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An Unprecedented Day

Updated: May 21

The Consequences of the Capitol Hill Riots on US Society and Politics

On January 6, while the United States Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 Presidential Election, a group of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, intent on stopping the process. Previously, then-President Trump was holding a speech to his supporters, inciting them to riot against the allegedly “stolen election”. 
After the rally ended, the mob started to gather in front of the Capitol, and then was able to break the police check to enter the building violently. At this point, certification was suspended and congressmen and senators were evacuated. It took several hours before the building was cleared and Congress’ proceeding resumed.

The storm was condemned by a large majority of political figures, including several Republican Senators, who, since then, distanced themselves from the president, and asserted again the value of the certainty of Congress’ mandate and the perseverance of the traditional system which governs the peaceful transfer of power.

That was the attack, some authorities are suspected of collusion, but the causes go back to the election and before. After the attack, many key security officers resigned and investigations began to understand the nature of such a failure of the Capitol’s security system. There’s the suspicion that some police officers colluded with the rioters, since it appears that their way in was clear and that police officers approached them in a very friendly way,  with some even taking selfies with them.

Former President Trump addressing his supporters ahead of his alleged suggestion to take over the Capitol.
However, the root and cause of this attack to the symbol of the success and prosperity of the American democracy go back to way before Trump’s speech the afternoon of January 6. The rhetoric of election fraud goes back to the day Trump lost the 2020 Presidential Elections on November 3, and even before, as a mistrust of the fairness of the electoral process was prompted by the president. 

The president never accepted his defeat, traditionally a key point in the transition to the following administration, and carried on with accusations of a stolen election. 

The effects of this mistrust are key to understanding this event. Trump talked about a fraud also before the election, and the defeat confirmed his allegation, despite being denied by all courts the Trump Campaign appealed to. Nevertheless, every observer has recognized Trump’s ability to persuade his supporters. After four years, a considerable share of those considers him as the only source of truth and feels comfortable at storming the see of the oldest democracy in the world, while believing that any proof denying Trump’s allegations is false. More seriously, this event is even more grave in the US, as it took place during one of the “holiest” procedures that help the American system stand and renew its value and prestige through time.

This event has had only one precedent in history: during the War of 1812, the British troops arrived in DC and set the Capitol on fire. However, this hurtful event was carried out by foreign troops during a war, while this time internal forces, ordinary US citizens plotted against the institutions of their homeland. For this reason, more than any other, the event has split the country. 

In addition, more worrying than the 1812 precedent to this event, are the precedents that the most recent one is setting. Firstly, it has damaged the image of the US as the oldest and most stable democracy to have ever existed, and as the undoubted leader of the free world. In fact, the ritual significance and sacrality of the American democratic process has been threatened. As many may point out, the US was born out of freedom from tyranny and was, first and foremost, a forerunner of the liberal democratic political system. 

This brought many to believe that the US is a democracy and that it wouldn’t be without it, because it was born to be it. To that end, every step of the democratic process in the US (i.e. the vote by the Electoral College, the certification of the result by Congress, the Inauguration ceremony) is extremely ritual and has a holy flavour. This holiness makes the people reaffirm the pride of living in the first democracy in the world and to believe in its eternity and inviolability. Sadly, this belief has been broken, and the prestige of sacred democratic institutions is now diminished. It is in front of the American people, as well as before the countries that look, or did look, to the US as a mentor and protector.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the phone with Former Vice President Mike Pence.
Secondly, the debate on the viability of autocratic rule in the world, brought up especially with the ongoing issues in Hong Kong, where the people struggle to keep their little democracy in front of a state that aims to end it, is now at a controversial point. The main defender and promoter of democracy sees itself threatened and shows to the world its weakness and the fact that its system is not accepted and trusted by everybody, as usually stated. What’s more, on January 25, in his message to the World Economic Forum, the People's Republic of China’s President Xi Jinping stated that “each country is unique with its own history, culture, and social system, and none is superior to the other'', again asserting that a country and a people might be better off living in an autocracy rather than in a democracy, and thus diminishing and delegitimizing the American mission to preserve and export democracy. 

Another major issue that ought to be considered is the trust the American people have in their own security services. According to CNN, in August 2020, 48% of the American people expressed full or moderate confidence in the police forces, being the lowest score since Gallup started polling this information nearly 30 years ago. This disappointing score was due to the handling of the Black Lives Matter protests (as well as the tragic events that led to its mobilization), to which now the clearly insufficient response to the Capitol break-and-entering shall be added. 

Such a mistrust in institutions, in the democratic process and in the police forces as well, could lead to severe effects in matters like public order and ability of the government to assert legitimacy and enforce the law. Nevertheless, until now, no event disturbed the Inauguration of President Biden and his first weeks in office have passed with no issue of this kind. Indeed, most of the American people condemned the act. On the other hand, those who may have supported it do not see favorable conditions to carry out a similar plan in the near future, since warning levels are now high and public opinion is still shocked by what happened.

In addition, in order to see if renewed reconciliation is possible, it is crucial to understand whether Trump and his allies will still have a primary role within the Republican Party. According to Politico, on February 17, 59% of Republican-registered voters still want Trump to be the leader of the party. However, many positions and opinions are arising now against him in the GOP’s Congressional delegation. As far as the  impeachment trial is concerned (the second for Trump), many signals deserve focus. Representative Liz Cheney, the Chair of the House Republican Conference and the third highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, voted together with Democrats to proceed with the trial. Although some tried to get her ousted from her post because of this, in the end Cheney was able to obtain a majority of her fellow GOP Representatives and keep her role, thus showing that a silent consent was among them or that, at least, loyalty to Trump is not as crucial as it once was to keep a relevant post. 

"Bison Man", among the most iconic participants in the riot, engaging in the storming of the building.
What’s more, in the Senate, seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump, of which only one did the same at the last impeachment trial. The majority obtained was not sufficient to proceed with a guilty verdict, but such a great defection within the Republican Party on a major issue has never been seen in recent times. Moreover, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explicitly stated that, though he was voting to acquit Trump, his reasoning for that vote was totally procedural, since the former president was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day”. Senator McConnell’s statement was evidently of free opinion, and together with many other fellows is recognizing Trump’s faults and thus looking forward to a new era for the party, in which Trump won’t be included. Nevertheless, the die is not cast yet, since recently McConnell supported the idea of a Trump candidacy in 2024. 

Another opinion in the matter that should be considered is Nikki Haley’s, potential future presidential candidate for the Republican Party. She has been very neutral with respect to the debate, by conceding that "he let us down", but also referring to him as her "friend”. Haley seems pretty uncertain on which path to follow, whether the pro-Trump or the new-era one, while she tries to play the field to see which one the base and the leadership will follow, without precluding either, and probably leaning towards a traditional way, given her frequent disagreements and harsh statements on Trump, especially at the beginning of his presidency.

In the end, this tragic event decisively hurt the feelings of the American people, and even more damage was brought to the prestige of the country both internally and on the international stage, with autocratic leaders now having more reasons to endorse their way of running things. Another crucial point is the destiny of the Republican Party, in which the de-Trumpization process has been accelerated by the January 6 events, though his position and support is still very strong, both in the base and in the leadership, leading to great confusion about the path the party is going to take. Eventually, it is still not clear what was Trump’s role and intent with this fateful demonstration, whether he was really involved (as some proofs demonstrate) and, moreover, whether he really believed in a possibility to overturn the outcome of the election by forceful means or if it was only a farewell’s demonstration of strength.



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