The violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (photo by Tyler Merbler/flickr)
Elect a clown, expect a circus. That has been a recurring meme over the past four years. As the reality show that is the Donald Trump presidency staggers into its final few days, the full fruit of the president’s years of bellicosity and violent language expressed themselves at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. Incited by the president, who repeated his utterly baseless claims of a stolen election, thousands of people marched on the seat of America’s democracy, smashed windows, stormed the building, threatened lawmakers and defaced and desecrated the premises.
Some observers, including many Republicans, expressed shock at a turn of events that was almost entirely predictable. After years of the most irresponsible rhetoric imaginable from the so-called leader of the free world, and after two months of undermining the most sacred facet of American democracy, the peaceful transition of democratically elected administrations, violence was a surprise only to those who have not being paying attention – or who observe through ideological blinders.
It seems to be a turning point. A growing, though still far too small, number of Republicans are finally saying they have had enough of the outgoing president’s petulance and possibly criminal irresponsibility. Listening to some, it appears they were looking for an opportune moment to break with their leader, and the violence – which killed five people – provided the ideal opening.
It is not enough for apologists to pretend that these elements are in any way peripheral to Trumpism. He has encouraged, abetted and refused to condemn the most evil strains in the American body politic, from the Ku Klux Klan to Proud Boys, referring to “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville – when one side was white supremacists with a sprinkling of neo-Nazis and anti-democratic thugs. Faced with the destruction his words and his supporters wrought at the Capitol, Trump uttered the least a president could possibly say, calling on the rioters to go home, while also repeating the lies that led to the violence in the first place. Then he added: “We love you. You’re very special.” He just can’t help himself.
Among the insurrectionists at the Capitol were overt Nazis, including at least one wearing a shirt with “Camp Auschwitz” emblazoned on it and another with the acronym “6MWE,” meaning “six million wasn’t enough.” These are the very special people Trump loves. Jews and others who were taken in by an embassy move and other ostensibly “pro-Israel” acts should know now the fire with which they were playing.
There must be accountability. At the top, those who abetted and encouraged the worst actions of the past years should be held criminally liable, if that is the extent of their culpability. At a lesser level, those who tacitly or explicitly permitted what has happened – Republican senators, congress members and party officials – will ideally suffer at the ballot box at the next opportunity. Among ordinary people, including some in Canada who have expressed support for this extremist and white nationalist approach, we should seek introspection around how we may have been drawn into a political disease that we should have recognized for what it was – yet let proceed along a path that almost inevitably led to the loss of human life and the shattered glass at the U.S. Capitol last week.
We might also hope that leaders of other countries will look at the American case as an instruction in the dangers of oratorical brinksmanship, division and scapegoating. One of Trump’s greatest allies, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is in an election (again) and it will be illuminating to see if his style softens at all. In Europe, where far-right populism is seeing a resurgence, perhaps the warning shots from Washington will inspire a little more moderation.
Barring more violence on Inauguration Day, God forbid, this chapter will soon be behind us. Joe Biden was not everyone’s first choice for president, he was more of a compromise pick. Based on decades of experience, he has been charged with picking up the pieces of a society shattered by four years of negligent and confrontational executive leadership. It doesn’t hurt that he has a grandfatherly demeanour and a history of consensus-building. While the outgoing president will not attend the swearing in – more proof that he abhors the core principles of democracy – beside Biden will be Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first Black and Asian person to assume the vice-presidency.
No humans are perfect. The Biden-Harris administration will make mistakes and we will criticize them. But we can rejoice in the arrival of a new future, led by people of goodwill, intelligence and moderation, who know the difference between right and wrong, between neo-Nazis and very fine people.