In a profound attack on democracy, Donald Trump supporters broke into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., disrupting a vote to certify Joe Biden’s presidential victory. The failed coup attempt saw the mob overwhelm armed police and even occupy the Senate floor for hours, as elected officials evacuated the building.
This unprecedented action, while heartbreaking, should not have come as a surprise. The past five years have led up to this insurrection. Thanks to a broken political system, opportunistic politicians, and an authoritarian administration, American democracy is near demise. How did we let ourselves and our values fall so far?
It’s not as if there weren’t warning signs of democracy’s decline. Even before his inauguration, Trump demonstrated authoritarian tendencies. He incited hatred and distrust towards the media, a long-standing institution which holds power to account. At presidential debates, he threatened to jail his opponent and refused to say if he’d accept the result of the election. There was never any doubt Trump was a threat to democracy.
However, his supporters bent over backways to excuse his behaviour. Instead of defending democaratic values, many Republicans silently stood by Trump during the 2016 election. Although some expressed reservations over certain comments, they still clung onto him due to an outdated sense of party loyalty.
It never helped that most Americans did not immediately recognize the severity of Trump’s comments. In fact, most people did not seriously contemplate a Trump presidency, or the disorder it would bring, due to the improbability of his victory. David Plouffe, former campaign manager to Barack Obama, even claimed Hillary Clinton had an 100 per cent chance of winning. Ultimately, few of us took Trump and the potential damage his administration would cause seriously enough.
Over his four years as president, however, Trump never stopped stooping to new lows, undermining American institutions as he went along. When a white supremacist rally broke out in Charlottesville, resulting in the death of one women, Trump defended rioters, claiming there was “some very fine people on both sides.” Throughout his presidency, he continually refused to denounce white supremacists and the danger they posed. Another fatal assault on democracy occurred in 2019, when Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the family of his political opponent. Throughout his time in the White House, the president wasted no effort in eroding the country he was sworn to protect.
None of these actions caused Republican officials to abandon their president. Yes, some made an occasionally discouraging remark, or even voted against him in Congress. However, most elected officials never stopped working with him or took any action to circumvent his authoritarianism. In fact, at Trump’s impeachment trial, only one Republican senator voted to remove him from office — the others prioritized their own self-interest and ignored overwhelming evidence of the president’s attack on demcoratic norms.
The Republican Party, instead of standing for conservative values, became the unapologetic party of Trumpism.
Trump’s threats to democracy reached new heights, however, in the 2020 election. After Americans chose to elect Biden as their president, Trump tried to subvert the will of the electorate. Over the past two months, he has falsely claimed the election was stolen. Anyone familiar with the facts knows this is a blatant lie. Trump’s own attorney general said the justice department verified there was no widespread cases of voter fraud and a statement from election security officials called the election “the most secure in American history.”
Despite this, Trump continued his mission to rescind the election, pressuring both state officials and his own vice-president to overturn the results — a series of actions simply unimaginable prior to his administration.
Ultimately, Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric cultivated in the political violence we saw as rioters broke into the Capitol building in an attempt to overturn an election, where the outcome was never in doubt.
Let me be clear — this is a sitting president actively destroying American democracy by directly helping to incite an insurrection. Even as rioters threatened the safety of elected officials, political staff, and reporters on scene, Trump continued tweeting statements that the election was stolen. This is amongst the lowest moments in United States history.
Trump is undoubtedly responsible for this downfall — however, the blame isn’t entirely his. The responsibility for this situation is shared by the politicians and supporters that consistently enabled Trump’s authoritarian antics by standing by his recklessness. While Republican leadership may now express their concerns over Trump’s actions, it doesn’t erase the last five years where they remained silent as their democracy was under siege, piece by piece. Standing up for democracy was never the norm — it was always the exception.
Sadly, Trump was emboldened and rewarded by many Americans. The 2020 presidential election saw Trump still garner over 74 million votes — the second highest amount in American history. He might not have won the election but substantial portions of the electorate still chose to hold their nose and vote for him anyways.
Put simply, I don’t think that 74 million Americans support Trump’s anti-democratic attitude. However, I do sadly believe many of them are willing to condone his actions in order to advance their own interests.
The Trump administration and its willingness to resort to authoritarian tactics should disgust us all. There should be no accommodation for the president’s actions. Trump may be responsible for endangering American democracy, but this would not have been possible without the compliance of politicians and voters who chose to look the other way.
Given the attack on the Capitol building and the president’s continued lies about election fraud, it is clear Trump is too dangerous to remain in office, even for the next 14 days. He should be removed from office, either by his own cabinet under the 25th amendment or by impeachment. Looking at how seriously the Republicans have taken Trump’s previous assaults on democracy, however, I wouldn’t hold out hope.