“We love you, you’re very special.”
Thus US President Donald Trump addressed the armed insurrectionists looting the Congress in more loving terms than with which one suspects he has ever addressed his own children. But we have come to expect as much from the President who once described neo-Nazis as “very fine people”.
It was sickening to watch President Trump encourage his supporters to storm the Capitol, but not surprising after his response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere. As has been clear to many people for years now, there is no bar so low Donald Trump cannot enthusiastically dive beneath it.
Trump incited the insurrection, but Republicans own responsibility for it too. All the way along, Trump has been aided and abetted by willing sycophants who seek proximity to power, like Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, and Republican members of Congress and senators who seek and wield power themselves like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Every single Republican who has been willing to traffic in lies and undermine democracy in order to secure conservative judges and tax cuts for the rich is complicit in the coup d’orange.
The fact is, most of the Republican Party has been publicly advocating the election fraud myth and has been willing – even after the mob stormed the Capitol – to overthrow the results of an American election. Apparently, an armed insurrection was enough for at least some Republican senators to reconsider the wisdom of challenging the certification of the election results, and, like the proverbial rats deserting a sinking ship, there have been multiple resignations in the wake of the mob ransacking the Capitol at the President’s behest. But it’s far too late for resignations to offer redemption now. And it is hard to see how American democracy will come back from this when so many House Republicans are, even now, unwilling to repudiate the lies that drove the MAGA putsch.
There are now calls from establishment media like The Washington Post, and even from within the White House itself, for Trump to be removed from office, if not by impeachment then by invoking the 25th amendment. Both ideas seem unlikely, yet urgent. For what more chaos could Trump unleash in his remaining days in office with all the powers of the presidency (except access to Twitter and Facebook) still available to him? What’s to stop him? Who will stop him? Nothing and no one have so far proven equal to the task.
Moving to the siege itself, it would be surprising if heads did not roll in the police and security agencies, because this revolution was advertised. With the billions of dollars the US spends each year on counter-terrorism and its security forces, it is inconceivable the Capitol was overrun so easily and quickly. The storming of Congress was not surprising in the least – the mob had been publicly planned and foreshadowed for months. Pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails were found. There was even merchandise available.
The lack of police preparedness and its benign response stand in stark contrast to the police violence inflicted upon peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters for years. As one African-American doctor observed on Twitter: “We’re not asking for you to shoot them like you shoot us. We’re asking you to NOT shoot us like you don’t shoot them.”
It was clear the rioters felt no fear of police; one white man gave a big smile to the camera as he looted a podium from Congress, while others livestreamed themselves reading emails from computers in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. How can members of Congress and senators feel safe when at least one officer is on tape taking a selfie with the mob? When only something like 50 arrests have been made so far?
While UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unreservedly condemned Donald Trump for his role in inciting the siege, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cannot bring himself to be openly critical of Trump.
But that’s hardly surprising either – Morrison never gets the big calls right. When Senator Eric Abetz questioned the loyalty of Chinese Australians in a Senate committee, Morrison offered no rebuke. And if Morrison won’t even censure or sanction his own Liberal and National MPs who traffic in dangerous conspiracies about the US election and COVID-19, like Craig Kelly and George Christensen, I suppose it’s a bit much to expect him to condemn Trump for inciting a mob to overturn the election results.
As Trump has shown, democracy must be actively defended. In Australia, our systems of accountability have long been under assault. Royal commissions have replaced effectively funded regulators with teeth, and often their recommendations are ignored. Ministers used to resign when they were caught doing the wrong thing, or if they were responsible for a policy that harmed people, in the Westminster tradition. Yet Bridget McKenzie maintains she broke no rules by using sports grants to skew funding towards target Liberal seats. No government minister took responsibility for the robodebt policy that harmed tens of thousands of people and robbed them of money that was rightfully theirs to pay debts they did not owe.
Australia still has no federal independent commission against corruption. The government’s proposed model is two years late and toothless, shielding politicians from the same public scrutiny that would apply to public servants and agencies.
And just before Christmas, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters published its report on the 2019 election (with dissenting reports from Labor and the Greens), recommending abandoning compulsory preferential voting, reducing the period for early voting, and introducing voter ID laws – one of the main tools used to disenfranchise black, disabled, migrant, itinerant and First Nations voters in the United States. The report had little to say on political donations reform, and made no recommendations to introduce truth in political advertising laws, as the ACT has recently done.
For more than four years, Trump has been steadily assaulting truth and political norms with no one and nothing to hold him accountable, and now US democracy stands on a shaky foundation. Australians would be foolish to assume we are immune from walking down the same path if we are not careful to avoid it.