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A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 06, 2021 in Washington.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Washington braced for historic deliberations Wednesday to formalize the election of Joe Biden to the presidency. Instead it was the scene of historic confrontations prompted by demonstrators who besieged the Capitol to assure that Mr. Biden’s election not be confirmed.

The proceedings of a free country choosing its leader were disrupted – and despoiled.

A process designed as a celebration of democracy swiftly descended into mayhem resembling an attempted coup, with the country shuddering as its Vice-President was sent into hiding, congressional barriers were breached, security officers brandished guns on the floor of the House of Representatives and lawmakers were issued gas masks.

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An innocuous democratic ritual was swiftly transformed into tumult and chaos.

The tinder was U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat in the November election. The spark was Mr. Trump’s encouragement of the protesters after Vice-President Mike Pence’s refusal to accede to Mr. Trump’s demand to overturn the election result.

Four people died and 52 were arrested after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to stop Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory. Reuters

Washington over the centuries has been the scene of scores of massive protest marches. It was there that women marched for the vote in 1913. Where 47,000 members of what was known as the Bonus Army sought to besiege the Capitol in 1932 to demand early payment for their First World War services. Where the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provided the forum for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And where anti-war protesters marched to oppose the Vietnam War.

But there never has been a march remotely like the one spurred by Mr. Trump’s call Wednesday to question the legitimacy of the election – a demonstration demanding that the vote results be overturned.

The vice-presidency of the United States has never been a position of power. It was the role that silenced such accomplished American political figures as John Adams, Henry Wallace, Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller. Rarely – the few examples include 19th-century vice-presidents George Clinton and Chester A. Arthur – does the second-in-command part ways with the president on an issue.

But never – not even when John C. Calhoun resigned the office in 1832 over a tariff issue involving his home state of South Carolina – has a vice-president openly defied a president the way Mr. Pence did Wednesday when he refused Mr. Trump’s demand, made publicly only about an hour earlier and 16 streets away, to refuse to recognize the electoral votes that would send Mr. Biden to the White House.

“A vice-president has never been put in a position quite like this one,” said Joel Goldstein, an emeritus law professor at Saint Louis University who is recognized as the leading expert on the office, in an interview. “Then again, no one else has ever been a vice-president under Donald Trump.”

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The old House of Representatives chamber has been the venue for myriad history-bending moments. It was there that Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy,” where Lyndon B. Johnson described the drive for racial equality as a “we-shall-overcome” imperative and where lawmakers impeached three presidents.

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But it has never been the site of a moment quite like the one that unfolded as the Electoral College votes affirming Mr. Biden’s election began to be counted – a moment that itself would have sent ripples into history if it had not been obscured by the siege of Capitol Hill.

Wednesday’s solemn proceedings, disrupted by demonstrators, presented historic moments both inside and outside the Capitol – moments far more significant than the mere certainty that Mr. Biden will return to the scene two weeks later to take the oath of office.

Until the mob ascended Capitol Hill, this was developing as an occasion to confirm the primacy of America’s voters over America’s leaders – and to offer those leaders a forum to explain their devotion to a system that for 232 years has rendered them servants of the people rather than their masters.

And although Senate and House leaders manoeuvred for weeks to avoid a spectacle like the one that unfolded Wednesday, history may recall this moment in split-screen.

On one of those screens were the flag-waving, chanting groups on the Capitol grounds. On the other were the solemn proceedings that amplified what Senator Chuck Schumer of New York – on the verge, as a result of Senate elections in Georgia this week, of becoming the chamber’s majority leader – called “this wonderful, beautiful brand of democracy.”

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Outside was a mob defying democratic rule in the name of democratic rule. Inside the building, the moment belonged to two political figures that Mr. Schumer and his Democratic allies have pilloried as weak-kneed extensions of Mr. Trump’s impulses and instincts.

The first was Mr. Pence, defying the President and arguing that “vesting the Vice-President with unilateral authority to decide presidential contests would be entirely antithetical to [the Framers of the Constitution’s] design.”

This is the moment 'Stop the Steal' protesters in support of President Donald Trump breached security on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as Congress was in session, where top lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence were present. Reuters

The second was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who told his colleagues that “we cannot declare ourselves a national Board of Elections on steroids” and argued that doing anything besides counting the certified state votes would prompt a situation where “our democracy would enter a death spiral” and “we’d never see the whole nation accept an election again.”

As it is, as the demonstration underlined, the whole nation does not accept Mr. Biden’s election – a challenge to the incoming president, to be sure. He must try to govern a country where a substantial minority does not recognize his legitimacy. But more important, it is a broad challenge to the American system itself.

“It is terrible news for this country that this occurred,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

But Wednesday’s proceedings were a moment without precedent in an era without precedent – when untruths were dressed up as facts; when the press, so revered by the nation’s founders that it is enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, was assailed as a purveyor of “fake news;” and when decades-old traditions were traduced.

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“Political norms are no longer followed if people figure that the ends justify the means,” said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “It happened very slowly before it happened suddenly. Once you break norms and succeed, it reduces the resistance to breaking the next ones.”

President-elect Joe Biden said that President Donald Trump must "step up" and demand that his supporters end their "siege" of the U.S. Capitol building, after pro-Trump protesters refusing to accept his election loss swarmed the building on Wednesday, putting it on lockdown. Reuters

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