Demagoguery at the US Capitol
Institutions are an important cog in the wheel of democracy, the integral cog that allows it to keep moving.
Wrote the historian Timothy Snyder, in his slim volume about dictatorships: “… institutions are deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were.”
Institutions are an important cog in the wheel of democracy, the integral cog that allows it to keep moving. Without the shining knight of institutional balance, democracy is enervated and rendered vulnerable to the assault of right-wing dictatorship and demagoguery, which was what had happened in cyclical periods across the pages of world history. The slow, creeping invasion of far-right ideology and movements into institutions — an established lifeblood of democracy — poses a longstanding folly which threatens to demolish a nation’s democratic foundations.
The same folly unfolded on American front pages on January 6.
We have seen the inimitable power of one man’s words; that words, when laced with hatred, bigotry, and a wicked sense of entitlement to the threshold of presidential power, do not remain benign letters stitched together and compiled in a Merriam-Webster’s edition. Words become a scaffolding for a raging movement when a madman exploits, backstops, and mobilizes it to keep himself in power.
This is demagoguery on the halls of the American Capitol — a contradictory symbol of democracy and tyranny mashed up in a photo of a mob siege incited by no less than the American Chief Executive.
Donald J. Trump did not incite that flash of white supremacist violence on the day of his post-election rally itself — nor did he incite them into violence on the minute after Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Trump fanned the flames of right-wing ruckus and domestic terrorism even before the Electoral College handed over victory on him over Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he positioned himself as the citadel of underlying prejudices inspiring bigoted violence and assertion of supremacy among his base of a neo-Nazi, far-right, and conservative electorate.
The Trump mob’s siege on the American Capitol is a mere culmination of four years of his incitement to violence, racism, and imperial hubris exercised with a degree of presidential impunity.
But more than power, words formed the backbone of Trumpism’s rise to the apex of American exceptionalism.
Underneath Trump’s stentorian words lie the ideologies that strive to make sense of his incomprehensible madness: the nationalist flair that behooves the Whites to rally behind his ambition to ‘Make America Great Again,’ the flavor of “authoritarian capitalism” through which he integrated the authoritarian values upon which he built his presidency with features of capitalist ventures that enabled him, the touch of racist chest-thumping and xenophobia that gifted him with “the Other” bogeymen on whose visual defeat the whole Trump presidency thrived.
And then, his grand proclamations.
A combination of American resentment over racial minorities, a hankering for that great past that never was, and nationalism interspersed with a vow to reinforce American exceptional supremacy all paved the way for the rise of Trump’s far-right politics and violent rhetoric, sheathed with illusions of demagogue supremacy that blasted on the madman’s face when the mob he incited, inspired, and emboldened had committed a siege “on the heart of American democracy.”
Days following the Trumpian show of violence on the US Capitol, the center of the Empire found itself mired in a sudden moment of sober reflection. The president-elect’s immediate reaction was to assert that that image of the American president staging a coup to covet power “do not reflect” upon who the United States is. Pundits, conservative elements, and even the Republican establishment itself were all cajoled to reflect upon the Frankenstein monster it has conjured. Renewed calls for booting out Trump a week before his term ends now resonates across American party lines — with US Senate’s Republican leader and a Trump sycophant, Mitch McConnell, himself realizing that pursuing the route of impeachment is the only recourse left for the G.O.P and White House itself to rid themselves of Trump’s malodorous feat.
Yet, it is unalterable how American political sphere has reached this low point: Trump’s own rhetoric.
The demagoguery that unfurled itself on the doorsteps of the US Capitol did not manifest on its own. It has ideological, socio-cultural, and political moorings. Decades of social division fueled by racism and Islamophobia had allowed the Republicans to hold captive a narrative suited to foster the G.O.P’s agenda, where Trump appeared as a centrifugal force and figure holding together an incoherent ideology. But it was Trump’s own words, his language of fascism and racist violence, that allowed destruction upon American democracy to even occur.
