It is hard to process the images and events coming from the US at the moment. President Elect Joe Biden called it an assault on the citadel of liberty. In ancient times, strongholds most commonly fell to internal treachery: someone had to open the gates…
Relying on Trump
Rather than the constitution, or the integrity of the Republican Party as whole, the main protection for America over the last four years, as well as the last few days, has been the extent of Trump’s personal failings. He has provoked and cajoled and excused the worst in others (to disastrous and tragic effect) but has lacked the courage and determination to follow through on all of his instincts. He runs for cover when there is any risk to him personally. He is in it for attention, adulation and gain; he lacks a clear ‘project’ which he is determined to deliver. This seems an extraordinarily precarious position for any country. I am not minimising the signifiant harm Trump has caused, but imagine a Trump without the laziness and cowardice. I don’t think the US has so far demonstrated that it has the will or depth to resist a truly effective demagogue.
Western democracies appear to have forgotten that freedom and democracy are fragile, precious and rare. Partisan politics has become a game and people seem unaware that the stakes are immense: the stability of the country less important than victory today. This is a classic case of winning the battle while losing the war. In a democracy, the victory of your opponent may not be the worst outcome. How have we forgotten that?
I am shocked at the lenient response to the assault on the Capital. The police and security forces appeared deliberately under-prepared to begin with and surprisingly weak in their tactics during the crisis (with some individual exceptions). This would not have happened – and did not happen – with Black Lives Matter protests. As Vice President Elect Kamala Harris said: “We have witnessed two systems of justice: one that let extremists storm the U.S. Capitol yesterday, and another that released tear gas on peaceful protestors last summer.” The photos of police taking selfies with the rioters in January contrast vividly with the armed and masked National Guard deployed at scale in the capital last June during the protests at the killing of George Floyd.
My thoughts are with the families of those killed and injured but this contrast may be the most painful legacy of the assault for the country as a whole. Which brings me to my wider point.
Has liberalism failed us or have we failed liberalism?
If you want law and order to mean something, it must mean the same for everyone. If you want the police to be respected and funded, they must protect every community. If you want hard work to pay off, it must pay off for everyone. If you want freedom to be cherished, everybody must be free. The reason that liberalism, capitalism, meritocracy, law enforcement and freedom are under attack from so many directions is not because anyone has proposed anything better. It is because we have manifestly failed to live up to their ideals and instead to often use their language as a cloak for privilege and power.
The best defence of these values would be to truly live them. For law to protect the weak as well as the strong; for progression to rest on talent not connection; for innovation and change to benefit the many not the few. The biggest threat to standards is the double standard.
We are many things
Many commentators in recent days have said that the assault on the Capitol does not represent America. That it is “not who we are”. I can understand the desire to believe this and would love it to be true. I have known so many kind and generous Americans. But YouGov polling suggests that 45% of Republicans support the assault. And Trump received 74 million votes in 2020. That is more than any candidate in any previous election. (Joe Biden won more this time and won them fairly.) So it might well be how quite a few people are at the moment.
The good and bad in every human is finely balanced. We can be inspired into acts of extraordinary generosity and sacrifice, or goaded into acts of selfishness and spite. It is a competition between our empathy and our fear. A race between our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes and our sense of threat.
With our partisan games, we risk our ability to see our opponents as fully human. In a poll in 2010 50% of Republican said they would be “upset” if one of their children married a Democrat for example. And our information environment has become so polluted that a common ground of facts has been replaced by conspiracy theories which multiply and amplify threats and risks. The contempt and the fear are consciously stoked by malign actors both foreign and domestic: the enemies of America, and of democracy, have had a good week.