Democracy in crisis: the US Capitol riot

Following the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump in a failed bid to upset his recent electoral defeat, the political turmoil of the preceding year shows no signs of abating.

In a previous article, Riskline wrote that the transition period between Election Day, 3 November 2020, and Inauguration Day, 20 January 2021, in the United States (US) represented “the worst possible prospect of violence during a presidential transition since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s.” This prospect became reality in the first week of the New Year, with deadly results.

After weeks of failed lawsuits, increasingly heated protests and coordinated messaging claiming the election was rigged, outgoing President Donald Trump urged his supporters at a 6 January rally outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to march on the Capitol where Congress, presided over by Vice President Mike Pence, met to formalise President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Unprepared and caught off guard by the surge of tens of thousands of demonstrators, Capitol Police were overwhelmed and hundreds of people poured into the building. The Vice President, Speaker of the House, Senate President Pro Tempore and hundreds of other legislators were whisked away with seconds to spare ahead of the armed mob, as staff and workers huddled in offices and police officers raced to seal off entrances. At least one police officer was killed, while four people who stormed the building died in the ensuing melees. Cadres of hard-core conspiracy theorists who stormed the premises likely hoped to capture and harm lawmakers, believing doing so would fulfil one of their many esoteric, violent prophecies. It was several hours, marked by President Trump’s refusal to outright condemn the violence his supporters had unleashed and a breakdown in the chain of command, before Washington, D.C. police units, federal law enforcement teams and National Guard reinforcements from surrounding jurisdictions retook the Capitol. Following a security sweep, Congress reconvened to certify the results of the election in the early morning hours of 7 January.

The storming of the Capitol by an armed mob represented the single worst security breach in the nation’s capital since 1814, when the British military occupied and burned parts of Washington, D.C. The failures in preparedness will be litigated for years to come; threats of violence by rally attendees were well-documented on social media, but appeared to have largely been downplayed by those organising the Capitol’s security perimeter. The armed protesters, despite clearly telegraphing their intentions for days in advance to march on the building and enter it, achieved complete surprise over the vast national security apparatus built up in the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks to protect Washington, D.C. from a terrorist attack.

The impact of the riot on American politics is earthshaking. There is precedent for such actions to overturn elections in favor of minority rule at the state level with mob violence between the 1870s and 1890s in several Southern states during Reconstruction, but this has not happened at the federal level since 1861 when the Civil War erupted. The peaceful transition of power was disrupted for the first time in over a century. President Trump has effectively gone into seclusion since the events of 6 January, issuing only a few statements condemning the violence and not appearing in public. Far-right extremists have called for further armed protests from 17 January through Inauguration Day, which will now be held at a smaller scale than in the past with tens of thousands of soldiers and other security personnel surrounding a fenced-off Capitol. All of this comes amid a likely COVID-19 superspreader outbreak centred on the Capitol due to the masses of people packed inside the structure for hours. President-elect Biden inherits a mandate to determine culpability in the riots, and to move against the extreme white nationalist elements and militias that attacked “the People’s House.” While his own Democratic Party, set to control both the House and Senate as well, is largely united in its response to the attack, the Republican Party is roiled by internal divisions, with a handful of legislators calling for President Trump to leave office immediately while most hope to simply ride out the remainder of his term without further incident.

There is no guarantee there will not be further incidents, which may be incited once more by President Trump himself, who still refuses to accept his loss. Despite suffering the worst defeat for an incumbent president in decades, his grip over the party is stronger than it was when he took office in 2016. He will not disappear from the scene, nor will the rage and uncompromising dismissal of his opponents’ legitimacy either.

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