The rot in democracy
The riot on Capitol Hill took place because America's trust in democratic politics is so corroded - and it will take more than bans by the 'big tech' barons to redress that.
'Democracy is the worst form of government', Winston Churchill once declared, 'except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.'
The stark challenge to democracy posed by the riotous right-wing mob which descended on the US Congress last week is a reminder to us all: the principle underlying our democracies, that we are governed by consent and all have an active and equal role in deciding who governs us and how, is precious. All our democracies are in different degrees flawed - but even a hobbled democracy is better, so much better, than any form of despotism.
The horde of Trump supporters, who stormed the Capitol building while both wings of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives were sitting, was staging an assault on democracy. They did so as Congress was engaged in the defining aspect of any functioning democratic dispensation, the transfer of power from one party to another after an election. It was an attempt to land a blow at the heart of how political pluralism works.
Many of the rioters were steeled for a confrontation and several carried weapons or explosives. This was not simply a push-and-shove. Five people died: a woman protestor shot dead allegedly as she tried to force her way into the lobby of the House chamber; another seemingly crushed to death; a police officer who suffered fatal injuries when he was apparently struck by a fire extinguisher thrown by rioters; and two who seem to have suffered medical emergencies during the melee.
Even more grievous, it was the president who summoned the crowd to central Washington, urged them to head towards the Capitol building and incited them to fight. Yet again, Donald Trump has blood on his hands. Much like many other extremists, he used the democratic system to lever himself into power and then was happy to resort to lies, threats, bullying and intimidation to try to keep himself there. His actions have been deeply corrosive of trust in democracy - but then for him, democracy was a means to an end, nothing more.
The storming of Capitol Hill will be seen as the defining moment of Trump's presidency. It will linger in the popular memory in much the way that Martin Luther King's assassination, or 9/11, or other moments of infamy or catharsis, leave an indelible mark. Yet this didn't amount to a coup attempt, or a rebellion or an insurrection. It wasn't a 21st-century Storming of the Bastille.
The mob were intent on intimidating legislators and disrupting the confirmation of Joe Biden's election victory. A raucous, unruly protest became something much more sinister because the Capitol police force culpably failed to shield Congress from the marauding mob. Some of the protestors were certainly intent on violence. But the main reason they overran the Capitol building and penetrated both Senate and House chambers was because there wasn't much to stop them.
The forces of law and order which have been so reckless with Black lives didn't seem to imagine that they would face a serious security threat from a crowd that was overwhelmingly white, bearing the national flag and pledging loyalty to the president and commander-in-chief.
After four wretched years of Trump's presidency, the United States can hardly say they didn't realise the sort of man he is. Yet in November, 74 million Americans - 47% of those who voted - cast their ballot for four more years of toxic, divisive populism. Just hours after the storming of the Capitol, scores of Republican members of Congress continued to argue that a clear-cut election outcome was based on fraud. Opinion polls suggest that almost half of Republican supporters have a level of sympathy with those who invaded the national legislature.
The most alarming aspect of America's political meltdown is the manner in which mainstream politicians and the political process have lost the trust and respect of a significant proportion of the nation's citizens. Trump has taken advantage of that - but the Washington establishment and the political class that roost there are responsible for allowing the rot to set in.
In the shocked aftermath of the protest, Donald Trump has been barred from the social media platforms of which he was such an adept user: Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat are all closed to him; Google and Amazon have taken steps to limit the dissemination of support for the president and his actions.
YouTube slaps new limits on Donald Trump's channel. pic.twitter.com/etAnQUHGik— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) January 13, 2021
It all smacks of 'big tech' rather timorously taking action against a political extremist only once his power is ebbing away. But I have a bigger problem with a bunch of California-based billionaires deciding, without any form of publicly accountable due process, which political voices and views are fit for the most widely used news and information platforms of our time.
It just doesn't feel very democratic, does it?