the Depression – camped in the city. As Prof. Engel observed, they were not seeking to overthrow the government or interrupt its functioning, but to demand advance payment of their military salaries. General Douglas MacArthur led a military force that drove them from their shelters.
The protests of the Vietnam era were often significant. The moratorium of March 1969 attracted around 500,000 demonstrators. Some 40,000 police and soldiers were deployed to protect a nervous city, although the protest was mostly peaceful. In May 1970, all of the DC police were mobilized and a bus network was set up around the White House to prevent protesters from getting too close.
Lawyers said the unprecedented nature of Wednesday’s violence made it difficult to establish possible legal ramifications for those guilty of causing the takeover.
“Inciting a riot with the aim of overthrowing the government is sedition, which is criminal,” said a former prosecutor, who asked not to be named. “The president has walked very close and has potentially crossed the line in terms of what is proper political speech and what is criminal.”
In every generation, there are members of Congress who say things that are “bat-crazy,” observed Professor Engel. “The problem is that they are usually only one or two, and they are not joined by the president.”
They have also, until the recent past, not been inflamed and organized by social media, he added.
Just as they struggled to fit Wednesday’s events into an American historical context, researchers also struggled to judge what his legacy might be. Yet Professor Hemmer drew a damning conclusion.
“It cannot be called a peaceful transfer of power,” she said.