US Capitol Hill Attack, Surging Populism And Responsibility
This week we saw President Joe Biden inaugurated in Washington D.C. It was a momentous event, not just for a nation suffering from Covid-19 and economic hardship, but also for all those who look to America as a symbol of democracy. Just weeks ago, however, we witnessed a shocking assault on the US Capitol and its democracy.
The events of January 6, 2021, will be remembered for a long time, in both the US and abroad. Disgruntled fans of President Trump charged on the US Capitol while senators and house representatives were in the process of confirming Joe Biden as the President-elect. The mob’s demands stood on the false claim that the Presidential election was somehow stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden was not the real victor. The attack on the Capitol lasted for several hours as the Congress members were forced to evacuate to safety. Curfew was eventually declared in the DC area, the mob was dispersed and Congress was able to resume its session. Irrespective of simplification, the events carry vast implications for the future of American politics, its new administration and its image abroad.
The attack itself was expected. Even months after the election, Donald Trump kept up his efforts to discredit the incoming administration and hold on to the Presidency. He first declared himself the winner several times whilst the votes were still being counted, then launched over 40 unsuccessful lawsuits in several states regarding “inconsistencies” in the election and finally recruited state and government officials to overturn the results somehow. Several members of Congress, including prominent senators and representatives from Missouri, Texas and Arizona made significant efforts to overturn the will of the American public. The events of January 6 were, therefore, part of a conscious effort, akin to a gambit in a long campaign of political maneuvering. Luckily, the lack of a plan on the side of the belligerents and the overall strength of the systems in place at the US seat of power prevented greater damage.
It would be naïve to represent the collection of groups responsible for the attack on Capitol as a monolith. Due to the willingness of the Republican Party to cater to a variety of interests and paint the left as an opponent on various issues, a sort of broad coalition has formed. There are, in fact, quite a wide range of factions with varied interests that permeate the Republican base. And Donald Trump has been effective in establishing staunch support for himself within this cluster. To this crowd, Trump can do no wrong. His rhetoric and actions are sacrosanct – to be taken as jokes in bad taste when inconvenient and absolute truths when not. This fluidity of beliefs and suggestibility of the coalition makes for a built-in unpredictability that made the events of January 6 all the more shocking. But the responsibility of those events does fall on President Trump and his supporters who addressed a rally in Washington DC before the Capitol was attacked, declaring the results of the election an “egregious assault on democracy” and proposing his supporters “walk down to the Capitol”.
In some ways, this is the crystallisation of the divide in American politics which has continued for so long and only worsened in the past decade. The battle between the two sides informed by conservatism and progressivism has morphed and devolved into an all-encompassing clash to control means, media and minds. However, we see that one side has increasingly relied on misinformation and skirting the facts to try and maintain their hold on the electorate.
Since President Trump assumed office in 2016, facts and debate have been foregone in favor of deflection and disinformation. To borrow a term from Kellyanne Conway, “alternative facts” have become the norm. Conspiracy theories were never completely absent. But the views of those on the far-right have increasingly become extreme and more and more and incoherent. The “enemy” is not limited to the government, an ideology or media anymore; instead, it now extends to academics, healthcare professionals, scientists and anyone who may even mildly disagree with far-right politics. This amorphous opposition naturally invites conspiracy, which is able to morph any perceived disagreement into a personal attack. And of course, there is no end to conspiracies. They can go as deep as they are allowed to, include as many systems and actors as the individual can weave into imagination. Healthy skepticism is good; an absolutely bottomless one isn’t.
Role of Media
Both social and conventional media played a critical part in the happenings. But these suggestive vehicles can only be as effective as the canvas itself allows. There is a feeling of discontent amongst the American public which can be taken advantage of, and perhaps too easily influenced through media. Media is ubiquitous, and its effects even more powerful in this age where it permeates the social fabric. The political divide was already precipitated but polarisation has worsened due to the improved algorithms of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which effectively allow individuals from the entire spectrum to selectively manufacture their own political echo chambers and demonise the other from the comfort of their homes. This is the new channel of populism. Therefore, it’s not surprising that some really do believe that the election was stolen from Trump despite evidence to the contrary. Of course, conventional media is also complicit. Fox News platformed many conspiracy theorists who spoke on how exactly the election was stolen, again employing media to cast doubt on the mandate of the democratic President-elect.
