People in the United States remain in shock the day after the storming of the United States Capitol by a mob assembled and stoked into rage by the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
The attack on the Capitol, and the deaths of 4 people, are the first time since the war in 1812 with England that the edifice was breached. The mob vandalised the Capitol building and statues, left behind bullet holes, and ransacked offices—including the office of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
There is widespread agreement amongst a diverse set of political officials that President Trump was responsible for the violence, including by former members of President Trump’s cabinet. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned from the Trump Administration at the end of 2018, described the events on 6 January as a “violent assault on our Capitol, an effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule,” which “was fomented by Mr. Trump.” The former Attorney General William Barr, a legal arch-conservative who served as Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush and resigned from the Trump Administration on December 15, 2020, stated that President Trump was “orchestrating” the violence in a manner that was a “betrayal of his office and supporters.”
Ever since losing the election to Joe Biden, President Trump has spread false claims that the election was tainted by fraud or that it was stolen from him through various distribution outlets, including social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Twitter banned the President from tweeting for a 12 hour period, while Facebook enacted an indefinite ban on his account at least through the inauguration of Joseph Biden as President on 20 January and “until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
Political observers speculated that Trump has engaged in these claims to avoid civil or criminal prosecution for financial crimes upon leaving office, to raise as much money as possible from gullible supporters, or to set the stage for a media empire that would continue his brand of political victimisation post-Presidency. Irrespective of his motivation or combination of motivations, the violence at the Capitol was the logical culmination of months of a concerted, intentional effort by the President to enrage his supporters and direct them against his political enemies, including institutions such as Congress.
AN ONLINE SEPARATIST MOVEMENT COULD BRING FURTHER VIOLENCE
While it is a tough truth to bear, there is a growing recognition that President Trump is not really going anywhere after January 20. It seems likely that Trump will continue to exploit his brand by perpetuating the lie that the election was stolen from him in order to sustain a “Virtual Resistance” or “Virtual Confederacy”—an online movement, directed by the former President, to use violence or the threats of violence to influence politics and support the former President financially. The fact that the movement is supported by other Republican members of Congress, including Senators from powerful U.S. states, gives the movement, and the political violence it espouses, a legitimacy not seen since before the Civil War.
Because President Trump will no longer be constrained by government bureaucracy after 20 January, it is also possible that the movement metastasizes into something far more unhinged and dangerous. To date, President Trump has seemed quite comfortable with the more fringe elements of his political base, including adherents of the Q conspiracy and Alex Jones followers. This coalition is not likely to dissipate, with each side needing the other in a perverse symbiosis that helps each side survive.
With cynical politicians vying for the support of Trump’s followers, the United States could be entering an extremely unstable political era that could see a cascade of domestic terrorism or further violent acts against politicians and political institutions. The government’s inability to contain or control such acts would result in widespread infringements on civil and political human rights, including the right to life, and could threaten democracy itself.
THE DIFFERENCES IN POLICE TREATMENT SHOWCASE INSTITUTIONAL WHITE SUPREMACY
One of the most noted observations from the mob assault on the Capitol was the complete lack of police presence and the demure and almost accommodating way the rioters were treated by the police on hand. To any casual observer, this marks yet another grim data point in showcasing the institutional white supremacy of the police and security forces in the United States. Even those with short memories can surely call to mind the pictures of a quasi-military, robust, police presence deployed in all major U.S. cities this past summer in response to the Movement for Black Lives—a movement built, in part, on the extrajudicial killings of Black and poor people by security forces in the United States.
Discrimination is a grave crime under international law and when it amounts to persecution of an identifable group in a widespread or systematic way, it can also constitute a crime against humanity. The United States has never dealt with its legacy of government-sanctioned genocide against indigenous groups and government-sanctioned slavery against African peoples. After the United States Civil War in 1865, the government’s policies of “Reconstruction” in the defeated South were largely a failure, and Black people were left without rights and trapped in a system of apartheid until only the 1960s, when full voting rights were finally guaranteed. The concept of a pluralist democracy in the United States is thus remarkably young, and remains unfinished. The hubris of United States elites–particularly government and academic elites—in claiming an “exceptional” experience in the United States with respect to fealty to democratic principles is little more than domestic, feel-good propaganda. The immense wealth of the United States does not insulate it from the consequences of its own history. In many respects, the United States has far more in common with the failed states that it creates through its foreign policy than the post-war democracies of Europe (for example) which have forged a different path on the issue of domestic human rights protections. The only real question is whether elites in the United States will come to grips with the real situation in the country and enact proportional measures designed to prevent a complete collapse of the political system, or whether they will continue to cling to the delusion that the country is incapable of disintegration because it is protected by God and chosen by Destiny.
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL RIGHTS REMAIN DISREGARDED IN THE UNITED STATES
Trump supporters represent a broad coalition of white supremacists, disenfranchised economic populations in rural states, cult followers, parts of the extreme upper class who care only about low taxes, and cynical members of the Republican Party who look to exploit any type of social fissure for personal political gain. While the upper and political classes do not need Trump and may abandon him for now, Trump’s populist appeal amongst the first three components of his coalition is a toxic consequence of the festering wounds of untreated racism combined with the refusal of the United States to honor economic and social rights of its population. Lack of opportunities for dignified work, a non-existent social security system, prohibitively expensive education, and a predatory health care system that is the leading cause of bankruptcy for U.S. citizens, has produced a Hobbesian society that is defined in large part by its cruelty. The United States has never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, calling any attempts to provide social welfare “socialism” that would be an anathema to the United States way of life. So long as these social conditions persist, demagogues like Trump will continue to find fertile soil for a populist, violent message of victimisation.
THE RULE OF LAW AND DEMOCRACY UNDER GRAVE THREAT IN THE UNITED STATES
It is no longer hyperbole to conclude that the rule of law in the United States is now under grave threat. The conditions that produced Trump—not to mention Trump himself—will not vanish once he leaves office, and the hope that those conditions will simply disappear is irrational and even delusional.
To avoid collapse of its political system and unrestrained political violence, the United States government should immediately implement the following policies. There is far more work to do beyond this, but these five basic points could help stabilise the situation in the short term and lay the groundwork for deeper reform:
1) Acknowledge the numerous social and economic problems that produced Trump in the first place. Pretending that Trump was an aberration, or attempting to “go back in time” to the way things used to be before Trump is a dangerous, ill-advised strategy that will set the stage for politicians far more dangerous than Trump.
2) Prepare an agenda to provide economic and social opportunities to its population and control the disparities in income and wealth that have produced levels of inequality not seen since the Great Depression. This agenda should include debt relief for students, free access to university, and universal health care.
3) Implement a nation-wide dialogue on racial crimes committed and sanctioned by the United States government and police and security forces, and explore the extent to which economic reparations or other policies should be implemented to provide for justice for these crimes.
4) Commence funding of social services in the United States to help its citizens find dignified work and keep physically and mentally healthy. Rehabilitate prisoners into society and develop and implement new strategies for prisoners who require greater long term support. Abolish the death penalty. Consider a government job guarantee set at the minimum wage so that citizens have an alternative way to earn a living other than underfunded employment from predatory companies.
5) Require media companies that have a license to the public airwaves to implement a new version of the “Fairness Doctrine,” which will require them to showcase different sides of a political issue. Consider ways to regulate social media companies that will help them engender dialogue instead of hatred and conspiracy.
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