[Analysis] Capitol Hill Is Under Siege

[Analysis] Capitol Hill Is Under Siege

Francesco Felici
[Analysis] Capitol Hill Is Under Siege
Cover by TNGO illustrator Rossella Gangi

Over the decades and the centuries, America has been regarded (or perhaps, narrated) as the beacon for Democracy and hope in the Western world, as the shining city upon a hill which symbolizes what is righteous and virtuous in the world. The ideals of a manifest destiny, of the United States being a nation chosen by God and meant to spread democracy around the world, have guided American people and leaders to act as the symbol and protectors of Western democracy, as the representation of the importance and power of freedom. On January 6th, 2021, the shining city upon a hill has been sieged, and the symbol of American democracy has been violated on world live television.

HARBINGERS OF CRISIS

At the bottom of the mayhem at Capitol Hill are a series of events that led to this insurgent attack against American democracy. Some might argue that this all started on November 7th, when the votes for the US Presidential Elections were rightfully counted, and Joseph R. Biden was nominated President Elected of the United States as he won his race against Donald Trump. The failure to lock a second term sparked controversy on behalf of the sitting President and many of his Republican enclave, who built up a narrative of the 2020 presidential election being fraudulent. The account built by the Trump Administration portrayed the Democratic Party stealing the election from the self-proclaimed ‘rightful winners,’ and prompted Trump loyalists to disregard the electoral outcomes under the slogan #StopTheSteal. Little impact had the plethora of judges and courts that debunked any possible allegation of fraudulent behaviours during the elections.

The deceiving and unfounded notions of a ‘stolen election‘ that President Trump fed to his electoral base reportedly ignited a sense of resentment and rejection of the once-worshipped law and order, as Trump and his followers deemed every news media or lawful trial fake and corrupted while increasingly relying on conspiracy theories (QAnon above all). The degree to which Donald Trump managed to shift voters’ loyalty from the Grand Old Party (G.O.P.) onto himself would seem to characterize a personalistic cult rather than a political faction.

I am your president of law and order.

President Donald J. Trump, 1st June 2020 in response to the outburst of #BlackLivesMatter protests in several American cities.

THE SIEGE ON CAPITOL HILL

After months of building on conspiracy theories, baseless claims, and divisive narratives to polarize American voters, President Trump unleashed the destructive potential of such a partisan tension on January 6th. During his ‘Save America’ rally in front of the White House, Trump reiterated his unfounded claims of fraudulent election, and urged the thousands of people rallied in Washington to march towards Capitol Hill to demonstrate their malcontent and frustration, where at the time the Electoral Count was taking place to officialize Biden’s victory as Trump ended his speech:

All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede.

President Donald J. Trump, 6th January 2021 at the ‘Save America’ rally in Washington D.C.

What followed was the demonstration of all the destructive potential of the hate and resentment lurking among the American people. In what experts described as a siege rather than a ‘coup’ (the protesters were armed but seemingly lacked a central paramilitary nucleus), Trump supporters breached through the poorly organized law enforcement officials deployed on the site and stormed Capitol Hill through broken windows and forced entry points. It is also worthy of notice the dissimilarities in police response in Washington D.C. between the Capitol Hill siege and the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the summer of 2020, where not only was the National Guard promptly called to intervene, but also cases of excessive force by police and federal officers were reported. As chaos surged, Trump’s insurgents broke through the halls of the American Senate – symbolically violating a central landmark of democracy worldwide that had been left unscathed since the British attack in 1814 during the War of 1812, when the Queen’s troops set fire to the Capitol.

On Thursday, local authorities secured a death toll of 4 and 50 injured police officers as a result of the pro-Trump mobilization. The storming of Capitol Hill did not prevent however the joint Chambers of the Congress from returning to the building and confirming former Senator Biden’s nomination as 46th President Of The United States. It was the sitting President himself to call off the siege through a 1-minute video posted through his social media, although the message addressed to his supporters did not fall short of sparking further controversy as passages of support for the mob featured in Trump’s plea for “peace.” In the – now removed – tweet, President Trump urged revolters to “go home” without condemning the violent acts undertaken by his supporters, and rather adding “we love you, you’re special” after repeating groundless claims of electoral fraud. A longer, more official message ensued on the POTUS’ twitter account, in which outgoing President Trump condemned the siege stating that “demonstrators who infiltrated the capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy.”

