The events that transpired on 6 January 2021, when rioters stormed the Capitol building, represent everything about Trump’s America. It is polarized, violent, autocratic and lawless. Despite his latest message, Trump has been consistent in his rejection of democratic institutions and norms, and his supporters are simply taking cues from his lead.
Trump made it clear numerous times throughout his candidacy and presidency that he would not accept election results if he lost. Months prior to the 2020 presidential contest he denigrated mail in voting and tried to undermine the US postal service. Before the election was over, he claimed victory in states that had not finished counting their votes. After losing more than 60 lawsuits, some of which have required the rejection of the Supreme Court, Trump has now committed to an orderly transition of power, but tells his supporters “our incredible journey is only just beginning”.
Like other personalistic leaders, Trump demands loyalty, seeks total authority and refuses to accept defeat or rejection. He has likely revelled in seeing these scenes of the faithful willing to risk arrest to stand up for him. Past officials have accused him of fomenting mob rule for his own benefit. While history will not be kind to Trump, he believes that these scenes of violence are proof that he is adored and worshipped.
This violence is not surprising given Trump’s entrance onto the political scene. He emerged as not only a political outsider but as someone who was willing to say the most divisive things to grab attention, such as referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals. Though some thought that these comments were simply ploys to get attention, he showed his true colours after the Charlottesville disaster in 2017, when white Supremacists marched and shouted things like “Jews will not replace us”. Trump refused to condemn these groups, and instead claimed that there were ”some very fine people on both sides”. This was a defining moment in his administration – with these words, violent extreme right groups felt completely legitimized. Groups that were considered part of a fringe movement were now at the forefront of American politics. Democratic values of believing in tolerance, equality, respect and peace had been openly repudiated by Trump.
Trump has not only damaged democracy but has also done great damage to the Republican party. Republicans badly needed a leader to campaign for the Georgia Senatorial candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, but Trump made campaign speeches that offered little support for their strengths, instead choosing to ramble on about his own personal grievances. The greater damage was that he shattered the confidence of the Republican voter in the validity of the electoral processes, with Republican voter turnout lower than the Democratic turnout. With the Georgia election so incredibly close, this depressed turnout by disillusioned voters who have lost their belief that elections were fair helped Democratic challengers win the election. Republican citizens decided to opt out of voting, even though the entire Senate hung in the balance.
With the news that Democrats now control the presidency, the Senate and the House, we will likely see more violence, chaos and disorder. Trump and other Republicans need to more forcefully condemn the violence and explain to Trump’s supporters that he lost the election fairly. The most important feature of a democracy are elections, and accepting their results. New democracies around the world require two turnovers of power in order to meet the criteria of a more established democracy. The key to this process is that the public accepts that elections may not always go their way, but that democracy is the only game in town. The scenes from the January 6 show that Trump and his supporters clearly do not understand what a democracy is, and that it is a patriotic duty to accept the results.
As the insurrection scenes demonstrated, Trump is incredibly dangerous to US stability even as a lame duck. Some are calling to invoke the 25th amendment and remove him from office. It’s a shameful and sad day in US history that reflects Trump’s total disdain for American democracy, and for the American people.
Natasha Lindstaedt is Deputy Dean and a Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. She has written widely on authoritarian regimes, democracy, corruption and failed states.
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