A rioter lounging in the House Speaker’s chair. The image, currently trending on social media, is as unnerving as it is tragic. It reminds me of the climax of the film Joker (2019), where rioters unleash havoc in Gotham at the titular character’s behest as he stands atop a car and dances to the sights and sounds of devastation. That was fiction; this viral image is a slice of contemporary reality in America. And it is frightening.
There is only an extent to which paranoia can be allowed to fester. Because when it goes unchecked for far too long, chaos unfolds. As it did, at the US Capitol building this week where supporters of President Donald Trump gathered to ‘protest’ the very process that had catapulted their leader to the top job a few years ago. Let’s get into the graphic details. The US Senate and the House had been in session to certify the results when pro-Trump supporters barged into the building. Trump had earlier addressed a rally where he encouraged his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” to challenge the electoral results, while continuing with the narrative of his ‘deserving’ win. “You will never take back our country with weakness,” he told them. Flags were raised, as were the slogans. Doors were soon barricaded to prevent their entry into the chambers.
The highest elected officials in the land were initially forced to take shelter in the gallery when the police intervened. Warnings were issued about teargas, as some official representatives were made to leave the chambers through the tunnels. To ensure that the disruption did not impact the process, boxes containing Electoral College’s documents certifying the presidential election results were immediately safeguarded. But that did not stop the mayhem. Trump supporters attempted to destroy properties, attack the policemen in the premises, all the while screaming and chanting Trump’s name and how he made America great again. All barriers — of safety and decency — were broken to disrupt a fair process.
Institutions are often tested when someone attempts to undermine them. The American legislative system passed this test. Within hours, Vice-President Mike Pence presided over the joint session that affirmed Joe Biden’s victory. Are we then to think that all’s well because it ended well? Far from it. The riot caused by Trump supporters is a malaise that has seeped way too deep into American consciousness. The world is stunned. But should it really be? After all, this is a presidential term marked and marred by paranoia — about facts versus alternate facts, news versus fake news, state versus deep state, Americans versus non-Americans among several other binaries.
In him, Americans have had a president who’s convinced them that he is fighting the deep state for them, which, in his book, are aspects of administration he does not agree with. He has also managed to persuade them into believing that any news that is critical of him is most likely to be fake and hence not to be trusted. Much of the Trump presidency has been about creating a rhetoric that instills doubt. This week, that doubt saw fruition. And the result was chaos that one could not have imagined playing out in the world’s largest democracy. The lesson in the Capitol riots is in realising that the polarisation that began with Trump’s early years will not simply go away with him leaving the White House. The rhetoric has germinated into a way of life and thought.
There is a good chance that the rioters genuinely believe that they have been cheated of a president they ‘truly’ deserved. If Biden won 81,283,098 votes (51.3 per cent of the votes cast), Trump still managed to win 74,222,958 votes (46.8 per cent) in an election that witnessed the biggest voter turnout in the year of a pandemic. Despite Biden’s win, Trump’s support base continues to be strong, and chances are that many, if not all, of his supporters have convinced themselves into believing that Biden is not the legitimately elected president.
Fanning the flames is Trump himself who has run a rather long campaign to decry the electoral process. With the aid of his most potent weapon — his Twitter account — he has never minced words when claiming the elections had been “rigged”. The process has, in fact, been undermined by the president and his supporters time and again. Late last year, a handful of Republican electors had met in some states to appoint themselves as ‘alternate electors’ to sway the decision in Trump’s favour. Despite logistical challenges and no legal standing, they remained convinced about the ‘cause’. Recently, another jolt to public consciousness came in the form of a phone call President Trump made to Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, which was duly reported on by leading papers, where he kept insisting to find votes for him while threatening consequences. For someone who claims the system has been compromised, it is him and his army of supporters who have tried to turn it upside down.
Politics does not always have room for a clean slate. Over the years, the US political system has had its share of major constitutional crises. The last major predicament involved another presidential battle between George W. Bush Jr and Al Gore in 2000. It was a close contest that was finally resolved by the US Supreme Court when it stayed a contentious recount of votes in the state of Florida, thereby handing over the presidency to Bush. There had been protests then as well from the supporters of Democrat candidate Gore, but they were largely peaceful and pointed to the shortcomings of a complex electoral process. Hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, Gore conceded and embraced Bush. Recently, commenting on CNN on Trump’s refusal to concede, Gore said: “Those who talk about continuing the fight after it is over are being disrespectful of American democracy, which is, in Lincoln’s phrase, the last best hope of humankind.”
What transpired at the Capitol is a reminder that the era of healthy rivalries, where political opponents ultimately had the same vision for the country and largely played by the rulebook, has now been replaced by crass rhetoric and intimidation. The average American voter isn’t the same anymore either. S/he is shaped by the 24-hour news and social media channels and a slew of conspiracy theories that offer easier explanations for complex social contexts. Trump has managed to make the most of the modern tools he could control and completely discredit the ones that did not further his case.
Even if he appealed for peace hours later to his supporters, Trump, in their view, will remain a victim of a deeply flawed system. And this narrative is only likely to grow stronger once he leaves the White House and does not have his aides by his side who have spent much of these past years measuring and containing the damage done by their leader’s words and actions. An 11th hour impeachment is also being suggested, stemming from the fear that in his remaining days, he could cause more damage. And worse, what if he returns to office four years later?
Is impeachment a solution? In an intensely polarised country, it could have sent out a message loud and clear — no one, not even the one deemed first among equals — is above the law and the institutions the country holds dear. And maybe that is the key to making America (truly) great again.
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