Noticeably, Trump’s rhetoric did not feature references to ‘stolen elections’ and instead broached the first formal acknowledgement of an orderly transition of power despite the strong belief that “we must reform our election laws:”

A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power

President Donald J. Trump, 7 January 2021 via Twitter

POTUS BETWEEN IMPEACHMENT AND FORCEFUL REMOVAL

G.O.P. lawmakers’ trend of bandwagoning on the President’s dangerously violent words and narratives have have ultimately come to a head. “Trump,” writes Elaine Godfrey for The Atlantic, “has been a blunt instrument they can use to retain power, appoint conservative judges, and pass tax cuts.” “Today, these Republicans finally confronted the monster they’ve created,” she adds. The events of Wednesday mark a neat and outspoken break between Trumpism and a significant section of the Conservative Party, with only a handful of G.O.P. senators and representatives notably keeping up their unconditional support for the POTUS. Among the latter group was also Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who certified the objection of 60 G.O.P. Representatives to the tally of the Electoral College in a last, desperate attempt to slow down the inevitable officialization of Senator Biden’s election as 46th President of the US.

Along with the deconsolidation of the Republican front, talks of removal from office for President Trump are intensifying from both aisles of Congress. While several G.O.P. Senators have officially denounced the pro-Trump rioters in Washington D.C., some have responded to the President fanning the flames by publicly withdrawing from the objection against the Electoral Tally in Congress. A first option for removal from office was introduced by soon-to-be Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who prompted Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th amendment, which regulates presidential succession in case of resignation, death, illness or temporary incapacitation of the sitting president. The Amendment would require the Vice President and a majority of the Trump cabinet – i.e., the leading officials from federal agencies – to declare President Trump “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” under the disability clause, with a two-thirds majority vote required in both chambers of Congress to ratify the procedure. The amendment enshrined a multistage process that is arguably less attainable than a second impeachment procedure as “the authors of the 25th Amendment intended it to be a difficult process that would make it exceedingly rare,” NYT White House correspondent Michael Shear writes.

Moreover, as the option was presented on the table, a long list of resignations from Trump’s cabinet ensued, including key figures like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Transportation Secretary (and G.O.P. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s spouse) Elaine Chao, and Special Envoy to Northern Ireland and Former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Although these resignations carry a mere symbolic value as cabinet members will terminate their employ under the Trump Administration on January 20, political commentators believe that the exodus of Trump officials may respond also to the need to escape external political pressures to vote in favor of the Amendment XXV procedure and esautorate Trump once and for all, should VP Pence invoke it.

[Analysis] Capitol Hill Is Under Siege
Speaker Pelosi at the press conference called on Thursday to present the Amendment XXV procedure. Source: VOX

Sources close to the Vice President indicate that, however, Pence’s leadership in single-handedly invoking the 25th Amendment is unlikely. A second option, the impeachment procedure (not a first for Donald Trump), was therefore presented by Speaker Pelosi in the aftermath of the siege on Thursday as a last resort in case of the Vice President’s failure to take action. As Senate G.O.P. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to have definitely distanced himself from the POTUS after condemning Republican objections to the Electoral Tally on Wednesday, hopes for a success in impeaching the sitting president would seem less grim than before. Assistant House Speaker Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts confirmed on Twitter that Democratic House members are “actively working to determine the timeline and the quickest path to hold Trump accountable.” The articles of Impeachment cannot be introduced sooner than on January 11, when the House is first scheduled to reconvene, and the little time available (less than 14 days) to reach a simple majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate before Biden’s inauguration renders an impeachment trial beyond challenging. Yet, the determination and anger lingering in Congress following the humiliation of rioters interrupting the sacred rituals of presidential transition could be a strong enough galvanizer of consensus among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

TRUMPISM WAS NOT BORN OVERNIGHT

It would an extremely dangerous understatement to say that all of this was just the results of the aftermath of the election, nor just a consequence of the 4-years Trump’s presidency. These sentiments of violence and frustration have been lurking among the American people for a long time, and President Trump is both the product and the enabler of this environment. In 2016, Trump had been able to rally people towards the G.O.P., by building his campaign around a strong and aggressive economic and anti-migration rhetoric, which convinced the American voters, after the mistakes committed by the Obama administration, that they needed a new way to put “America First.” And, this tactic proved to be effective, as he managed to build on the already strong party base which had previously voted for Mitt Romney, while also appealing to white-collar Democratic voters. During his 4-years presidency, his vision for America First is exactly what he enacted, by fostering aggressive foreign policies (such as the mercantilist war with China, and the withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership), and by cutting down many welfare programs such as MediCare and MedicAid, and reducing individual taxation with the Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2017.

