Capitol Riots — one year on: has Biden managed to tame Trump’s mob?

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  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States
 (AP)
(AP)

An attempted coup? A riot? An insurrection? Terrorism? A great deal of ink has been spilt over what to call the attack on the Capitol that took place a year ago today. The events in Washington on January 6, 2021 have been the subject of plenty of bad-blooded debate ever since. (Donald Trump refers to the lethal incident as a “protest”.) And yet the strange thing about that grim and much-discussed day is that the basic facts can’t really be disputed. How could they be? It all played out live on television. Call it what you want; the world was watching.

To recap, briefly: After then President Donald Trump spoke to supporters at a rally near the White House, urging them to “fight like hell”, a mob headed to the Capitol. They stormed the building, successfully breached the security barrier, interrupted Congress’s certification of the results of the presidential election and took control of the Senate chamber. Some seemed harmless enough, cluelessly wandering through the building, snapping selfies and nabbing mementos. Others less so: they ram-sacked lawmakers’ offices, roamed around the building chanting “hang Mike Pence” (after the Vice-President said he would not go along with Trump’s plan to obstruct democracy) and sought out high-profile Democrats. Some 140 police officers were injured in the attack. One died in the melee. A Trump supporter was shot by police.

The only reason the rioters were even in Washington was because Donald Trump lied. He lied that day, as he had lied on polling day eight weeks earlier and practically every day in between, telling his supporters that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential race and that the Democrats had stolen the election from him and his voters. That lie was indulged, amplified and elaborated on by a group of lackeys and loyalists either cynical enough to go along with it or stupid enough to believe it.

 (Leah Millis/Reuters)
(Leah Millis/Reuters)

For a brief period after the attack, it seemed as though Trump would pay a high price for his supporters’ violence. Surely the awfulness of the riot on the Hill would consign the outgoing president to the dustbin of history. Or so many of us assumed. A hurried second impeachment was carried out in the final days of Trump’s presidency, and secured the support of seven Republican Senators: a high number in hyper-partisan Washington, but not enough to secure the conviction that would bar him from holding office again.

Speaking of returning to power, the event does not appear to have diminished the former president in the eyes of his base: Trump frequently tops polls of Republicans’ preferred candidates in 2024. He is coy about whether he’ll run again but has not backed down from his obsession with the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Other GOP politicians still find themselves tip-toeing around sensitive subjects, desperate to avoid offending Trump. In the most enthusiastically Trumpist corners of the American right, January 6 has been neatly folded into their conspiratorial worldview: they have sold themselves on the dangerous myth that it was a false flag operation conducted by the left to justify a crackdown on their movement.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who took a stand against Trump after January 6 have not fared well. Of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach, two have announced their retirement, one — Liz Cheney — has become persona non grata in her own party. She and most others find themselves in tough primary battles against Trump-backed opponents.

And yet, for all that Trump has got away with January 6, the former president is nonetheless a diminished figure. In a sign of the times, perhaps the most significant consequence of the attack is that it got Trump banned from Twitter, a move that has lowered his profile to a striking degree. He is peripheral, off-stage, distant, sulking in his club in Mar-a-Largo, Florida. But he is lurking: a spectre haunting the Washington establishment — and sending shivers down the spines of Republicans with presidential designs of their own. When it comes to the anniversary of the attack, Trump has at least decided to cancel an attention-seeking press conference he had planned for today.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

As for the broader consequences of January 6, a House of Representatives Committee has been collecting evidence on the attack for six months now. So far they have turned up one or two interesting revealing details. When they report their findings, however, I doubt very many people will be surprised by the overall story. Again, the facts of the day are well established.

Prosecution of the rioters continues. Over 700 of them have faced charges relating to their conduct a year ago. More legal action will follow. Attorney General Merrick Garland said yesterday that “the actions we have taken thus far will not be our last.”

For Democrats, January 6 has been the source of both righteous, justified anger, and, at times, overblown, partisan and unhelpful rhetoric. The riot of a year ago looms large in the parties case for a democracy agenda, including a push for federal legislation on voting laws. But their concrete achievements on that front are few and far between.

The really troubling thing about the American system is the bipartisan erosion of democratic legitimacy. Trump’s post-election conduct is sadly only the most egregious example of a growing trend towards refusing to accept defeat, an essential ingredient in a healthy democratic system. A recent poll by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland found that 29 percent of voters did not accept Joe Biden as the legitimately elected president. A troubling number, to be sure. But the same poll four years earlier found that 42 percent of voters did not think that Donald Trump was legitimately elected. It is this vicious cycle that should alarm those concerned about the future of American democracy.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Thankfully, America’s founding fathers devised the country’s political system with mobs and demagogues in mind. The constitution’s carefully designed checks and balances were supposed to guard against mob rule. A year ago today, the fence around the home of American democracy may have been breached, but the architecture of constitutional rules did its job: a rabble rouser set on clinging on to power in defiance of the election result failed to do so. The system worked.

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