Joe Biden took over as the 46th US President on a bitterly cold Washington day in front of a sparse crowd of a thousand guests and amidst the largest security lockdown Washington city or a Presidential inauguration has ever seen.
What has traditionally been a festive occasion was reduced to a take-no-risks security advisory following the bizarre events on January 6th when a frenzied pro-Trump mob stormed ‘the citadel of democracy’, attacked lawmakers and security personnel, and ransacked Capitol Hill. The world watched in shock and horror, as they realized that the attack was instigated by none other than the sitting US President! Mayhem and utter chaos reigned, as a violent mob went on the rampage.
Bewildered and confused, people were glued to their television sets across the globe and initially wondered if they were watching a film, till the sickening realization that Capitol Hill was truly in a state of siege by American citizens and not by any outside group. Breaking barricades, destroying furniture, desecrating the high office of the Speaker, attacking police officials, screaming slogans, a frenzied mob threatened the very edifice of the American polity. Ashen faced, visibly shocked and annoyed, President-elect Biden called on Donald Trump to put an end to the disgraceful episode and called the mobsters ‘domestic terrorists’.
It is to the credit and extraordinary grit of Senators that they returned, the very same day, to complete the business of the House and confirmed Joe Biden as the next President of the US. Mike Pence, Republican Senator and Vice President, broke ranks with his boss and decided to uphold the American Constitution.
The events of January 6th have opened a Pandora’s box. Apart from Trump and many Republican Senators openly inciting the crowd, questions have been raised on the loyalty of security personnel. Some have been suspended and others are under investigation for aiding members of the mob to enter Capitol Hill.
It is also a fact that it was known in advance that demonstrators would stage a rally on January 6th and yet, the security deployment was grossly inadequate and in sharp contrast to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ rally. Further, if an armed terrorist outfit had infiltrated the mob and opened fire inside Capitol Hill, the result would have been horrific massacre. Undoubtedly, an extraordinary security lapse had taken place.
Legitimate questions are understandably raised as to whether the US has two sets of laws and response when it comes to the non-white Christian community, as opposed to others. The video footage that sticks to mind is of black people cleaning the mess in Capitol Hill, after the rampaging mob dispersed, while white policemen stand around.
A Divided People
When an emotionally shaken Biden appealed to the mob and said, ‘This is not who we are’, he touched the heart of the matter by raising the question of who truly Americans are and what they have become. It was a question of identity and of purpose, of meaning and what it is to be un-American. It is the crisis that, tragically, American democracy and nationhood faces and one that Biden would need to confront.
American society appears to be sharply divided. The 78 million votes that Trump received is clear testimony to that. He projected himself as ‘the Saviour of the Forgotten’ and this bears remembering. His supporters include, among others, white supremacists and evangelists.
Biden promises to be ‘a President for all Americans’ acknowledging the divide. This has been brewing over several decades but during Trump’s tenure, an extreme form of nationalism took root whereby majority Americans started to suffer from a minority persecution complex. They felt alienated and left out. It seemed to them as if the entire system was working in favour of the minority and the outsiders. When this happens, you start to blame others for your misfortune. There is then growing resentment against immigrants, non-whites and non-Christians.
This is precisely what happened during the Nazi period when Jews, homosexuals, the infirm and the elderly, and the gypsies were identified as being the source of Germany’s problems and thus, had to be eliminated.
The Republican Party is also on the brink of breaking up between Republicans and Trumplicans. Several prominent Republicans have broken ranks with Trump, following the January 6th events. Trump, himself, has threatened to return ‘in some form’ and hinted at the formation of a new political party, possibly called ‘the Patriots’.
Biden is not likely to be overly concerned with Trump’s threat because he realizes that simple electoral math would demonstrate that such a political party would only eat into Republican votes and hand Democrats assured victory. Biden’s principal concern and preoccupation would be to unify America. He faces a serious and monumental challenge.
Democracy is in a state of continuous evolution. Consequently, there are no examples of a ‘a perfect democracy’. All democracies, including American, are, therefore, flawed and a work in progress.
The essence of democracy lies in people and in institutions. Good democratic governance focusses on strengthening institutions, in ensuring their autonomous and objective functioning, and in pursuing equality and justice for all. People are centre stage because, as Abraham Lincoln said, it is by, of and for the people.
Often this does not happen. Elected representatives tend to believe that all power has not been delegated to them to do as they will. Processes of consultation are abandoned and under the guise of democracy, the dubious world of fiefdom rears its head. As Socrates once famously said, ‘Tyranny is probably established under no other regime than democracy’.
Trump not only believed that he was above the law but that he was the law. He believed that he could do whatever he pleased and that he was not accountable to anyone. He was the Supreme Leader. To many, he was the voice of God! In the words of American political philosopher, Thomas Paine (1747-1809), ‘In a monarchy, the king is law. In a democracy, the law is king’.
He needed enemies and chose them carefully. The Mexicans, he argued, came into the US illegally and took away jobs from deserving Americans and so, he built his infamous wall. He cracked down on immigrants, even though America is essentially a country built by immigrants. When wide-spread protests ensued following the brutal murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, he threatened to call in the military and referred to the protestors as ‘a bunch of jerks’. All these actions resonated with a larger number of Americans than was anticipated. Trump’s advocacy of extreme nationalism was just what they needed.
He was confident that he would be surrounded by sycophants, who would do his bidding. He played the old trick that the dictatorial style of leadership adopts, which is to ensure that everyone is always in a state of confusion and uncertainty. He announced, soon after taking over that US foreign policy would be unpredictable and that it would be a key strategy of his. He practiced this through all areas of governance. He appointed people to jobs and sacked them if they disagreed with him. He could praise or vilify without compunction. He sowed seeds of betrayal and distrust among his key advisors and inner circle, just as Hitler did with Hess, Goering, Himmler and Goebbels.
His addiction to social media was extraordinary. But it was one way. It would appear that he never saw the manner in which he was constantly caricatured in the press, including by his own countrymen. He became the butt end of jokes and even among children. In comparison to several of his predecessors, he was simply unpresidential.
Trump’s assault on democracy and how Biden proposes to heal America would be watched by many across the globe. There are lessons to be learnt.
But what we do know is that democracy is all about people. Often it is tempting to underplay this because of the extraordinary power leaders bestow upon themselves. ‘We the people’ then starts to become a hollow slogan, perhaps even an epitaph. As Bertolt Brecht, the German philosopher playwright wrote, ‘The people had lost their faith in the government, which could only be regained by redoubled efforts. Would it, in that case, not be simpler to dissolve the people and re-elect another.’ A sobering thought. Perhaps even an intoxicatingly tempting one!
(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.)