The tremors of a major earthquake can be felt many miles away from the epicentre, when the actual core event is limited to a small area. The political and physical storm that hit Washington on January 6th was seen by millions of viewers on TV and has reverberated around the world with a massive response expressing a mixture of incredulity, dismay, and concern. Political leaders across the world were quick in severe condemnation and the enemies of America, whom Trump has claimed to have bested, must be rubbing their hands with satisfaction at a free political feast.
It was a catastrophic miscalculation by Donald Trump, because by inciting his followers to march on Capitol Hill, not condemning their breaches of the paltry security and inciting to entering the central chamber, he allowed the sacred bastion of American democracy to be breached by rioters. Not since the infamous invasion by the British in 1814 have the walls of the Congress building been infiltrated by insurgents. Senators had to temporarily shelter under desks or behind seat before being evacuated to a basement holding room.
As described in a previous blog “Trump card -winner or loser”, the US electoral process shas long transition period and involves several steps that originated in the history of the individual states joining in a federal democracy and also in the time it took for people to assemble for meetings, when travelling long distances. This process has been challenged by Trump and his supporters (including many Republican politicians and aides in the White House), from November right up to January 6th. A large number of lawsuits (60 or so) in different states were all rejected as being without substance and ridiculed by judges as being frivolous or without merit. The College of Electors consisting of 538 chosen electors in the 50 states) met in the individual state capitol buildings on December 14th to cast their votes, with each elector having one vote. Despite the threatened disruption, this part of the process occurred peacefully with a 306-232 majority for Biden. The results were transmitted to Washington for ratification at a special joint meeting of Congress on January 6th.
Right through this process Trump refused to concede the election, tirelessly repeating his assertion of widespread electoral fraud. There has been a persistent and obsessive post-election campaign to invalidate the election results with some jaw-dropping manoeuvres. These included the hour-long leaked telephone call to Raffensberger in Georgia, pressurising him to overturn the election results, the ‘behind the scenes’ pressure on Pence and the public exhortation at the Save America Rally on 6th January not to certify the election results at the special meeting of Congress. He told the crowd “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election!”. “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country.”
In this attempt, he has received consistent and high-level support from many Republican politicians. They have been remarkably loyal, whether from fear of Trump, loyalty to the Republican party or belief in the Trump rhetoric. For some it is concern for the 2022 elections, when they may need the votes of Trump supporters. It has been interesting to see the timeline of politicians withdrawing support, like an orange being unpeeled slowly. Former President G.W. Bush was the first to acknowledge Biden’s victory on November 8th, closely followed by Mitt Romney. It was not until December 15th (6 weeks post-election) that Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, formally acknowledged the Democrat’s victory, while right up to January 3rd Mike Pence was steadfastly loyal to the President when he welcomed publicly the effort some senators to refuse to certify the election result for Biden. However, he stood up to Trump before the joint Congress meeting and affirmed that the role of the Vice-President in ratification of the electoral college vote was purely ceremonial. Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz led a campaign to challenge the results in Congress, a process requiring at least one Senator and one House of Representative to sign an objection, thereby forcing a 2-hour debate on each objection in separate sessions of the two bodies. In the vent despite events outside Cruz objected to the Arizona vote and Hawley to the Pennsylvania vote. While both objections were defeated 121 and 138 Republicans voted to support the objections for Arizona and Pennsylvania respectively. This even after the storming of the Capitol some Republicans were still trying to halt the inevitable.
The gross misjudgement by Trump has caused the decisive downturn in his political fortunes. The shock waves caused by the footage of rioters breaking into the Capitol building, trashing offices and desecrating the centre of American politics was a step too far. Politicians initially hiding under desks and then escorted to safe areas had time to reflect on the consequences of their support for Trump and the reaction of the world outside was soon apparent.
While Trump’s son, Eric, declared that “this isn’t their Republican party anymore, this is Donald Trump’s Republican party” possibly hinting at a rerun in 2024, the likelihood of this occurring has receded considerably. A by product of Trump’s inability to accept electoral defeat is that he has strengthened the Democrats hand immeasurably and split the Republican party. The loss of the 2 Senate seats in Georgia, leading to a 50:50 hung Senate can be directly attributed to Trump’s rhetoric.
