by Owen Saunders
If there was anyone left following 2020 that still held to T.S. Eliot’s words that the ‘world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper,’ then the events at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January will have cured them of this misconception. In the course of an unprecedented mayhem, the seat of U.S. representative democracy was assaulted by a violent insurrection of Trump supporters intent on preventing the certification of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election in a bizarre attempt to keep Donald Trump in power. The event will undoubtedly consume the opinion pages in the days to come. It is therefore crucial to provide a clear account of the events as they happened and situate them within their context of the wider U.S. democracy.
The morning of 6 January 2021 began with all eyes focused on the run-off elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats. As no candidate had succeeded in reaching 50% of the vote in the general election of 3 November 2020, these plebiscites offered Democrats the opportunity to carry on the momentum of a victorious Presidential campaign and secure a Senate majority. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will be Georgia’s first Democratic Senators in seventeen years, having won by razor-thin margins.
On 6 January, Vice President Mike Pence and members of both Houses of the U.S. Congress began the process of formally certifying electoral college votes. Pence did so in spite of immense pressure from President Trump to reject the outcome of the election, with the President explicitly encouraging him to invalidate the results in the Senate. During the count, soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell and the current Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave similar speeches defending democracy. However, Schumer warned how some on the Republican side might ‘darken this view of democracy.’ Republicans more recently, according to The Washington Post, are displaying dangerous authoritarian tendencies, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas who argued his colleagues should not ‘take the easy path‘ and should reject the election’s outcome.
Historically, the United States has transferred power peacefully, even when the opposing party won the election. This is why in a normal election year these counts rarely attract any attention; indeed, in the course of this year, with the rejectionist rhetoric of Trump, there was little widespread significance attached to these proceedings. This changed following the 3 November election as President Trump made increasingly strident calls for Congress to refuse to certify the Electoral College votes after losing over sixty legal cases attempting to overturn the election results
Just as Congress had begun debating a motion to reject the Electoral College votes from the State of Arizona, President Trump concluded a rally on the National Mall by urging his supporters to pressure Congress to reject the Electoral College results, overtly encouraging insurrection. Thousands flocked from the rally towards the Capitol and, upon arriving, were met with a relatively small force of United States Capitol Police – a significantly smaller force in comparison to the National Guard troops deployed in advance of a June 2020 Black Lives Matter protest at the Lincoln Memorial. The assembled Trump supporters eventually overran the security protections and took possession of the United States Capitol for several hours. As a result, the formal process certifying the vote came to an immediate halt.
Though eventually forced out of the building, thousands of protesters remained outside the Capitol, with the precinct formally under lockdown. The decision to deploy the District of Colombia National Guard, was made by Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy and Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller, and the order was approved by Vice President Mike Pence following multiple requests from the Mayor of Washington and Congressional leaders. Interestingly, Trump as the Commander-in-Chief would have been expected to give this order, however, according to press accounts he failed to do so.
Later that evening, after the 6:00 PM curfew imposed by the DC Mayor that evening, Congress reconvened and voting resumed to certify the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Other major takeaways from this disruptive day, which ended in the deaths of five people, included the significant delays by the President and Department of Defense to authorize the activation of the DC National Guard, the failure by the United States Capitol Police to adequately plan for an obvious threat, and the stark dissimilarities in the way law enforcement handled this event versus the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer after the death of George Floyd.
How did the United States get here?
The United States has always portrayed itself as a global leader and champion of democratic values, especially after World War II and again after the fall of the Soviet Union, where US power and influence became unparalleled. Over the last decade, however, with global power dynamics in shift, rapid advancements in technology, and the 2008 financial crisis, this position began to witness a dramatic transformation. The ‘Tea Party’ movement, a far-right branch of the Republican party, began to manifest during the Obama administration, notably in 2009 as a backlash to the Affordable Care Act, also known as ‘Obamacare’. The 2010 U.S. elections saw 87 Republicans elected to Congress in what was known as the ‘tea party wave’. They were known for anti-regulation and obstructionist domestic policies, an isolationist foreign policy, and a distinct lack of reverence for many democratic institutions and the role of the state in society.
