A mob descended on Capitol Hill last night acting on lies and disinformation, but there was no foreign actor to blame. This hostility was homegrown and came from the highest echelon of government. The President of the United States has been stoking fear, division and doubt since his defeat in November’s election, and yesterday it bubbled over into an attack on the very heart of American democracy.
Trump had been speaking at a 'Save America' rally where he invited crowds to march on the Capitol. 'You’ll never take back our country with weakness,' he told them, 'you have to show strength'. Trump's supporters showed their 'strength' by disrupting a debate over the certification of the presidential election result — usually a symbolic vote conducted by representatives before inauguration day. But it has become contentious this year as so many Republican senators decided to indulge the President’s fantasies of a 'stolen' election and contest certain state results. As Mitch McConnell pointed out, it was extraordinary enough to hold a debate on whether, for the first time in American history, Congress should overrule voters and overturn the election result.
Law enforcement, who were scandalously underprepared, were overwhelmed as the mob made its way further into the building, growing increasingly aggressive and violent. By the time they reached the Senate floor, shots were being fired as protestors attempted to barricade themselves in. It is nothing short of a miracle that no elected official was harmed, thankfully senators and Vice President Mike Pence were evacuated before bullets were fired. Still, the violence has led to irreversible damage: rioter and Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot, three others died and there are reports of multiple police officers injured in the scuffles.
Dictators and despots will be delighted at the scenes in the Capitol: they undermine any American effort to comment on world elections, something strongmen everywhere will be thankful for. It turns out you don’t need to launch disinformation campaigns from Russia to tamper with the results of the US election — the President can achieve this just fine on his own, as it turns out with far more menacing effect.
And where was the President as this violence played out? Early reports suggest reinforcements from the National Guard were denied at first and only approved by the White House after the governor of Virginia made his state troopers available for support. As the pro-Trump mob threatened elected representatives and the integrity of America’s democratic process, Trump published a pre-recorded video on social media (since deleted by Twitter and Facebook), once again promoting the lie that November’s election was stolen. He had no condemnation of their actions. His request that they return home was based on an understanding of why they took the actions in the first place. He said he loved them, that they were ‘special’ to him, and, in essence, that they were right.
But in two weeks, America will have a new leader residing in the Oval Office, one who does not share Trump’s sentiment that there is a place for violent protest in a free society. President-elect Joe Biden also addressed the nation last night, condemning the protestors in absolute terms and offering a message of unity. He chose not to make any partisan points and restricted himself to blaming those responsible: the President and the mob who turned violent. In Biden’s appeal, there was hope for America and all those who value its leadership of the free world. America is in desperate need of a new pathway. Biden will have his work cut out to carve one that leads to better days. But his inherent decency and his old fashioned bipartisanship offer reassurance in these troubled times.
Political tensions in the United States have been worsening for decades, accusations of law-breaking have become a frequent occurrence. But the growing division and doubt that we’ve witnessed over the past few months has taken political insanity to new heights, driven by a President who has refused to concede despite a clear election result, challenged and confirmed at every level of government.
Trump was not leading this undemocratic charge for the good of the nation or his supporters, but to stroke his own hubris and soothe embarrassment that he is not the winner he has long deemed himself to be. He will not be forced to clean up the terrible mess he leaves behind. That will be the job of the Republican and Democrat representatives whose lives were put in danger by his actions.