An assault on democracy: What’s next in the US?
Since the atrocious attack on the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters on Wednesday, the Congress has formally certified the victory of Joe Biden, some Cabinet members of the Trump administration have resigned, and some are considering invoking the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution and removing Donald Trump from office. The highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, has extended his support and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has threatened to start the impeachment process unless Trump is removed from office. A few Republican leaders have blasted Trump for his support of the failed insurrection, and the condemnations from home and abroad against these attacks have become louder. It is against this background that Trump has promised an "orderly transfer of power" to Joe Biden. In a taped video broadcast on Thursday evening, Trump effectively conceded and made a volte face about his support for those who ransacked the Capitol, saying "The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy."
But questions remain as to whether the assault on democracy has ended, whether Trump's promise is an attempt to buy time and avoid the possibility of impeachment, and how much impact the attack will have on domestic politics and the United States' image around the world.
The violence incited by Trump will have an array of negative impacts on both domestic politics and America's international standing. The negative impacts on domestic politics are due to the fact the attack was neither sporadic nor spontaneous, but a result of almost five years of deliberate undermining of democratic institutions. The physical attack was just one step from the rhetoric of Trump and his allies who incessantly denigrated the norms and institutions which are essential to democracy and responsible governance. Since his entrance to the political scene in 2015, Trump has imparted a siege mentality in his supporters, that they are being hounded by the deep state and that someone out there is hatching a conspiracy to take away their country from them. This, in conjunction with the call by Trump in Wednesday's rally to "Walk to the Capitol", was the final act of unleashing a mob. When Trump, who promised to have a "wild" protest, told his loyal supporters that "you will never take back our country with weakness"; the message was not subtle, but rather very loud and clear. The deep anger against democracy found its most potent symbol—the Capitol, the citadel of democratic power. By trampling the culture of tolerance and pursuing divisiveness, Trump had sowed the seeds of anti-democracy; the attack was the fruit of that poison tree. Rhetoric was engendering violence, although in limited scale, but on January 6 it revealed its full force.
This dangerous anti-democratic mindset has been reared by the Republican party for quite some time. The silent embracing of the birther movement, the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and the increasing rightward movement of leaders are just a few examples of how it was mainstreamed. The party will is bound to be a part of American politics, thus the mindset is unlikely to disappear after this incident. There is hardly any indication that the Republican party is ready to address the problem as a party. There are two reasons that the party will not shun the extremist ideology of which Trump is a product, and which he has succeeded in making the mainstay of the party. First, there are leaders who adhere to this ideology. It is their political creed. Second, the fear of losing in the next elections, or worse yet, being defeated in a primary against a Trump-backed challenger. The number of House members who had supported the two objections based on fictitious allegations of election fraud or their interpretations of the Constitution is testimony to both factors. In one instance, 121 House members supported it; in another, the number was higher—138. The politics of expediency triumphed over the interests of democratic norms and institutions. Since Wednesday, some Republicans have criticised Trump, but there was no acknowledgement of their complicity.
In the past four years, violent White supremacist organisations have proliferated—QAnon and Proud Boys are cases in point. Members of the organisations are alleged to be at the forefront of Wednesday's mayhem. They have received Trump's unequivocal support as "patriots". He called upon them to "stand by" and they did, until he said, "Let us walk to the Capitol". He had enormous power and influence on them as the President, but whether they will remain loyal to him after his departure from the White House or find another person is an open question. Some of the Senators who objected to the election results might be vying for this job. Whether these organisations will increase violent acts in the future is unknown at this point. Trump is definitely departing from the White House, but is unlikely to leave the political stage. His dark shadow will loom large over mainstream politics. Perhaps he will remain in person and continue to disrupt normalcy until he becomes a candidate in 2024. In between, the 2022 midterm will become the testing ground of his influence. However, the legacy of Trump will be violence, and aiding and abetting domestic terrorism.
This will be the biggest challenge of governance in the United States; as such, this will be a challenge for the Biden administration. How to address this deep schism will also be a challenge for the media and civil society. Unfortunately, some of the media's roles in the past four years have been deeply disturbing.
Trump's "America First" left the United States alone. US policies have alienated the country from the global community. Whether the US is a reliable ally has become a matter of concern for its allies. Perhaps the most discussed topic in the global media since Wednesday was, does the US have the moral authority to claim to be the standard bearer of democracy and criticise others? The images broadcast to the world on Wednesday created more damage to the US' image than what was done in the past four years.
Undoubtedly, China and Russia, two countries which have been challenging the liberal democratic global order, will find arguments in favour of their model of governance. Authoritarian rulers will find excuses and try to justify their actions using these images. Restoring the standing of the US on the global stage, a promise Biden has made, will be a difficult task. In the realm of foreign policy, this is Trump's parting gift to Biden.
For the Western liberal world, the worrying lesson is, if it is possible in the US, it can happen anywhere. They are quite appropriately understanding that the attack was not only on a building; the very idea of democracy came under physical assault. This is happening in the wake of an ongoing global backsliding of democracy, pernicious polarisation, economic crisis and the global pandemic which has weakened trust in government.
Those who are questioning whether the United States can talk of democracy and insist on others to practice democracy, should take note that for the past four years, Americans have continued to engage in movements to preserve their democratic rights, that media have continued to unmask the authoritarian agenda of Trump, citizens have voted in a free and fair election and chosen their leaders, state-level administrations have withstood pressures from Trump and acted independently, the courts have thrown out at least 60 cases which were filed to delegitimise the elections, and Congress has ratified the will of the people. These are proof that institutions have weathered the crisis and can endure. The past four years have shown the fragility of democracy in the United States, but it is naive to write the obituary of democracy in the United States.
Besides, the crisis of democracy in the United States cannot be a justification for the absence of democracy in any country. The fundamental rights—from freedom of expression to vote freely—of citizens in any country cannot be contingent on whether the US is demanding it. Instead, it is imperative for the people of the respective country to restore it. Many of those who are lamenting the crisis in the United States are not doing it because they are disturbed to see democratic ideas trampled, but are rather trying to justify their support for authoritarianism.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of political science at the Illinois State University, a nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council and the President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).