Politicians supportive of the US electoral process have argued that the failure of Trump to challenge Biden’s victory shows that American democracy is strong. However, this view ignores two important facts. The first is the extent to which Trump’s rhetoric and the political environment has created a divided America; commentators have described a society of two tribes. It is thought the bitterness of this divide will take a long time to heal. The second is the huge damage done to the concept of democracy both within America and throughout the world. The obvious consequence is that America cannot accuse other regimes in the world of being undemocratic, when disturbing political events occur. The more important and underlying concern is that this earthquake has shaken the foundations of democracy and weakened belief in the system. Belief in democracy and trust in politicians is vital for the system to operate, whether it be holding fair elections, accepting laws or following emergency directives, as we are being asked to do for the COVID-19 pandemic. It is arguable that the Brexit process which resulted in the UK leaving Europe, had its origins in the lack of belief in the honesty and integrity of politicians and lack of faith in the UK political system. Ironically Trumps hope of “making America great again” has been put back considerably by his own actions.
So why write an article on a subject covered extensively in the mainstream media with TV reporters and newscasters providing lengthy discussions and analysis from a series of political analysts, former politicians and military experts. The answer is simple. We all remember where we were, what we were doing and how we reacted when we received news of world-shattering political events. Since 1945 there have been three such events occurring in the United States of America: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, the 9/11 plane attacks on Manhattan, New York in September 2001 and the storming of the Capitol building on 6th January 2021
In 1963 I was 16 and doing evening homework at school – normally a quiet period- when a friend burst in to tell me he had heard the news of the assassination of President Kennedy on the radio and in a few minutes the corridor was crowded with people, all contributing to a noisy discussion. the We were stunned by the news and disbelieving at first. How could such a thing happen? Why was such a charismatic person assassinated in broad daylight with the TV cameras rolling? Fifty years later with 5 million documents released (though over 1000 are still withheld) and many conspiracy theories formulated, the public still does not know the full truth. In 2001 we heard of the impending attack on New York by Al-Qaeda terrorists who had hijacked four airliners. Two were directed at the World Trade Center in Manhattan and one at the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. By the time my wife switched on the TV the north Tower was ablaze and the second plane was approaching the south tower. Within minutes CNN had a live feed. The second plane hit the south tower at 9.03 a.m., an event seen by millions of viewers
All three events have been costly and have involved a threat to democracy, not just to the US but to the world. They also share common features: a world-wide television audience watching the drama unfold before their eyes, a period of disbelief that this could be happening and then a series of strong reactions unfolding rapidly but with knock on effects for many years. In all three cases there have been strong allegations of a failure of security allowing terrorists, either internal or external, to breach protective barriers and inflict major damage. Fifty years after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination Roberts wrote in a review “the conclusion that JFK was murdered by a plot involving the Secret Service, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been well established by years of research”. Although in 2001 the FBI quickly identified the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks, through documents found in the luggage of the leader Mohammed Atta at Boston airport, a number of security reviews and the 9/11 commission report highlighted how security and intelligence agencies were inadequately coordinated to prevent the attacks. The President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council was set up as well as anti-terrorist legislation across the world. The events of 6th January 2021 showed a palpable lack of adequate security with insufficient Capitol police and a failure to authorise deployment of the National Guard quickly enough.
In the aftermath of the 6th January there are a lot of issues being addressed and measures taken (identification of the rioters and the weapons they brought, possible actions against Senators Hawley and Cruz, concerns over any last-minute rash actions by Trump, impeachment procedures against Trump, attempts to oust Trump via invocation of the 25th Amendment, safety at the Inauguration Ceremony, etc.). However, the long-term central dilemma to solve is the vulnerability of democracy and the potential instability inherent in the long transition period between the election in November and the Inauguration in January. Over the next 4 years it is important that this is addressed and not shelved on the basis that “we came through”. There will need to be a balance between the historical customs and improving the system to be more robust, against a maverick outgoing President and US dissidents seeking to manipulate either the voting process or the post-election confirmation procedures. At the same time vulnerability against foreign interference in the US needs to be minimised. In the past there have been too many instances where the focus of the US on internal affairs has allowed the outgoing administration to lose its focus on what is happening abroad.
The suspension of Trumps Facebook and Twitter accounts has removed the oxygen of publicity, which Trump has used consistently to fan the flames of controversy and to maintain his influence (though many ultra -right wing websites still convey dangerous and false information).
Keep the mahogany ballot boxes but consider changing the electoral college system and ensuring the President-elect has unfettered rights of access to ensure a smooth transition. Despite the good intentions of the Senate resolution in September 2020 (ROM20874) to guarantee a smooth transition, it certainly did not happen that way this year. America’s right to be called the bastion of democracy has been severely damaged by the assault on the Capitol and will reduce US influence on regimes the West considers undemocratic.
Written 10-13th January 2021