THE spectacle of a violent mob ransacking the citadel of American democracy demonstrated the ugly face of Donald Trump’s far-right populism. It was the last desperate attempt by the outgoing president to forcibly stall the White House transition.
Described as an insurrection, the attempt not only failed but also brought ignominy to the man who controlled the destiny of the world’s most powerful nation for four years. It was certainly not a spontaneous act of violence but one that was incited by the president himself as well as a right-wing media wanting to overturn the result of the election. Trump was never willing to accept any electoral outcome that went against him. The attack took place when Congress was meeting to endorse the 2020 presidential election.
Urged on by President Trump, the mob that forced its way into the Capitol last week disrupting sessions in both houses of Congress was said to largely belong to well-known militant white supremacist and hate groups. They believed that they could force the Congress to change the electoral result. They claimed they were there to bring a revolution. The violence forced lawmakers to evacuate the building. For many, the events of last week were reminiscent of the storming of the German parliament by the Nazis in the 1930s.
An impeachment move against the American president is already in process. His being at the helm even for a week before the new administration takes over is deemed dangerous not only for America but also for the world. The move raises the possibility that Trump could become only the fourth president in American history to face impeachment. It is the second time that he is being tried by Congress.
The polarisation sharpened by Trump’s politics also caused his defeat.
In an unprecedented move, Twitter and other social media operators have closed his accounts in order to stop him from inciting his supporters. What a shame for the world’s greatest superpower.
Notwithstanding these actions, Trump’s legacy of hate, racial and cultural divisions and fascistic politics will continue to haunt America and the world for long. His fanatical support base remains a threat to democratic values. He failed to win a second term yet got seven million more votes than what he did in 2016. Trump’s supporters were made to believe that victory was stolen from them. Shockingly, despite the violent attack on the Capitol many of the Republican lawmakers voted against accepting the Electoral College results.
The storming of the Capitol may have shocked the world but what happened last week was not surprising. As Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate and a columnist with The New York Times, put it: “This putsch was decades in the making.” Neither racism nor widespread attraction to conspiracy theories is new in American political life.
Trump galvanised racial antagonism, nativism and far-right nationalist populism that have always existed in American society. His rise to power was certainly not an aberration. He further energised the far-right white supremacists, xenophobic movements and conspiracy theorists during his term.
He weaponised those issues, encouraging his supporters to use violence as a means to intimidate rivals. Social media was used to spread conspiracy theories to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the electoral process that resulted in a victory for his Democrat rival.
Trump’s fascistic politics and the threat of creeping authoritarianism helped gather the liberal forces. Indeed, supporters of the white supremacist ideology form Trump’s political base but the growing divide has also exposed America’s racial fault lines. The unprecedented turnout of voters in the 2020 presidential election marked the backlash against Trumpism. Powerful resistance movements like Black Lives Matter helped mobilise anti-Trump forces.
The fury witnessed in the case of the murder of a young black man George Floyd, who suffocated to death at the hands of a policeman last year in Minneapolis, galvanised the struggle against growing racism in America. That triggered massive and sustained protests across America, moving black and white people alike against racism and injustice. The movement carried much wider political implications.
The horrific incident became a catalyst for change. ‘I can’t breathe’ had a wider connotation, ie stifling the right to life and depriving citizens of basic human and democratic rights. Its uncanny connection with the condition linked to the coronavirus made the phrase a more powerful expression, one that defined oppression and the denial of rights. It had also been a reaction to the rise of white supremacist power in America under the Trump administration that saw growing incidents of violence not only targeting black Americans but also political opponents of the president.
It became a strong movement against the racism and inequality that are so deeply entrenched in American society. The Covid-19 pandemic that has taken a much larger toll on black and minority ethnic groups in America further exposed the extent of economic and social inequality in the world’s richest and most powerful country.
Trump’s policy of ‘us versus them’ polarised America far more than at any other time in the country’s history. His statements calling for coercive tactics to suppress the protests fuelled anger. That had also been a factor in bringing out black voters in large numbers contributing to Joe Biden’s victory in a nail-biting presidential contest.
Ironically, the polarisation sharpened by Trump’s politics also caused his defeat. Many states that had been considered Trump’s stronghold brought narrow victory to Democrat candidate Joe Biden.
Trump’s radical nationalist ideology not only divided America but has also impacted the world. He has been the main inspiration to the right-wing populist movement across the world. His defeat and last week’s events in Washington have dealt a serious blow to the global muscular nationalist movement.
Not surprisingly, there has been condemnation of the storming of the Capitol even from those leaders who were seen as Trump’s close ideological allies. Yet the long-term consequences of Trump exit for populism as a global political movement remain ambiguous. Trump supporters still seem unmoved by his humiliating exit.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2021