Sheldon Kirshner
Sheldon Kirshner

Crisis of Democracy in America

A year ago today, a mob stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, violating the seat of American democracy in a brazen, unprecedented attempt to nullify the results of the 2020 US presidential election.

Then-president Donald Trump, having falsely claimed that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, had stolen the election from him, exhorted his followers to “fight like hell,” contest the result, and march on Congress.

Still more seriously, he urged then-vice president Mike Pence to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory. Much to his credit, Pence ignored Trump’s command, but two-thirds of Republicans in the House of Representatives, and several Republican senators, voted against certifying Biden

Twelve months on, Trump — the third president to be impeached — continues to promote his half-baked conspiracy theory that the election was fraudulent, while his supporters in the Republican Party endorse his outlandish claim that the election was rigged and that Biden’s presidency is illegitimate.

Responding to these calumnies, Biden delivered a blistering speech on the anniversary of the attack, accusing Trump of waging an “undemocratic” and “un-American” attack on the legitimacy of the election system and of placing “a dagger at the throat” of American democracy. “For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol.”

Jimmy Carter, one of Biden’s predecessors, lambasted Trump in a hard-hitting op-ed piece in The New York Times yesterday. “Promoters of the lie that the election was stolen have taken over one political party and stoked distrust in our electoral system,” he wrote. “These forces exert power and influence through relentless disinformation, which continues to turn Americans against Americans.”

As Americans remember this day of infamy, which caused the deaths of four rioters and a policeman, American democracy is under siege and in a state of crisis.

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago scholar who has studied political violence, believes the United States may be entering a dangerous period of instability that could threaten its democratic institutions.

Trump vehemently denies he precipitated the rioting of January 6, but in the immediate aftermath of what has come to be known as an insurrection, two leading Republicans implicated him.

Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, declared that “the president bears responsibility” for it. However, shortly after tarring Trump with this devastating accusation, he recanted during a visit to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Mitch McConnell, the then-majority leader in the Senate, said, “There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” He added that the rioters tried but failed to “disrupt our democracy.”

Despite his culpability, Trump continues to wield tremendous influence in the Republican Party and may well be its presidential nominee in the 20242 election. Principled dissenters like Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney have been sidelined and face banishment from the party.

Politically, the United States is a house divided today, with Republican and Democrats incapable of reaching a consensus on what actually happened on that dark day. Separate versions of reality are the norm.

As one observer noted, “The lack of bipartisan resolve to assign responsibility for the siege or acknowledge the threat it posed has eroded trust among lawmakers, turned ordinary legislative disputes into potential crises, and left the door open for more violence after the next disputed election.”

While 93 percent of Democrats consider the invasion of Capitol Hill as an assault on the government, only 29 percent of Republicans agree with that claim, a Quinnipiac survey found.

Polls suggest that the majority of Republicans think the rioters were defending democracy when they broke into Congress and proceeded to cause millions of dollars worth of damage to the building. Still more disquieting, 40 percent of Republicans contend that the violence was justifiable.

According to another poll, 72 percent of Republicans believe that Trump bears “just some” responsibility or “none at all” for what transpired.

Such is the unsettling political climate today that one-third of Republicans say they would only trust the outcome of the 2024 presidential election if their candidate wins.

Democrats, meanwhile, fear that the passage of dozens of laws in 19 Republican states to restrict voting will have a chilling effect on the democratic process.

Trump’s staunchest supporters have presented a radically different narrative of January 6.

Fox TV host Tucker Carlson has portrayed the attack as a “false flag” operation orchestrated by the FBI.

Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia — a state Biden won by a narrow margin — has likened the insurrection to “a normal tourist visit.” Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a state which Trump carried, untruthfully claims the rioters were leftist militants masquerading as Trump supporters.

Seven hundred and twenty six people have been charged in connection with the rioting, but as many as 2,500 could face criminal charges.

Trump himself has not been officially charged with any crimes. But Attorney-General Merrick Garland has vowed that the Justice Department will pursue wrongdoing “at any level.”

As he put it on January 5, “The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.”

According to a study prepared by Robert Pape, more than half of the rioters were business owners, chief executive officers of companies, or white-collar workers.

Thirteen percent were members of extremist and militia groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.

Pape’s data shows that Americans from counties where the white population is in decline were six times likelier to have participated in the ill-fated march on Capitol Hill. Their concerns feed into white supremacist rhetoric that whites will be “replaced” by non-whites in a historical transformation.

The legacy of January 6, a blot on American-style democracy, haunts the United States as it ponders its uncertain future.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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