Opinion

The Capitol Building riots: Trumpism’s last gasp

Tw: violence

Last week, the world looked on in shock as, on January 6th, 2021, the US capitol building was attacked for the first time since 1814. The images captured and moments witnessed seemed more fitting for a movie than for real life. In peak irony, a riotous crowd brandishing a sea of American flags, chanting “USA, USA, USA” sought to prevent the procession of American democracy. They saw themselves as patriots, whilst at the very same time attempting to undermine the process that so defined the ‘great experiment’ that was and is the United States of America.

At noon, President Trump began his speech to an assembled crowd for his ‘Save America Rally’ near the Washington Monument. He declared in his speech, as had always been the plan for the rally, that the crowd were to make their way to the Capitol building to protest the confirmation by Congress of the results of the 2020 presidential election. The crowd moved to the Capitol Building. Before he had even finished, many of his supporters had already made their way over, and some had already reportedly tried to gain entry. It is not quite clear how the protest turned to riot, but by 2pm the building was breached, and rioters made their way inside. They were not confirmed cleared out of the building until 5:40. Artwork was vandalised. Windows were smashed. Items were stolen, looted from the federal seat of American democracy. Five people died as a result – four protesters, and a police officer, Brian Sicknick. 

In all of this, President Trump acted with woeful weakness in containing the violence. He failed to call in the national guard, with military assistance eventually coming at the behest of Vice President Mike Pence in a highly unusual bypass of the chain of command. Last year the president repeatedly claimed that his was the party of law and order. But with the rioters now on ‘his team’, it seems such principles easily turn to dust. Behind-the-scenes reports from those he was in contact with at the time even appear to suggest a gleeful reaction to the carnage. It took him an inexcusably long time to call for the rioters to cease their mayhem and leave the capitol building, and even longer for him to condemn those individuals involved for their criminal actions.

One must wonder what President Trump sought to achieve in not immediately calling in the national guard. Remember, this is not a president opposed to the use of force on his own citizens, lest we forget his violent clearing of Lafayette square last year just for a botched photo-op. His unwillingness to bring reinforcements needed to restore order can only be because he thought it somehow advantageous to let the riot continue, and permanently tie his name to an attempted coup against American democracy. What exactly did he think was going to happen? 

Perhaps he hoped that the events would inspire similar uprisings around the country, with copycat raids of state legislatures, and that the machinery of American government would somehow fall into line behind his wishes, allowing him to defecate on the constitution and hold onto power despite the result of election like some kind of tinpot dictator. If he really did believe such things, then this is surely the final piece of the puzzle needed to conclude that Donald Trump is completely delusional. After all, going through the baffling process of reading his entire speech on January 6th, one cannot help but actually feel that he personally believes the fabricated idea that the election was ‘rigged’. 

I cannot help but feel pity for him as he fails to properly mourn the loss of his presidency, seemingly stuck in a loop of denial, fueled by wild conspiracy theories. And although it is a stretch to say Donald Trump directly incited the violence that occurred that day, he was certainly irresponsible. Unsurprisingly, we hold the President of the United States to a higher standard of behaviour than is the legal minimum demanded of private citizens. Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr, both speaking at the same rally, called for ‘trial by combat’ and ‘total war’ respectively, and Trump himself used the word ‘fight’ over twenty times in his speech. Although all he asked of the crowd was nonviolent action, his obviously lacklustre attempts to deter those present from violence show either a dangerous level of obliviousness from a man with direct control of nuclear weapons or tacit blessing for such action. Unlike the majority, I’m sure, I actually believe the former, though I am not certain as to whether this is a preferable truth.