Amnesty International (2017) noted that Trump’s electoral ascension “followed a campaign during which he frequently made deeply divisive statements marked by misogyny and xenophobia, and pledged to roll back established civil liberties and introduce policies which would be profoundly inimical to human rights.” From the imprisonment of immigrants, including family separations, on American borders to the staunch use of brutal force and police killings in Kentucky and Minneapolis, Trump’s bloodied banner of fascism unfolded in the last four years of his presidential nightmare as accurately as Amnesty had foreseen it primarily because his words reinforced his obnoxious ideology.
Trumpism’s current casualties are institutions and American democracy itself.
Snyder’s little tome tackled the dilemma that institutions face when dictators rise to the pinnacle of political power — of how institutions, falling one by one while demagogues seize more power, has to be taken upon in the line of democratic defense. The intention is to shake the Americans’ consciousness out of the slippery slope of slumber that institutions, in themselves, can defend itself against a menacing dictatorship — a mistake, Snyder noted, that Germans failed to avert when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime hoisted its tyrannical banner.
It raises the aspect of how institutions, in the face of the specter that is fascist dictatorship, are left to fend for themselves with an emasculated amount of defiance. Institutions, per se, do not defend themselves, Snyder emphasizes — the people who claims to own these institutions need to gather around the front lines of democracy’s defense, so much so that any assumption that demagogues who coveted power through democratic means could not destroy the same mechanisms of democracy to their own inimical interests should be written off the populace’s consciousness. It’s the vital lesson that, for Snyder, Hitler’s rise to power must implicate among the post-Nazi generations who now witness a global return to fascism’s menacing fold.
The same lesson, it now appears to be, has to be taken into account by Americans who witnessed the Trump siege at the US Capitol as the tyrant counted his days in American presidential seat. A madman who cannot accept defeat in a free and fair elections, a criminal who frights at the sight of prosecution waiting to hold him accountable for the crimes his presidency had so willingly perpetrated, a white supremacist who gambles in a final straw to maintain the Whites’ indomitable hold over American political power to “make America great again,” brought out the worst in his perilous far-right crowd when he incited them to march down Pennsylvania Avenue and stage a coup for self-perpetuation.
By targeting the US Capitol, Trump’s right-wing and neo-Nazi movement thought it wise to send an ominous message across: if we will not get our way, the mayhem persists. Institutions of democracy — elections, courts, the free press, civilian bureaucracy, and the US Congress itself — might budge under the mounting pressure of mob rule on the streets of Washington D.C., with no less than the president himself instigating the assault on the heart of American democracy to preserve his reviled regime.
But while the actual mobsters who inflicted damage on the US Capitol, which left five people dead, have already been arrested, what about those who lent incitement to that crowd to try mowing down and browbeat American democracy? CNN’s Washington chief correspondent Jake Tapper raises that important question in a live commentary a few days after the US Capitol siege. Will this coterie of enablers of January 6’s bloodshed — from Republican stalwarts Ted Cruz and Kevin McCarthy to Trump himself —be punished for that dastardly assault?
Call to arms now focus on defending American democracy and institutions. The moves to impeach, for the second time around, the American demagogue is infused with the spirit of not letting him be off the hook for the degradation of a symbolic American institution. Forcing his removal from office, borne out of Trump’s own intransigence in his backhanded attempts to stay in the White House and evade the shadow of his criminal presidency, screams of an allegiance to the fundamental foundations of democratic rule: a peaceful transition in presidential office.
It remains to be seen how the last week of Trump in presidential power would pan out. Would far-right violence incited by no less than the president standing on a losing edge escalate, or would the rules of the American democratic ballgame prevail over a criminal demagogue’s whimsical aspiration to stay in power? Amidst the fragility and vacuum caused by Trump’s siege on the US Capitol, one thing is left unyielding to the uncertain stage of today’s American political drama: the need to wipe out Trumpism’s influence from the lifeblood of US politics as soon as Trump himself is turfed out of White House.
The only question left is who will clean up Trump’s mess once he flies out of the Oval Office.
Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat is a campus journalist of six years, writer, and activist. He is the current provincial coordinator for the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines -Laguna. He is also a convenor of the Youth Movement Against Tyranny-Laguna. His bookworm fetish includes works on totalitarianism, fascism, and journalistic essays. He lives by the words of Albert Camus: “Rebellion cannot exist without a strange form of love.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.