The Coup We Should Have Seen Coming
The scenes we saw play out on Capitol Hill last week shocked the world. Supporters of the incumbent President Trump stormed the seat of American democracy with a view of overturning the results of the November election by force. Congresspeople, who had gathered to certify the outcome of the hotly contested presidential race, were forced to flee the scene under the threat of violence. Horrifying images of lawmakers cowering behind chamber seats while the siege took place brought into sharp focus the sheer magnitude of the event. It is safe to say that the 6th January 2021 will go down in history as one of the darkest days in modern US history.
The ideological cleavages that have opened up in US society over the past 4 years have long been a cause for concern, and this is not the first time where warring factions have turned to criminal action and violence. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by Police Officer Derek Chauvin, clashes between protestors and law enforcement were not uncommon, though most protests did take place peacefully. Anti-BLM protesters were also present at some events, during which violence also broke out on occasion.
The effect of the Trump administration’s governance on American unity has been decidedly negative. Though it cannot be expected that all groups within a society will forever work in solidarity with all others, a basic level of cooperation and tolerant cohabitation is necessary for the continued functioning of a liberal democracy. The democracy of the US, it could well be argued, is very much struggling to function at the moment, and it’s easy to see why.
Populism, at least Trumpian populism, lends itself to the fracturing of society. By pandering to the views of distinct groups and intentionally creating an atmosphere of superiority amongst supporters, populists can effectively build cults of personality around themselves which shield them from much of the inevitable fallout of their actions. Fanaticism is nothing if not loyal, and that is precisely what President Trump has instilled in his most ardent supporters.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has supported and legitimised fringe groups and organisations, such as QAnon and The Proud Boys, thereby gaining their support. These are collections of individuals who prescribe to ideas that have been disregarded by mainstream society, most often for being indefensibly conspiratorial or deeply prejudiced towards one or more groups in society. It is precisely this fact that has made these groups so vital to the Trump administration. By recognising their existence and giving them a public forum, Trump showed support to people who are used to being ignored and side-lined by society, which in turn gave these groups a new leader to follow and a new cause to fanaticise about.
The end of Trump’s term and his election defeat does not only spell the end for his direct leadership of the USA, but it is also likely to bring about the end of this conspiratorial golden age wherein fringe groups like those mentioned above were offered a voice by the highest office in the land. It is, therefore, unsurprising that these organisations seem unwilling to return to the shadows of society, having spent 4 years with the sun on their faces and the support of their President at their backs.
Regardless of how horrifying the beliefs and causes of some of these groups are, the backlash against the Biden victory should not be surprising. Divides in society breed hatred and violence, this has been known for hundreds of years. There is a reason why confederate flags were carried into the Capitol by rioters last week — the echoes of the civil war, the most violent possible manifestation of ideological rifts, still ring loud and clear in the minds and hearts of some people.
There will always be people who want to bring down the system. Conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies are negative, but natural, by-products of human society. Proponents of these ideas, however, tend to be at least somewhat tempered or controlled by society at large, which by no means solves the problem, but does help to combat it. Bigotry and extremism of all kinds remain huge problems across the world, make no mistake, but in liberal democracies such as the US and Europe, the general direction of society seemed to be slowly heading away from such ideas, confining their supports to the outskirts of society.
Trump, throughout his presidency, has made what appears to be a concerted effort to reverse this progress in the States, resulting in the events of January 6th. It has to be said, the gambit worked initially. Trump won the election with steadfast support from a number of ideologically charged groups who have continued to defend his every decision throughout his term. By tapping into the fractions of society who have felt ignored and sidelined for so long, Trump created a fan base so committed to him and his course that he was never without a cushion of supporters to fall back on in times of crisis.
Trump is responsible for the siege on Capitol Hill in a number of ways, not least his direct and very public suggestion that his supporters will need to ‘fight much harder’ and should ‘walk down to the Capitol’. In the speech that preceded the riots, Trump made a number of impassioned statements, utilising violent imagery and manipulative phrasing which any speechwriter could have told you would whip the already charged crowd into a frenzied state. When the highest authority in the country appears to be accusing the system and its lawmakers of corruption, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when his supporters take that as a carte blanch directive for action. Though the President of the US is not, in fact, above the law (as Trump will likely find out soon enough), we cannot forget that many view the office as having akin to unlimited power in the land. Though the actions of the Capitol Hill rioters were heinous and reprehensible, and each and every one of them must be held responsible for their crimes, the part their president and chosen figurehead had to play cannot be overlooked.
The fallout from the riots, and indeed from Trump’s entire term as president, will no doubt be written about for many years to come. The effects of his premiership on the political and social landscapes of both the US and the world have been marked and often horrifying. We look now to his successor, Joe Biden, to restore that which has been broken and to put the US on a more stable path. The world is holding its breath.
Originally published at https://www.thepoliticalabyss.com on January 13, 2021.