As Donald Trump came onto the political scene as a serious candidate for President in 2015, he took advantage of what remained of the tea party movement, appropriating their populist rhetoric as his own. Throughout his 2016 campaign, he fed his growing base a populist message that appealed to the far-right elements of the Republican party. Trump’s populist approach, direct criticism of his opponents and President Obama, and self-styled image as a ‘fighter’ proved impossible to beat by his primary opponents or in the general election, Hillary Clinton. His victory represented an accumulation of a number of a number of grievances by Middle America, grievances which he continued to perpetuate and exacerbate throughout his presidency.
President Trump throughout his presidency pushed a narrative that the democratic election processes and institutions could not be trusted, that elections are ‘rigged,’ and that the ‘fake news media’ never reported the facts of his administration accurately. He used his impeachment in early 2020 to reinforce his narrative about the ‘fake news media’ and the alledged persecution of his administration. He set the stage for the post-election turmoil by stating in August 2020 that ‘the only way we’re gonna lose this election is if the election is rigged’.
His supporters have adopted his recent, far more deranged, and unhinged views which were disseminated through his constant stream of disinformation via his now-suspended Twitter account. This included spreading far right media misinformation from QAnon, giving OANN, another far right media outlet, priority to speak during presidential press conferences, and asking for the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by‘ in the course of the campaign. These actions displayed a blatant disregard of the democratic process by the rejection of facts, the promotion of distrust of the media, and the removal of multiple members within his administration who stood up to his disinformation.
After this incident of domestic terrorism where thousands of Trump supporters, some of whom were armed, stormed the Capitol, Congress was forced to adjourn; the national guard was deployed and five people died. The media, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others have argued that the 25th amendment should be invoked to have the president removed from office immediately, as his inflammatory rhetoric and disregard for U.S. democracy have made him incapable of fulfilling the duties of his office. The unprecedented incident that unfolded this week is a true test of the more than 200-year-old democracy.
Where does the United States go from here?
The Electoral College vote has been certified but the riots and takeover of the United States Capitol by supporters of the outgoing president will undoubtedly remain as a painful reminder of and stain on his Presidency. The violent incident at the Capitol is but one of the tainted legacies of his administration.
Taking office on 20 January 2021 President-Elect Joe Biden has much to do – and much to undo. His priorities will surely include undoing many Executive Orders from the Trump Administration and working to pass comprehensive legislation for millions of Americans currently experiencing unprecedented losses, restrictions, and economic hardship due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Most importantly, however, the Biden Administration must also work to repair the distrust, hyper-partisanship and extremism which have steadily spread and intensified throughout the United States over the past four years.
Biden will have to rebuild the reputation of the United States on the international stage, further damaged by the events of this week. Countries and international organizations around the world have reacted in disbelief and disappointment, releasing statements of shock and condemnation regarding the incident. Specifically, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau released a statement saying Canadians were ‘deeply disturbed by the violence that unfolded’, violence he stated that was incited by the president. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom emphasised that it is ‘vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power’.
The United States, the supposed beacon of democracy, the ‘shining city on a hill’ and self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of the free world, largely failed at upholding their promise and self-avowed values.
Trump’s legacy will be one of immeasurable division, an explicit rejection of democratic values and practices, and the denial of rudimentary facts. Unfortunately, these systemic issues will not simply vanish after his term expires on January 20th. Over the next four years, therefore, Biden must work closely with his cabinet, the Congress, Governors, and citizens across the country to undo the unprecedented division, mistrust, and right wing radicalization that Trump has sown and restore unity and trust in democratic institutions and traditions.
The challenge before President-Elect Biden is daunting. He inherits a highly divided country where one side believes he was democratically elected and the other side believes that he is the beneficiary of a stolen election. Finding a way to bridge that divide and heal the wounds created over the past four years will dictate the trajectory and prosperity of the United States and its place in the world for years to come.
Owen is an MA student in International Peace and Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has taken advanced courses on U.S. Foreign Policy with Professors David Haglund and Joel Sokolsky during his time in Political Studies at Queen’s.