A flurry of activity has followed this attack on the Capitol. Many Republicans, most prominently in the Senate, made a complete break from supporting the president. These even included Trump’s Vice President, who Trump had been calling upon earlier to openly violate the constitution and refuse to certify the election, a discretionary power Pence does not possess. As expected, the Democrats have universally condemned the rioters’ actions. However, in doing so with surprising vitriol they have invoked strict anti-violence principles that their more lenient response to riots last year would suggest they do not actually possess. Much like the president, their response to violence seems to be altogether dependent on whether they view the perpetrators as ‘on their team’. There is something to be said, though, for being particularly harsh on these rioters. What we saw last week struck at the heart of government. Attacks like these on the organs of the state must be punished to as full extent of the law as is possible because they are so dangerous – maximum deterrent must be established. No country can show quarter to those attempting to undermine its very constitution.

The swift rounding up of the perpetrators is also entirely justified. Two other notable reactions are not – the impeachment proceedings, and Trump’s purge from social media. By this point, there is more than enough evidence to prove Donald Trump has defiled the office of president and has committed ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ by most interpretations of the constitution. If not from his alleged incitement of a riot, then from his egregious failure to stop it, and even more concerning rampant pardoning of criminal cronies. However, this does not mean impeachment is a productive move. Joe Biden’s accession to the Presidency is being portrayed by the Democratic Party as a move towards unifying America, an apparent healing of a divided nation. These impeachment proceedings are not healing. They are the actions of those looking for vengeance against a president they hate with a burning passion, both from those who have always publicly said as much and from those inside his party who have been waiting for the opportune moment to dump a leader they always disliked. But if America is to sew together its divisions, it cannot afford to indulge in such petty things. Impeachment, at this late point, effectively has only the purpose of flipping Donald Trump the bird, and further pushing away his supporters. Let him have his final week in office. His recent antagonising of much of the rest of the Republican party has gone a long way to ensure he won’t be back with another run. Impeachment will only feed into the poisonous narratives of those already immensely distrusting of Washington.

The ‘counter-coup’ perpetrated by tech giants, though, is not such a grey area. It is shocking, and it is frankly scary. In a matter of hours, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, was censored and removed from all manner of social media platforms, including his much-beloved Twitter account. This was not following the demand of some federal regulator, nor was it some automatic process following the breach of a policy. It was an actively chosen move by social media companies to censor and remove the president from the public forum. All whilst maintaining accounts associated with genuinely brutal authoritarian regimes, such as the one belonging to the Ayatollah of Iran, or to the Chinese embassy (which recently claimed Uighur women in Xinjiang were being ‘emancipated’). 

Their actions were disconcertingly co-ordinated too – the censorship was near-universal. Even more disturbingly, Apple, Google and Amazon together completely killed free-speech platform Parler for violation of their rules on moderation, with the app going down on January 9th. Naively, it would appear these companies are merely enforcing existing contracts, the terms of use that were already agreed to. A wealth of information propagated in the wake of Trump’s removal from social media, though, clearly reveals a discretionary double standard from these platforms. If the rules cited in the removal were enforced in the same manner across all users, with the same stringency and lack of warning, huge swathes of accounts, many highly notable, with large follower bases, would already be banned. Angela Merkel was right to condemn twitter for their move here. One cannot help but feel as if this removal has long since been desired keenly by these platforms. This event has given the pretext for execution. Once one platform did so, and the others saw them ‘get away with it’, they all followed suit. 

Out of all this chaos and darkness, there is a clear, if faint, light; a silver lining if you will. Despite a violent break-in to the Capitol building, the American Federal Republic remains intact. Delayed as they may have been, representatives returned that same day to ratify the election. The machinery of government held resolute behind the constitutional passage of democracy. There was no wavering. If you dignify this rabble to the extent of seeing this as an attempted coup, it was an obvious and utter failure – the status quo has been restored, and the wealth of photographic evidence allows the FBI to make swift work of rounding up the perpetrators. Although many may be worried about the fact that half of all republican voters actually support the actions of the rioters by a recent poll, these voters are not beyond reconciliation. The road may be long, and tough, but with patience and good, measured leadership, a divided country can slowly meld back together. After all, Trump was at least right about one thing in his rally speech – the election wasn’t close. Biden won by some margin.