The United States Capitol Building opened its doors in November of 1800 to house the very same institution it still houses today—the bicameral U.S. Congress created by our Constitution. No other advanced society can claim that level of political stability over the course of that 220-year period. The arrangement of powers in even the exceptionally steady British regime has gone through dramatic transformations unlike anything we have experienced in America over this time, and most other relatively stable societies (like the nations of Western Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and others) have gone through several fundamental changes of government through conquest, revolution, or political upheaval.
We Americans sometimes still think of ourselves as a young nation, but our political institutions are among the most established in the world. We are stable. And to me the Capitol, with its majestic dome and marble columns, has always seemed somehow to speak of our stability.
But what’s required for political stability? The answer offered by our Constitution is something like the capacity for keeping our balance in the face of changing circumstances. Its way of doing this can sometimes seem mechanical. Our system of government creates an interlocking array of institutions and powers that takes some of the foibles and limits of human nature for granted, sets ambition to counteract ambition, and seeks to avoid dangerous excesses in any direction. As James Madison put it in one particularly Machiavellian passage of Federalist 51, the aim is something like a “policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”
But that is hardly the end of the story, as Madison himself soon made clear. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” he wrote in Federalist 55, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
So although our system of government knows people are imperfect, it still has high expectations of all of us and will not work if those aren’t met. The nature of those expectations gestures toward the republican virtue that the framers took to be essential in both citizens and leaders. And it might be summarized by another Madisonian term—the deceptively capacious word “responsibility.”
As Madison employs the term (and his uses of it are actually the first that the Oxford English Dictionary can find anywhere in print), it describes a mix of obligation and responsiveness. The responsible leader takes ownership of his actions and duties and takes it upon himself to act in response to events. The responsible citizen understands that the republic is at some level his to maintain through both action and restraint.
I couldn’t help but think about this one-word summary of civic virtue all day Wednesday, as our president incited acts of insurrection and a mob broke into the Capitol to disrupt Congress’s counting of electoral votes.
The riot itself is no threat to the stability of our republic. The Capitol Building has seen more than its share of violence and trouble over the years. The British famously set parts of it on fire in the War of 1812. It faced intense crowds of rioters several times in the 19th century, and many times in the 20th. Puerto Rican nationalists fired guns from the House gallery in 1954, injuring several members. Vietnam War protesters set off a bomb on the Senate side in 1971.
In July of 1998, while I was working in the building as a young staffer myself, a gunman made it past the security checkpoint at the entrance and tried to rush the office of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. The Capitol Police managed to stop him before he reached his target, but not before he killed two courageous officers—Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson. The Capitol always lives shadowed by these attacks, and by the ever-present knowledge of the threats it faces. But it has endured them all and gone on with the people’s work. It won’t be shaken.
The bigger problem, the more fundamental challenge to the stability of our republic on display on Wednesday, was a set of interconnected failures of responsibility—failures to take ownership of the fate of our society, and especially failures to deal with reality. The mob of rioters obviously behaved irresponsibly. Too many congressional Republicans did, too—flirting with lies and conspiracies for political gain, knowing it was all for show. But above all, it was the president’s irresponsibility that made Wednesday’s drama a real threat to our national stability.
Like so much of what Trump has wrought, the attack on the Capitol had the feel of fiction, and even many of the people involved seemed to be playing out a fantasy in their heads, living in a world in which sinister forces had stolen the election from their lion-hearted hero and they had come to set things straight by a show of strength. It’s all a lie, every part of it, yet the actions taken by the crowd were very real, and very dangerous.
There has always been something of this unreality about Trump’s behavior in the presidency. From the very beginning, it has seemed that Trump almost fully inhabits a boorish, narcissistic psychodrama playing in his head. Through the power of his personality and celebrity, he has been able to draw others into that fantasy world for decades, and through the power of the presidency he has now been able to project it onto the real world and draw yet more followers into it.
This hasn’t left Trump simply dysfunctional in the presidency. He has proven to have a solid political sense and a nose for where his voters are. And he made some good appointments and some policy moves that any Republican president would have been proud of. And yet, the entire time, if you had spoken to people around Trump, you would have heard mind-boggling stories of their direct experiences with him—tales of a president bizarrely disconnected, obsessive, impervious to information, fixated on personal loyalty, endlessly repeating patent nonsense.
All of this somehow held together for his first three years in office. It often took unprecedented acts of insolence and insubordination from his staff, and of course he was still an outrageously irresponsible president. But he averted catastrophe. Then, however, came the year of plague and of election, when Trump’s escapism and unwillingness to face reality became untenable. He tried to talk the pandemic out of existence and then to wish away the election results. But the yawning distance between his fantasy world and the real world finally became unbridgeable.
This is what we are seeing play out now, and what was most disturbing about Wednesday’s events. The riot at the Capitol itself was inexcusable, and we can hope that at least some of those involved will be prosecuted and punished. But more troubling by far was the way in which their actions were embedded in a fantasy spun up by conspiracists, and especially the way in which the President of the United States took up his place in that fantasy world and sought to govern from within it.
In his tweets and video statement on Wednesday, Trump asked the Capitol rioters to go home while also praising them and thanking them. You could almost see him struggling to separate his fantasy world from the real world and proving unable to do it. He seems plainly incapable of performing his job at this point as a result, and even more of the people around him than usual have said so since Wednesday morning.
The curious power and appeal of Trump’s conspiracism is deeply intertwined with its irresponsibility. At its core is a form of self-pity. The president blames others for disrespecting and abusing him, and therefore refuses both to take ownership of his obligations and to face reality. This has proven an intoxicating mix for an extraordinary number of Republican politicians and voters in the Trump era, and it has utterly defined the president himself.
If Trumpism means anything, it would seem to mean this distinct kind of irresponsibility. It’s not the same as populism—which always risks entanglements with demagogues but also has legitimate concerns and priorities that deserve to be heard and should not be confused with one man’s failings. It’s not any particular policy agenda or set of reforms, as President Trump clearly doesn’t care about any of the particular ideas that others have sought to attach to him. Ultimately, Trumpism is a style, an ethic that amounts to a dangerous and highly toxic irresponsibility.
That ethic did not begin with Trump, of course. Forms of it are now widespread, not only in our politics but also throughout many American institutions. It shows itself in a tendency to performative outrage and exaggerated victimhood, both of which are failures to take ownership of one’s particular roles and obligations. And it shows itself in a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, expression and action.
But Trump has embodied it in an exceptionally concentrated form, and at the highest levels of our government—in a job that uniquely requires responsibility, and is defined by the need to deal with reality. A recovery of responsibility, broadly understood, is called for in many arenas of American life. But putting Trumpism behind us would certainly be a start.
Yuval Levin is director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of National Affairs.