From Charlottesville to the corridors of Congress

08 01 21

This week’s events in DC show us authoritarianism is not going away anytime soon, argues Matthew McGregor. In fact, the insurrection could be a radicalising sign of things to come.

Despite everything that we have seen over the last four years of the Trump Presidency, the scenes in Congress on Wednesday were perhaps the most shocking of all. A Trump-supporting mob smashed their way into the US Congress, fought with police and vandalised and disrespected the home of American democracy – all in an attempt to stop Congress formally certifying the result of the American election and declaring Joe Biden the winner.

But this was not a surprise event – the ‘protest’ was organised by the President himself, and earlier he had given a speech to the relatively small crowd that had assembled for the ‘Save America March’ in a nearby park. After the trouble broke out, Trump called for the violence to end but refused to condemn his supporters, instead telling them, “we love you.”

No-one should be fooled by Trump or the calls for peace by the politicians who otherwise had been supporting Trump’s dishonest attempts to overturn the election. 

Aided and abetted by senators such as Ted Cruz, Trump and his backers have driven the situation to the edge of the cliff and no grand statements against violence they stoked can hide that. It doesn’t take a genius to see that whipping up people with steady stream of lies about electoral fraud and assembling them in Washington on the day the result will be confirmed had a high risk of violence –  Trump and his backers long ago lost the benefit of the doubt this is deliberate, dangerously reckless and incompetent. The assault on Congress was the culmination of a long campaign to discredit the democratic process by the President and his Republican supporters. Those who have incited arson cannot now bemoan the outbreak of fire.

Likewise, the mob whowould smashed their way into Congress did not just assemble yesterday – they have been organising for years, and their movement has emerged from a deep-rooted American far right. HOPE not hate has followed this movement closely for years – my colleagues Joe Mulhall and Patrik Hermansson have spent time undercover inside these groups. When the alt-right burst into public view during the Charlottesville riot, Patrik was on the scene, embedded inside the mob, and he watched as crowds chanted “Jews will not replace us.” The next day Trump called these thugs, “very fine people.” The far right in the US has been encouraged and praised by the White House, enabled by social media companies, and allowed to wreck a trail of destruction across the country during Trump’s term in office. 

The lesson of yesterday’s events is that the dangerous trends that Trump embodies won’t end easily – they were not crushed by his election defeat and they won’t disappear after Joe Biden takes office later this month. As appalling as Trump has been over his Presidency, his behaviour didn’t deter almost 47% of voters from backing him or a host of populist minded politicians across the world. Even in this country MPs such as Andrea Jenkyns, former minister John Hayes and others declared their support for him ahead of the election and even the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace voiced his affection for him following his election defeat. HOPE not hate polling found that 46% of Conservative members wanted him to win in November.

Authoritarian populists such as Trump can never be trusted to be reasonable, see sense, or back away from the abyss. They won’t stop until they are stopped. They use the rhetoric of freedom, protest and free speech but their commitment to those ideas lasts only as long as is convenient. They speak for those ideas as a way to gain support, but abandon them when they stand in the way of curbs on their power. At a time when many countries and societies are suffering from political division, social disillusionment, economic uncertainty and mistrust – there will always remain a risk of authoritarians. These politicians promise false certainty, false identity and false security by stoking fear, creating a world of ‘them vs us’ and making promises that can’t be kept.

Yesterday we saw democracy under siege from a mob that contained white supremacists and QAnon conspiracy theorists, incited by the President himself. This moment didn’t appear from nowhere but was the culmination of a movement that has rioted from the streets of Charlottesville to the corridors of Congress. It was not an unimaginable event, though once it might have been. Tribalism, division and hate are still forces in our society and as we try to make it through the pandemic and its aftermath, we must stay alert to the danger of politicians with charisma, easy answers and a loose commitment to the values that underpin our democracy.


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