Has American Democracy been threatened? Is it really in danger of collapsing? The short answer is no. But there are significant dangers for American Democracy
Supporters of then-US President Donald Trump battled police officers at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 as commemorations for that deadly day are held one year later [File: Julio Cortez/AP Photo]
By Anil Madan
On January 6, 2021, as the anniversary of the assault on the US Capitol came and went, Democrats and Republicans remained divided not only about what happened, but also about what to call the events of that day. The usual cliché that the truth lies somewhere between what opposing sides say, simply does not help resolve the impasse. Multiple cameras recorded many hours’ worth of video depicting the day’s events, yet the two sides cannot reconcile their differing perspectives.
Each says to the other, don’t believe what your lying eyes see. Reality is something other than what each side claims. Yes, the truth is indeed somewhere out there. But even as part of America goes through self-examination, all facts necessary to paint a definitive picture have not yet come to light notwithstanding that a whole year has gone by.
The Democrats and the left-leaning media outlets immediately dubbed the events of January 6 an “insurrection” and an assault on America’s Democracy. Republicans and right-leaning outlets such as Fox News, have tried to minimize what happened, often calling it just a riot, or falsely blaming Antifa (a left-wing anti-fascist and anti-racist political movement in the US), various undefined leftists, and even the FBI for instigating the violence.
Even former Vice President Mike Pence who was the object of the “Hang Mike Pence!” chants, deflected thus: “I know the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January. They want to use that one day to try and demean the character and intentions of 74 million [Trump voters].” So “one day in January” is about as dismissive as a person whose neck was sought for a noose can be.
A Mixed Picture
If we take the strict dictionary definition of “insurrection”: a violent uprising against an authority or government, clearly this was an insurrection. At the same time, one must accept that there is a reasonable argument that what happened on January 6 should not be exalted to that level. If one treats an insurrection as involving an attempt to overthrow a government, effectively a coup, the events of January 6 offer a mixed picture.
Certainly, the invading mob seemed ready to hang or otherwise execute Mike Pence, Mitt Romney, Nancy Pelosi, as well as other senators and congressional representatives. But it was not a coup in the sense that the mob thought they were following the wishes of their putative leader Donald Trump, as his surrogates, but they were certainly not trying to replace him at the head of a new government.
And what if they had succeeded? Well, that begs the question, what were they seeking? If they had succeeded in killing Pence, Romney, Pelosi, and Schumer, and perhaps one or two others, what would have come of it?
The answer is probably nothing other than homicide and sedition trials. If they had succeeded in convincing Pence to ignore his constitutional duties and if he had sent the matter back to some of the states to resolve how their electors should be counted, surely a spate of lawsuits in federal courts would have eventually led to review by the Supreme Court. And just as Trump and his cohorts had lost 62 or 63 lawsuits challenging the election results, they would have lost this one too.
Of course, Trump would still have been Commander in Chief of the armed forces. But General Milley the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had made it clear that the armed forces do not get involved in politics. It is difficult to imagine that Trump would not have unceremoniously been marched out of the White House had he refused to leave.
The picture is complicated because America as a nation needs to come to grips with how it will account for Trump’s responsibility for that day, the responsibility of the individuals who made up the mob, and the political disposition of the Republican senators and congressional representatives who stood up for Trump then and have continued to deny or misrepresent the events of the day.
On January 7, 2021, one day after the invasion of the Capitol, Trump said in a televised statement: “The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy. To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay.” Some six months later, Trump said: “These were peaceful people, these were great people.”
Other leading Republicans have also blustered after condemning the rioters. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Leader in the House, said on the floor of that body: “What we saw last week was not the American way. Neither is the continued rhetoric that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president.” Today, McCarthy is an apologist for Trump. Keep in mind that he wants to be Speaker of the House if the Republicans gain control in the November 2022 election cycle.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the outgoing Senate Majority Leader put it bluntly: “There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” He added that Mr Trump watched the events unfold on television. “A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags and screaming their loyalty to him.”
