It seemed like a scene from Paris of 1789, when an angry, unruly mob stormed the Bastille prison and freed the inmates, the start of a deadly uprising against King Louis XVI. However, this was happening not in Paris, but the US capital, Washington DC. On January 6, 2021, a little more than a year ago, the majestic US Capitol, the symbol and embodiment of US democracy, was stormed by President Donald Trump’s fanatic supporters, many armed with offensive weapons, creating a harrowing spectacle. Instigated by him, they were out to prevent the ongoing joint session of Congress from certifying Joseph Biden’s electoral victory and attempting to unlawfully keep Trump in power.
They had been stirred by the lie, endlessly repeated, that the 2020 election results were fraudulent, and votes had been manipulated in Biden’s favour. Millions of people around the world watched in horror on live TV as the rampaging mob threatened the very foundations of a two-century-old democracy. It was not the first time that the Capitol had come under attack. During the war of independence, on August 24, 1814, it was burnt by invading British troops that marched into Washington and set fire to the building. However, the difference was that it was then vandalised by a colonial power.
Fortunately, the heroic efforts of a few brave conscientious individuals saved the country from descending into a political abyss and possibly civil war. Most prominent among these were members of the Capitol Police Force. Despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the rioters, they put their own lives on the line, valiantly standing against the marauders and protecting the members of the Congress from harm. In the melee, five people, including police officers, died, while 140 of the officers were injured. Four police officers were so traumatised by the harrowing experience that they later committed suicide. Then, there were elected officers at the state level who remained faithful to their oaths of office and refused to fraudulently change votes at Trump’s behest, or of his powerful supporters.
Finally, the then Vice President Mike Pence, who had been very deferential to Trump during his four-year term, uncharacteristically defied him and refused to reject the electoral votes sent for approval by individual states – this is normally a mere formality. The rioters, some among them retired military personnel, were able to disrupt the proceedings only temporarily, and when the authorities regained control of the Capitol, the session resumed and proceeded to certify Biden’s victory. This represented the last legal action needed for the peaceful transfer of power. A political crisis and possibly a civil war had been averted, but only narrowly.
A sulking Trump refused to attend Biden’s inauguration ceremony, a traditional gesture that showcases the supremacy of a constitutional democracy. Furthermore, he has not to this day accepted his defeat, making him the first presidential candidate not to do so. Sadly, he is not alone in the misguided belief, as a great majority of Republicans also believe that the last election results were rigged and Biden is not a legitimate president.
A bipartisan House panel set up to study what led to the insurrection and how the coup plot was hatched and implemented has uncovered some very disturbing facts. It was a well-planned operation and directed by several of Trump’s supporters, not a spontaneous uprising. Especially egregious was Trump’s behavior while this mayhem was ongoing. As the Capitol was being ravaged and the senators and congressman were being tossed into the basement by the police for their safety, the president was watching the unfolding events on TV, sitting comfortably in the White House. He was unmoved by the pandemonium, made no attempts to rein in his supporters – even when his son, Donald Trump Jr, daughter, Ivanka, and other Republican leaders pleaded with him to do so. It took more than three hours for him to make an insipid appeal to the rioters to go home.
There are examples of contemporary regimes of Austria, Poland, Turkey and Brazil where elected leaders successfully transformed an essentially democratic set up into a far more authoritarian regime
The anniversary of the attack on the Capitol was commemorated in this country on January 6, 2022, with great solemnity. Yet, there is an overwhelming worry that a bad precedent has been set and, in future, defeated candidates and their supporters may not accept the results of a fair election. Writing in an op ed in the New York Times, the former US president Jimmy Carter expressed his concern; “I now fear that what we have fought so hard to achieve globally — the right to free, fair elections, unhindered by strongman politicians who seek nothing more than to grow their own power — has become dangerously fragile at home.”
A number of articles and books on this theme have been written. In their excellent recently published book How Democracies Die, author Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the downfall of democracies does not happen by military take overs, often it is some charismatic demagogue who skillfully engineers this phenomenon. There are examples of contemporary regimes of Austria, Poland, Turkey and Brazil where elected leaders successfully transformed an essentially democratic set up into a far more authoritarian regime. Also, we are reminded that Hitler did not come to power by a military coup; he was initially elected and appointed chancellor by civilians. In Pakistan, we have witnessed religious firebrands and rabble-rousers stirring their followers in the name of some invented religious issues against innocent victims, often non-Muslims.
While it remains the richest and most powerful country in the world, there are reasons to worry about the long-term survival of the US as a united, democratic country. In recent years, it has become highly polarized, as if populated by two different nations with widely divergent beliefs and aspirations. Some far-right, extremist organisations, motivated by the belief in the supremacy of the white race and angered by the demographic shifts that have reduced the proportion of whites in the population, have been gaining strength and popularity.
Some of the fissures came to the surface by the election of Trump in 2016. His election campaign promoted and emphasised divisive issues, domestic and foreign. He unabashedly preached contentious policies rooted in hatred against minorities, especially Muslims. Even before any votes were cast, he raised the possibility of a rigged election, and refused to commit that he would accept the results if he were defeated in the elections. Biden’s agenda cannot progress in the Congress as the Republican members of cannot defy the former president for fear of alienating his devoted followers. We can only hope that this nation is able to overcome the adversities that it faces – as it did in the past.