[Analysis] Capitol Hill Is Under Siege
Source: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

However, over these four years, through the many controversies and critiques from both the Democrats and the Republicans, Trump’s political grip started loosening. Hence, as he started loosing faith of the more moderate voters – as also the exit polls of the 2020 election showTrump started to appeal to the more extremist fringes of his voters, as they were the only one who still held faith and trust in him despite the many controversies. All this came to a head with the Covid-19 crisis, which President Trump dangerously failed to handle, and led to the death of more than 300.000 Americans and to the realization for many previous Trump voters that this President was not fit to guide the Nation during such a crisis. With the presidential elections in sight, the Trump campaign consequently convened to appeal to the far-right fringes of the POTUS’ supporters ever more, as they remained the stronghold of his electoral base. Therefore, President Trump is arguably culpable for having given a voice to fringes of the population and of the political spectrum, which however were already existing, waiting for the moment to rise to the surface.

This ambivalence within the Republican party between Conservatives and Far-Right extremisms has always existed; yet, with President Trump it has been brought to the mainstream, as he has given voice and legitimacy to sycophantic entities. The siege of Capitol Hill is the culmination of a decades-long process of decay of American politics, which started with the 2009 economic crisis and the shortcomings of the Obama administration, and the results of ideals and conspiracy theories which have been growing in the background out of sight, waiting for the right moment – or better, the right leader – to unleash them to the world.

And, what is even more concerning, is that during the coverage of the siege, as well as within several comments from prominent figures and former statesmen such as the former presidents Obama and Bush, a common narrative was that this act was not the American Way. Nonetheless, the polarization of the American electorate and the incitation of far-right, arm-bearing fringes among the G.O.P. voters against the ordinary processes of democracy and the sanctity of the rule of law is an entirely domestic phenomenon. This event, sadly, is the American way, or at least part of it. The attack on Capitol Hill is the quintessential manifestation of a part of America which is there: a bigot, violent, and seemingly erratic part for sure, but still a portion of the American people that needs to be re-enfranchised, and most importantly represented.

Trump’s rhetoric is centered around fueling the lack of faith in the system and the disinformation in his supporters. Throughout his mandate, he was able to manipulate their disinformation to the point of disillusion and complete detachment from the complex journalistic and political environment that contributes to what is referred to as “political truth” – a system of checks and balances between lawmakers’ rhetoric and narratives and journalists’ criticisms and fact-checking. De facto, Trump’s leadership has materialized in the disenfranchisement of a wide section of Republican electoral base. The utter distrust against governmental institutions and processes, the total detachment from political reality, and the sense of victimhood perpetuated and bolstered by conspiracy theories that the President himself endorsed all converged onto the separation of American voters from the Chambers of House and Senate as a source of law, order, and government.

Senator Lindsey Graham is only one of the G.O.P. lawmakers that discontinued their support for the outgoing president.

If you are a conservative, this is the most offensive concept in the world: that a single person could disenfranchise 155 million people.

R-Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, 6 January 2021 on the Senate floor

A representation of the mob that sieged Capitol Hill as a mere extremism would benefit neither the American people nor President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris’ arduous undertaking of unifying once again the country after four years of unprecedented societal cleavages. Rioters’ ideals and actions represent the sentiments of a significant part of the American people, a portion of the society which is ready to strike again under the right pressure and leadership. By continuing to purposely sweep under the rug these fringes, and by perpetrating the utopia of America as the beacon of hope and democracy in the world, reconciliating such vast a portion of the American population with the political democratic establishment of the Republic could prove too arduous a task. Only by reintegrating this section of the people under the realm of politics and reason, information and science can the Biden administration possibly uphold its mission to heal the soul of America.

The city upon a hill is burning. The siege at Capitol Hill represents not only one of the darkest moment of American history, but also a direct attack to democracy. And, by continuing to belittle it as just an extremism, as an unwarranted act of violence, American democracy is in peril of weakening more than it already has.

Last updated on January 8, 1800 GMT+1

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