McConnell added: “This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.” And yet, even though his wife, Elaine Cho, resigned from Trump’s cabinet after January 6, McConnell did not vote to convict Trump at his impeachment trial.
Against this backdrop, some 700 persons who invaded the Capitol have been arrested. About 170 have pleaded guilty, some to minor charges. Most have received minor sentences, but some have been given prison sentences of four years or more. The swirl in the air is that cases with more serious One is left with the sense that unless Trump is held accountable, complete justice will not have been achieved.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives commission conducting an inquiry into the events of January 6 continues to release information suggesting that it has evidence that Trump actively sought to overturn the results of the election not only by filing lawsuits which, if merited, are absolutely within his rights, but by exerting pressure on state election officials and Vice President Pence. It is these latter actions that suggest possible criminal exposure for Trump.
For months before the election, Trump had been sowing the seeds of the narrative that if he lost the election, it would be due to fraud. From election day onward, Trump has repeated the lie that the election was stolen for him.
Trump’s claims were roundly debunked. The coordinating bodies on election infrastructure and security said in a joint statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA): “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history. Right now, across the country, election officials are reviewing and double-checking the entire election process prior to finalizing the result.”
Attorney General William Barr who had previously made unfounded speculations that mail-in ballots were susceptible to fraud, declared that there was no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the result of the election. And Trump and his supporters lost in 62 or 63 lawsuits they filed in courts across the land. In short, Trump lost.
Since the election, recounts in state after state have reaffirmed the reality that Trump lost. But even as recently as two days ago, Trump repeated the lie. He dismisses officials who affirmed recounts showing that he lost as mere RINOs (Republicans in name only).
The realities of electoral politics
Much of the difficulty that America faces in coming to grips with January 6 reflects the realities of electoral politics.
First, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress and at large in the states, have different political agendas and imperatives for gaining control of Congress and ensuring victory in future elections.
Second, there is the specter of Donald Trump and his overbearing presence as perceived and feared Kingmaker in the Republican party.
Third, Republican politicians are comfortable with propagating the lie that Trump did not actually lose the election because polls show that significant numbers of Republicans and Independents remain unwilling to accept Biden’s victory as legitimate. One poll recorded 46% of Republicans and 25% of Independents saying that Biden’s victory was definitely not legitimate and an additional 25% of Republicans and 6% of Independents saying that his victory was probably not legitimate.
In a nation which has tolerated legitimate recourse to the courts by candidates who wish to contest their election losses but expects a gracious concession from the loser once that process is over, these are staggering results. That the nation has come to tolerate the utter gracelessness of Trump’s behaviour is one of indicia that Democracy has suffered grievous blows at his hands.
What Americans on either side of the political divide have failed to grasp is that Trump is simply being Trump? Hark back to the first Republican Party presidential debate when Trump was the only candidate who refused to commit to supporting the party’s nominee if he himself failed. Trump’s refusal to accept that he must commit to displaying the grace that our system of Democracy expects and depends on, marked him as one willing to denigrate Democracy.
Nor did he stop there. He refused to commit to an acceptance of the election results should Hillary Clinton defeat him. That eventuality did not test Trump’s mettle, but one can only imagine the whining if he had not prevailed. The rest is history.
So, where does this leave us? Has American Democracy been threatened? Is it really in danger of collapsing? The short answer is no. But there are significant dangers for American Democracy and much of the confidence and trust in our institutions has been eroded.
The most significant danger and erosion are that countries like China and Russia have been emboldened to declare that their authoritarian and centrally manages systems of governance are more stable and reliable than the fractured Democracy of America. They have used such claims to justify their repression at home and their aggressions abroad.
Domestically, American Democracy has suffered a deep wound from within. The Republican-controlled legislatures of states have been emboldened to enact legislation that has the potential to repress the votes of minorities and possibly ensure Republican control for years to come. These developments are a clear result of Trump’s depravity but for a man who led with the slogan Make America Great Again, he has certainly left American less great and diminished than he found it.
The Republicans may have found plausible deniability about what happened on January 6, but both sides are in danger of being willfully blind to what actually happened.
* Published in print edition on 14 January 2022
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