Shortly after the attack, President Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were banned indefinitely for violating their Terms of Service. But of course, a simple solution will hardly suffice. It has become clear that social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, possess unmatchable power to not only popularise and cement an opinion but also to spur specific action. The House of Representatives has suggested breaking up these companies’ monopoly on social media, but tech firms have long embraced self-regulation to prevent meddling from the state. In addition, Amazon stopped hosting popular right-wing and conspiracy website Parler as a result of the attack. But these actions may be too little too late – and a clear bid to avoid regulatory action, which should be a cue to Congress to continue to push toward it as the stakes are simply too high.
The ease with which the marchers were able to enter the Capitol and ransack the building while Congress was in session is alarming, to say the least. How could all the security agencies of the most powerful country on Earth fail to intercept an attack on the legislative seat in the capital of the nation? It is safe to assume that assent for what Trump claims and represents can also be found in the highest levels of the government and state agencies may not be as shallow as believed. In addition, the organisation and fervor of the Trump loyalists cannot and should not be underestimated.
The American nation itself is in shock. Although many Republican lawmakers paid lip-service to a condemnation of the President and his party members’ wrongdoings, it remains to be seen whether they are willing to hold themselves to account. On the other hand, the event may also serve as a wake-up call for some of the less ardent supporters of Trump and Republican party sympathisers in both the electorate and Congress. Therefore, it seems that the President has shown his hand. Lacking support from the relevant stakeholders has driven him to count on his fans instead in the bid to stay in power. Thus, while Trump’s challenge to Joe Biden’s presidency may be over, the new administration will have to deal with accusations of meddling for at least the first year of its tenure. And this could exacerbate the political divide, given the predilections of those who believe this is true.
Accountability, in this case, will be hard, but certainly should be vied for, in particular for intentionally misguiding the public in the name of party politics. And not just for President Trump himself who has consistently lied but also members of Congress and media outlets such as Newsmax, OANN and Fox News. All need to be made clear of the seriousness of their conduct in partisan politics, when the public is willfully misled as a political strategy to diminish their opponents.
Now, impeachment proceedings have been initiated by the House, but since a conviction requires a two-third majority at the Senate, it does not seem to be likely. At the same time, many Republicans want to disassociate themselves from Trump and the events of January 6. This is Trump’s second impeachment, and would effectively deny him the opportunity to run for the office in the future as well as executive privileges. There is a possibility that all the blame for the incident will be shifted to Trump as the outgoing President, but this would not address the systemic failures that caused radicalisation and alienation in the first place. It will also be harder to bring about accountability for those responsible for defending Donald Trump’s actions in the past and advocating on his behalf.
The image of the US as a robust democracy and superpower continues to suffer. Moreover, its identity as a champion of democracy is ceding operational space to global competitors. Russia’s Putin recently commented with reference to the Capitol attack: “This certainly gives no one the right to point the finger at the flaws in other political systems, including in election legislation.” Furthermore, the implications for these events hold true for all democracies, burgeoning or long-staying. The EU Foreign Policy Chief Josef Borrell said, “What we saw on Wednesday was only the climax of very worrying developments happening globally in recent years. It must be a wake-up call for all democracy advocates.”
For such an event to occur in the heart of the US itself is a significant blow to the normative arguments for a republic itself. Democracy is not just fragile, but also fickle. In the case of the US, the freedoms granted to citizens by the constitution are not enough. There must also be a commensurate responsibility and accountability. Furthermore, those who are entrusted with the responsibility of representing the will of the people must be held to a higher standard than that displayed by the leadership of the Republican party.
Given all that, the strength and resilience of the United States and democracy itself have been broadcasted. While the events of January 6 won’t soon be forgotten, the events that follow will also be remembered, as a correction of history. The cult of Trump and the political divide in the US will continue to be a concern. For now, the system has righted itself.
The author is a doctoral student of Political Science at Georgia State University. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Rights from the University of Minnesota. Earlier, he worked with Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) Washington, DC and has been part of Pakistan civil society’s UN treaty body reports. He tweets @sachaljacob and can be reached at [email protected]