A year on from the Capitol riot, America remains divided, disillusioned, and angry
Under normal circumstances, having a sitting president and vice president speak in defense of democracy would be something the vast majority of Americans would support. These are not normal circumstances.
Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and herself the Representative of the people of Wyoming in the House of Representatives, has said it best: Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, “is clearly unfit for future office” and should “never be anywhere near the Oval Office ever again.”
This is a truism that should be obvious to all. Donald Trump violated one of the most fundamental tenets of American democracy, namely the peaceful transition of power through the will of the people expressed through free and fair elections. There is no doubt that the 2020 presidential election was as flawed as it was controversial. But, in all honesty, every American presidential election has been flawed and controversial. What makes 2020 stand out is that a sitting president was unwilling to respect the constitutionality of the outcome. Trump had his chance to make whatever case he wanted regarding accusations of fraud before various courts at the state and federal level, and he lost.
Then, on January 6, 2021, Donald Trump used the power of his office to promote a demonstration whose intent and purpose was, from the very start, to intimidate Congress into violating their collective oaths by abrogating their obligation under Article 12 of the Constitution to certify the results of the Electoral College, results which would finalize the election of Joe Biden as the President of the United States.
Trump’s actions appear to fit the very definition of sedition, in so far as they comprised “overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward rebellion against the established order, including the subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent toward, or insurrection against, established authority.”
Whether or not Donald Trump’s words and actions leading up to the storming of the US Capitol by demonstrators-turned-rioters constitute actionable criminal activity is a question for the courts. But there can be no doubt that Donald Trump’s behavior on January 6, 2021, was unabashedly sedition-like. And for that, he should be disqualified from ever again holding public office.
But America is not a land governed by logic and reason; the 2016 Presidential election proved that, when the Democratic Party nominated Hillary Rodham Clinton, only to see her defeated by Donald Trump. The 2016 election was a clear demonstration of a growing divide between those Americans who support the continued political empowerment of the establishment and those who feel increasingly disenfranchised and are searching for an alternative. Clinton was the embodiment of establishment politics; Trump rode a wave of populist resentment. In 2016, populist resentment won out.
The four years of the Trump presidency were marked by a never-ending political conflict between the establishment and the populists. The establishment deployed every trick of the trade imaginable, from encouraging a “Never Trump” delegitimization campaign, to promoting Russian collusion conspiracy, and politicizing the impeachment process – not once, but twice – as a tool to weaken the popular support of a sitting president.
There is no doubt that the Democratic Party establishment put its thumb on the scale in 2016 to push Hillary Clinton ahead of her upstart challenger, Bernie Sanders, and in doing so, helped swing the election to Donald Trump. Likewise, there can be no doubt that the Democratic Party did the same thing in 2020, playing electoral games during the primary to boost Biden over Sanders. This time, they prevailed, with their candidate winning the election.
However, anyone who thinks that such an overt display of establishment empowerment would win the hearts and minds of the tens of millions of Americans who voted against establishment politics in 2016 clearly does not understand the state of play in the United States. As fundamentally flawed as Donald Trump was as president, he still managed to garner more votes than any other candidate in the history of the United States, other than Joe Biden.
The bottom line is that the 2020 presidential election was not stolen as much as it was managed. There’s nothing illegal or unconstitutional about what the Democratic Party and its supporters did in the 2020 election. However, the “in your face” aspect of many of the tactics used, such as exploiting the pandemic to promote absentee voting, only reinforced the existing fears among those millions of Americans who believed that the system was stacked against them.
Americans have always been prone to conspiracy theories. Sadly, our history does little to promote the concept of an informed and engaged electorate – many Americans to this day still believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when the US invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. Americans may vote with their pocketbooks, but they also vote with their hearts. Emotions are not normally equated with reason.
The 2020 election was, if anything, an emotional event. Many Americans bought into the notion that Biden stole the election, simply because they could not stand the thought of Joe Biden being their president. And when Donald Trump encouraged these emotional Americans to gather in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, to protest the “theft” of their vote, tens of thousands showed up. Their discontent quickly turned violent, and the rest is history.
It is this history that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke of when addressing the American people on the one-year anniversary of the storming of the Capitol. “Certain dates echo throughout history,” Kamala Harris stated, “including dates that instantly remind all who have lived through them – where they were and what they were doing when our democracy came under assault. Dates that occupy not only a place on our calendars, but a place in our collective memory. December 7, 1941. September 11, 2001. And January 6, 2021.”
The problem with Harris’ construct, however, is that while the majority of Americans can, and do, agree that December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, are dates that should live infamy, there is no such agreement on where January 6, 2021, stands in that regard.
Joe Biden made a similar appeal, declaring in his speech that “one year ago today, in this sacred place, democracy was attacked. Simply attacked. The will of the people was under assault. The Constitution, our Constitution, faced the gravest of threats.” Factually, the president is correct. But facts have long since stopped mattering when it comes to American politics. Perception is everything, and the reality is that many Americans do not share Biden’s version of events, regardless of how firmly founded in fact they may be.
“The election of 2020,” Biden said, “was the greatest demonstration of democracy in the history of this country. More of you voted in that election than have ever voted in all of American history. Over 150 million Americans went to the polls and voted that day in a pandemic. Some at great risk to their lives. They should be applauded, not attacked.”
The problem for Joe Biden is that almost half of those who voted not only voted against him but view his electoral victory as illegitimate. This reality has been recognized by former President Jimmy Carter, who wrote in the New York Times that those who oppose Biden “have taken over one political party and stoked distrust in our electoral systems.” These same people, Carter notes, support politicians who “have leveraged the distrust they have created to enact laws that empower partisan legislatures to intervene in election processes.” The 2020 election, rather than promoting a universal belief in American democracy, has instead instilled a “win by any means” mindset which Carter fears threatens “to collapse the foundations of our security and democracy with breathtaking speed.”
The political divide in the United States has not been this deep and dark since the years preceding the Civil War. America is riding a seesaw of emotion, not reason, where the Constitution is cited without regard to its actual content and legal interpretation. The more the Democrats attack Donald Trump, the more entrenched Trump’s base becomes. Liz Cheney’s pronouncement of Donald Trump’s unsuitability to hold office should resonate with all Americans.
The problem is, Liz Cheney is on the side of those attacking Trump, and as such, she is at risk of becoming politically disenfranchised in the 2022 mid-term election. Indeed, the Democrats are at great risk of ceding control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to a Republican Party more geared toward exacting political revenge than governing. And if a Republican Party where political viability is determined not by the soundness of policy, but rather the level of devotion to Donald Trump, controls Congress because of the 2022 election, then the odds are either Donald Trump or someone like him will be president in 2024.
And if you think America is divided now, wait until we re-seat a man – or ideology – which has no place whatsoever in the White House.