“Men occasionally stumble over the truth,” Winston Churchill once said, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry as if nothing had happened.” Turning one’s back to an inconvenient truth can be damaging in politics. The false sense of normalcy does not help, neither does virtue signalling. And yet, one finds many a Trump supporter doing just that — building passionate defence for their leader for all things indefensible. For four years now, a nation that once prided itself in setting an example for democracies across the world has been helmed by a leader who has attempted to decimate institutions that are at the heart of a democracy. Fissures run deep in the America Americans stand to inherit after Donald Trump leaves White House in a few days.
Trump’s supporters see world differently, of course. The problem is not in the difference of vision, but their outright refusal to see how most preposterous ideas have found acceptance during the Trump presidency. He spoke of building a wall and have Mexico pay for it, and they thought it was an idea whose time had come. He spoke of America being under threat from the deep state (read: the institutions that he does not find favour with) and they believed he could save them. He made a virtue of not wearing masks, even after contracting the virus himself, they followed unquestioningly. Trump supporters have stumbled over truths time and again, but decided to look elsewhere. But what transpired a few weeks ago at the Capitol begs a deeper introspection. The riots were as much an obscene demonstration as they were a culmination of a process of polarisation that Trump has enabled.
When a country’s sacrosanct institution is attacked, it is a wake-up call. A useful question is — how did the country reach this point? The writing was on the wall when Trump began tweeting about last year’s elections being compromised. Some read the tweets as cries of a narcissist who simply could not accept defeat, but his supporters read it as a wronged man’s outrage against a flawed system. Matters got worse when the president himself asked Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger to find votes for him, or face legal consequences. Some read it as intimidation and abuse of power, while his supporters thought it was a leader setting things right. And then came the Save America rally, fruition of a month-long paranoia engineered by Trump about an election gone wrong because it didn’t go his way. Today, many are debating whether the president actually incited violence. Here are some snatches from his 70-minute-long address to his supporters — “We are going to the Capitol”, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”, “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore”. Read this in the context of what happened at Capitol later. In a matter of hours, it stood ravaged. Confederate flags were raised. Police and lawmakers were attacked. And for a while, America was reduced to a mobocracy. The images are floating on social media. The truths, once again, are staring at us. Must we continue to turn our gaze away?
There are some who already have. Many representatives in the House drew parallels between Capitol riots and last year’s Black Lives Matter movement, contending that it wreaked a greater havoc. What is conveniently PhotoShopped from these arguments is that the latter is rooted in history of systemic violence that has seen a number of black deaths being caused by the police. Last year’s protests were triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after he was suffocated to death. His crime? A counterfeit $20 bill. What separates a movement from a riot? Intent. Black Lives Matter protests were response to a truth, an incident that had already happened, while the basis for the Capitol riots was born out of a figment of the president’s imagination.
In an already polarised society, language matters. It matters when the leader denounces institutions. It matters when the one who is to lead by example does not concede. It matters when the one who is first among equals calls rioters ‘patriots’. Language defines leaders. Language has made — and unmade — Donald Trump. And it’s no longer about ‘covfefe’, but a rhetoric that enables a spectacle of violence. In the four years that he spent at the White House, Trump mastered this tongue. The need of the hour is to unlearn it.
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