If it happened in a film, we’d dismiss it as unbelievable. Last night, an angry mob, many illegally armed, descended from the White House to the US Capitol, home of the Congress. Their goal – to prevent the certification of the Presidential election that took place in November. Their strategy – enter the Capitol and physically prevent lawmakers from voting. In other words, a coup.
While Donald Trump wasn’t with them in person, he was in spirit. He had just issued them a rabble-rousing speech, telling them: “We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” The rioters were successful in overwhelming the Capitol police, entering the building and forcing Congress to adjourn. Tear gas was deployed to disperse the crowd over a number of hours. One woman was shot, and three others died due to ‘medical emergencies’.
A ‘lame duck’ president encouraged his supporters to subvert democracy, resulting in four deaths. What does that mean and what should the American public do about it?
The mark of a strong democracy is not that it never experiences attempted subversion, but that it’s able to withstand it
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the alarming scenes, America didn’t really come up against the precipice of dictatorship. Although only 115 officers were on duty last night, there are over 5000 in total. This wasn’t a serious attempt at overthrowing the most powerful government on Earth, it was a dangerous act of attention-seeking. On the other hand, supporters of democracy shouldn’t really be surprised by this. The mark of a strong democracy is not that it never experiences attempted subversion, but that it’s able to withstand it. From the Whiskey Rebellion during the presidency of George Washington, through to the Civil War, to the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, armed revolts against the US are actually fairly frequent. In a 2018 poll, 32% of those aged 18-29 said that ‘non-democracies can be preferable’. A substantial portion of the American public are not opposed to the end of the American Republic. Last night was not a freak occurrence.
So, what should Americans do next to safeguard the Republic? There are four things that lawmakers and the public should focus on.
Firstly, the relevant authorities should press charges against rioters who broke the law. Many caused criminal damage to federal property, some even took selfies of themselves breaking the law. Not only is this damaging in its own right, if these people are able to get away with their crimes, it will embolden others. Anyone who broke the law must be tracked down and prosecuted.
The American public must see that those who reject democracy will also be rejected by it
Secondly, future constitutional events must not be disrupted. Police and secret service presence at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration should be stepped up, as well as any other opportunity for disruption. It’s absolutely vital that everyone can see that the peaceful transfer of power is not something that can prevented by any faction, no matter how vocal or well-armed. If this mob of enraged Trump-supporters can get into the heart of American government this easily, no doubt serious terrorists could as well.
Thirdly, attempts must be made to hold Donald Trump accountable. His behaviour since losing the election has been reckless. He’s all but explicitly incited this sort of violence. Congressional Democrats have already indicated that they wish to draft articles of impeachment, and this is the correct decision. The American public must see that those who reject democracy will also be rejected by it. Furthermore, Trump-supporting Republicans, many of whom have now had their hitherto unshakeable allegiance to him dispelled, must now be forced to pick a side. There’s no way to straddle the widening gap between Trump and the constitution any longer.
The largest threat to American democracy is not the words of Donald Trump nor the actions of his supporters, but the indifference of the majority
Yesterday marked by far the most serious threat of Trump’s presidency. The voters have rejected him entirely, handing Democrats complete control of the government. Yet he has continued to spread lies about election fraud. We are nearing the point at which his rhetoric is so aggressive that even he will be unable to stop his own supporters. The threat of much more substantial conflict and loss of life looms and no lawmaker from either party should sanction it. Republicans up and down America have to ask themselves what’s more important: the Republic or Donald Trump.
Since George Washington willingly stepped aside after his second term, the peaceful transfer of power has been a given in American politics. While American democracy survived last night’s assault, it was far more shaken than it should have been. Lawmakers must now show that they side with the voters against Trump and the voters must also demand that they do. After all, the largest threat to American democracy is not the words of Donald Trump nor the actions of his supporters, but the indifference of the majority. America must act strongly against this chaotic coup-attempt as a warning to anyone more competent who might try the same.