It is hard to contextualize what transpired in the United States on Wednesday, January the sixth, the day Congress was to certify outcome of the November 2020 Presidential elections. Scores of angry Americans attacked their own parliament, egged on by a bruised President who was to leave office in a fortnight. In its wake, this “storming” has left at least five people dead, a nation humiliated, and a democracy in tears. Considering how Donald Trump had made election results controversial, one expected his supporters to protest hard, but not a four-hour-long mob takeover of the seat of government.
Authors at the Washington Post summed up their nation’s sentiments well on the morning after: “Time will decide whether Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol was a riot, an insurrection, a last gasp of a renegade president or an early skirmish in a civil war organized on far-right social media, but it was already clear that Jan. 6, 2021, would go down in history as one of America’s ugliest days.”
To borrow from Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), will this be “a date which will live in infamy” also for millions of Americans who still support Trump? After so much chaos, has the bottom fallen out yet? Celebrated NYT Columnist David Brooks thinks “This is when the fever breaks”. Indeed, there is widespread and broad-based condemnation of January 6 “insurrection” as well as the disinformation peddled by Trump and his allies in bringing things to a boil. There is now talk of impeaching Trump in his final days in office.
While it may seem that the conspiracy theorists are on the retreat, it isn’t clear if the boot is on the other foot yet. Joe Biden is to be inaugurated at the same steps of the Capitol Hill on January 20th and there is likelihood that more mobs will make their way to Washington DC to try and disrupt the transition of power. If a YouGov poll in the aftermath of that chaotic day is any guide, almost half of the Republican party voters and over a fifth of all US voters have been radicalized, as they supported the mob’s actions.
In its nearly 250 years of existence, America has been here before, albeit in different circumstances. The Civil War in 1860s almost broke her into pieces, claiming Abraham Lincoln’s life. Had it not been for the political acumen of FDR and his big-government presidency, the Great Depression in early 1930s and America’s right-wing drift and isolationism in late 1930s during WW2, would likely have pushed America towards authoritarianism. That nation somehow also overcame the tragic 1960s, which were defined by deep divisions over Vietnam War and assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Referring to WW2-era leadership of FDR and Churchill which helped save Western civilization, historian Jon Meacham has previously wondered: “One of the mysteries of history is, why is it do certain moments produce exactly the right human beings?” Can Joe Biden, who has shown a lot of political character and appealed for national unity to come out of pandemic and recession, heal his country? While Biden is no FDR, one cannot shake the feeling that his centrist political approach may help in this moment of peril.
Whatever Biden does, a lot depends on whether Trump is on his way out for good. It was unthinkable for a Murdoch publication to rebuke Trump, but now the Wall Street Journal has declared Trump finished as a “serious political figure”. Moving on is also contingent on whether disenfranchised Americans can be persuaded to have fact-based discourse. It will be tough. Trump invented the “American carnage” story when he took office, and his base bought it. He is leaving America with a real one, on all sorts of fronts.
Depending on where sympathies lie, rest of the world is either watching America to their horror or laughing with contempt. Already, the aura of the oldest democracy, one with a highly-devolved government and the biggest military on earth, stands undermined by its pandemic handling. Sensible Americans, who did not wish for more drama, leave alone an insurrection, can still argue that if this kind of thing could happen in America, it could happen anywhere. But America, whose democratic allies are worried, is still being stress-tested. In this darkening era, a decisive outcome may take some time.