On Wednesday afternoon, January 6, 2021, something happened in Washington, DC, that was long in the making. The cradle of model democracy, the US Congress was assaulted by the American people, encouraged by the incumbent President. Confederate flags and the American public’s gullibility were on full display. The rioters ransacked the Capitol Hill briefly occupying the offices of House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
The world watched with bated breath. Just two weeks before the transition towards Joe Biden’s presidency, President Trump had heaped an incredible scorn on the very office that he held for four years and contested so bitterly to hold for another four years.
The reaction was swift. There were cracks in the White House with Vice-president Pence falling out with President Trump; at least two federal secretaries resigned in protest; cracks opened wide within the Republican Party over a divisive presidency; and some White House aides left in protest. Political consensus within the United States swung between impeaching President Trump, considered unable to govern, to waiting for inauguration of Biden on January 20.
Who were the rioters? What did they want and what are the underlying causes of their unrest? A deeper analysis would reveal the hidden fault lines in contemporary America.
The rioters were mainly white supremacists with a sizeable veteran population, drawn from across the American rural belt, the traditional Trump support base. There were the Proud Boys, a far-right group that espouses racist, sexist and anti-immigrant views. There were representatives of the National Socialist Club, a neo-Nazi group. There were members of a collective called Murder the Media, and then there were the Three Percenters, a far-right armed group, wearing helmets and kevlar vests with the group’s symbol, a Roman numeral three. They came from all over America with the most visiting the national capital for the first time.
They were fed on a constant dose of hate for the rich, powerful, privileged, and the ostensibly corrupted US elite, by President Trump, who won the election in one of the biggest revolts of the US electorate in 2016. Trump, then stood for anything and everything anti-establishment and anti-status-quo. As a stalwart of change (Make America Great Again), he created immense hope for the mostly rural middle-class America.
But as democracies evolve and do not revolutionise; so in the end his own divisive and combative style more than a recalcitrant and powerful deep state led to his undoing, further dividing a divided nation.
The rioters in their own right, briefly that fateful Wednesday afternoon, felt they could not be ignored. Many took pleasure in smoking in the building, tearing and ransacking and leaving the “toilets unflushed”. They were Trump’s foot soldiers, aiming at disrupting the certification process of the Electoral College results that was underway in the building under his own Vice-president Mike Pence.
The police took a lot of flak for being overwhelmed and unprepared to deal with the situation despite clear signs and prior assembly of the rioters; for their lack of coordination with other agencies; and for not asking the Pentagon’s help in requisitioning the National Guards. It did not have crowd-control wherewithal like a heavily-manned perimeter, dogs and mounted officers.
Police was also criticised for being soft on the mostly White protestors. President-elect Biden summed up the sentiment saying, “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol,” Consequently, DC Police chief and both the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms resigned. However, contrary to popular thinking, the DC Police acted with sanity and prudence avoiding bloodshed and not becoming a party in the Trump-incited potential carnage.
In searching for why, analysis points to contemporary America being plagued by problems like poverty, income inequality, sliding race relations, poor handling of the coronavirus, general discontentment and the prospect of losing to a rising China.
As per the US Census Bureau, the percentage of American public living in poverty before the pandemic had fallen to some of the lowest levels (at 11.1%) ever recorded, thanks to the long spell of record economic growth. However, more than eight million people have been dragged into poverty consequent to ravages of the pandemic, due to the economic effects of the lockdowns and exhaustion of funding under the CARES Act. Many sociologists doubt the government supplied data, and suspect poverty to be more prevalent. A 2012 study estimated roughly 38% Americans living from paycheck to paycheck.
Similarly, America has the highest level of income inequality among other industrialised nations. As per the Congressional Budget Office, market income of the top 1% rose from 9.6% in 1979 to 17.5% in 2016, after it peaked at 20.7% in 2007.
Race relations is another festering wound with wide-spread discrimination against blacks, Latinos and people of colour. “Black Lives Matter” is a case in point. The brutally cruel and inhuman killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, after a police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee over Floyd’s neck, led to worldwide anger and condemnation. Blacks and other minorities remain severely under-represented in the police ranks in particular.
Due to the devastations of Covid-19, the healthcare system across the US remains overwhelmed. There are more than 371,000 deaths and over 22 million infections. Trump’s ambivalence to the disease and a disjointed effort adversely affected national response and attitudes. Even now, the system cannot distribute the vaccines, despite being readily availability.
The widespread discontent across the US that initially catapulted Trump to power, is now poised for more disruptions. Biden secured 51.3% of the popular vote, as against the 46.8% won by Trump. Although Biden is the first President-elect to win more than 80 million votes, Trump is close with 74.2 million to his side, more votes “ever” won by any presidential candidate (except Biden). So, to keep future Trumpian disruptions at bay, lawmakers might go the impeachment way to block Trump’s future candidacy (the decision of which was still pending till the filing of this article). Even then, his red-neck support base will continue to cast its shadow.
The cumulative effect of the US problems and the spectre of a rising China make America potentially weak and poor. China stands as a viable alternative to the US pre-eminence and prestige. Change remains an enduring constant in the rise and fall of nations.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2021.