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In this wintry Washington January – the month named for the Roman god with one face looking to the future and the other looking to the past – the anniversary of the rampage at the Capitol looked both backward and forward, the rage of Jan. 6, 2021, spilling over into the commemoration of the events that have transformed the date into both a rallying cry and a cry of despair.

With the lawmakers, whose rituals affirming the results of the presidential election were disrupted, now divided on almost every issue – including whether and how to investigate last year’s rampage – the one-year commemorations took on a brutal, unforgiving tone.

A former president continued to stew over an election that, despite all evidence and every legitimate court challenge, he claimed to have won, while a sitting chief executive used his presidential forum to attack his predecessor for fomenting and then countenancing what he called “a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy.”

And so the day the United States marked the breaching of the Capitol was marked principally by the breach between two presidents, two parties, two ways of looking at the world, two ways of reading the news and two ways of defining national purpose and patriotic duty.

Not since the Civil War have the divisions between Americans, and between the lawmakers who represent them, been so stark.

As the country fell apart in 1860 and 1861, more than seven dozen members of the House and Senate left the Capitol, many of them departing for the Congress of the Confederate States in Montgomery, Ala. As the country wrangled Thursday over the events and the meaning of Jan. 6, 2021, Republican lawmakers were virtually absent from the Capitol. Top party officials had seized the opportunity, or pretext, to absent themselves by retreating to Atlanta for the funeral of former GOP senator Johnny Isakson, whose courtly manner and bipartisan instincts now more than ever seem like an echo of a gentler past in U.S. politics.

In Statuary Hall, where on ordinary days tourists mingle among 35 life-sized representations of American heroes – and where rioters charged in fury a year earlier – Mr. Biden set out a challenge as significant as the one the Jan. 6 marauders presented to democracy:

“And so at this moment we must decide what kind of nation we are going to be,” he said in remarks sure to inflame Trump partisans. “Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm? Are we going to be a nation where we allow partisan election officials to overturn the legally expressed will of the people? Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth but in the shadow of lies? We cannot allow ourselves to be that kind of nation. The way forward is to recognize the truth and to live by it.”

With an 1810 sculpture of Clio, the muse of history, looming over his right shoulder, Mr. Biden unleashed an unforgiving attack on Donald Trump for trying “to prevent the peaceful transfer of power” while “sitting in a private office … and doing nothing for hours.” He said “the former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies,” that Mr. Trump “values power over principle,” that “his bruised ego matters more to him than the Constitution” and that his supporters “want to rule or they will ruin.”

No president – not Abraham Lincoln succeeding James Buchanan, blamed for allowing sectional politics to lead to secession; not Franklin Roosevelt succeeding Herbert Hoover, blamed for the Great Depression; not Jimmy Carter succeeding Gerald Ford, the stand-in leader after Richard Nixon’s Watergate disgrace – has ever attacked his predecessor with the force that Mr. Biden brought to bear on Mr. Trump, a fusillade of fury issued not during a partisan fundraiser in a glittery downtown hotel but in the very setting where Lincoln served his single term in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Trump responded, saying, “Biden, who is destroying our nation with insane policies of open borders, corrupt elections, disastrous energy policies, unconstitutional mandates, and devastating school closures, used my name today to try to further divide America.” In his remarks, Mr. Biden referred to his rival as “the former president” but did not say Mr. Trump’s name.

Mr. Trump cancelled the news conference he had scheduled for Jan. 6 and instead said he would offer comments at a Jan. 15 rally in Arizona, one of the states whose results he contested. Just Wednesday, Republican-controlled Maricopa County, the focus of Mr. Trump’s claims, issued a report affirming that there was no fraud there, another piece of evidence that Mr. Biden won the election.

When the House of Representatives convened in its chambers Thursday, it marked the date with a moment of silence, a stark contrast with the rampage of last Jan. 6.

There was silence, too, on the Republican side of the Senate, every seat vacant as a parade of Democrats, beginning with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who a day earlier convened a hearing on Capitol security, spoke to mark the day.

For much of the day American television viewers – millions of whom cocooned at home in Omicron retreat – were exposed to lurid pictures of the events of a year ago in the marble and sandstone structure that might be called America’s front porch, one group seeing horror in the mob’s moment of rebellious honour. It was that clash of passions – the collision of vastly different definitions of what it meant to be a “patriot” at that fevered hour – that set in motion a year of recrimination and re-examination of the entirety of American civic life and, indeed, the survival of democracy itself. For the first time since the Civil War, a country born in 18th-century revolution witnessed a violent rebellion undertaken by citizens determined to challenge the natural order of things – and challenge order itself.

A year out, the battle of Capitol Hill has been transformed into a battle for history – or for history’s verdict. Just as veterans, widows and descendants of the Old Confederacy for a century derived one meaning from the 1861-65 Civil War while Northerners derived an entirely different one, the assailants of the siege of Jan. 6, 2021 (and their supporters in the Republican cloakrooms of the Senate and House of Representatives) see last year’s tumult one way, while Democrats and political institutionalists see it in a strikingly different way: as an assault on democratic institutions.

A CBS News poll released this week found that a quarter of Republicans approve of the actions of those who stormed the Capitol. And two-thirds of Americans feel the country’s democracy is threatened. The surprising element of these findings: That sentiment is stronger among Republicans and Independents than among Democrats. About 48 per cent of 2020 Trump voters feel that way, almost certainly because of their conviction that the last election was tarnished if not stolen.

The rioters who on Jan. 6 attempted something of an 18th Brumaire – the name of the 1799 coup that catapulted Napoleon Bonaparte to power in France after a decade of domestic tumult – remain largely unrepentant, as does Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden, his Democratic allies and others remain stunned by what they witnessed. Their reaction bears a striking resemblance to the view of Lord Carlisle, a leading member of the House of Lords who, after the British defeat at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, which essentially delivered independence to the American rebels, wrote of those who showed no remorse: “It is strange they have never learnt that to show exaltation in a public calamity makes them odious.”

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