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OP-ED: The trashing of American democracy

  • Published at 11:55 pm January 9th, 2021
US Capitol
File Photo: An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of US President Donald Trump gather in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, US, January 6, 2021 Reuters

What does the future hold for US democracy after the storming of the Capitol?

The worst fear of an ugly outcome of weeks of Donald Trump inflaming his cult-like followers with unproven and evidence-free allegations of vote rigging, and his consequent loss in the elections, came to realization yesterday when a thousand or so of his supporters stormed the Capitol.

This was when both houses of the Congress were in session to ratify the presidential elections by a formal count of electoral votes that were certified by the states. This ragtag army of Trump supporters marched to the Capitol after hearing the rambling speech of their cult leader just a mile away, in a park adjoining the White House, where he encouraged them to confront the Congress where the formal process of electoral college vote counting was in progress. 

And so they did, by adhering to their leader and carrying their anger to the sacrosanct precincts of the Capitol. They forced their way into the building by breaking windows, smashing doors, and even climbing walls and ferrying themselves with scaffolds meant for construction workers. It was a scene not even the worst enemies of the United States could conceive of.

During nearly the last two and a half centuries of US democracy, not once was this institution defiled in such a manner. Historians recall that the US Capitol was damaged only once, and that too by a foreign power -- in 1814, when the British had attacked Washington in the wake of the war of 1812.

Unkept promises

It is an irony that this fundamental institution of US democracy would be defiled little more than 200 years later by a section of its own populace, and that too prompted by a person who is supposed to be the leader of the country and its democracy.

But it did not have to happen this way. It happened because the man at the helm, a president who was defeated in a very transparent election that was vetted and re-vetted, refused to accept his defeat. He berated the elections as fraudulent, rigged, and stolen because he did not win. He did not want to accept his loss because, in his own words, he disliked being a “loser.”

So, he appealed to his cult followers that he had built over the last four years; they consisted a motley crowd of white supremacists fearful of losing their grip on power, and other middle of the road opportunists who capitalized on Trump’s narcissistic tendencies. They fawned on him and gave him a false sense of invincibility.

His populist demagoguery harping on making America great again sowed hatred toward immigrants and blamed them for the joblessness of White people, and created enemies worldwide by isolating the US from international bodies and the treaties appealed to them. 

He drew crowds with empty rhetoric but delivered nothing. He failed to bring back jobs that he had promised would return to the US, especially manufacturing jobs. He promised to build a wall with Mexico to prevent illegal migration with money that Mexico would pay. But Mexico paid nothing.

Yet, he was able to retain his image as the saviour of his cult with his false hope and message. That is why his base turned to return the favour by storming the Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes.

How did it come to pass this way?

In normal years this -- the last stage of the US presidential elections process -- is a mere formality since the Congress has no constitutional role in changing this election. It is a more ceremonial process than another election, wherein a joint session of both houses (House of Representatives and Senate) assemble under the chairmanship of the vice president -- who is also the Senate Chair by virtue of office -- and count already decided votes. The process is the last legal step before the newly elected president and vice president are sworn into office on January 20.

But one snag in that last step, although it is a mere formality, is that both houses must listen to any challenge to the results of vote count in any state. 

Laws dictate that if such a challenge is made by a member of the Congress and it is supported by a Senator, the challenge must be heard and then voted upon by both houses. 

The voting does not change the result; however, it delays the final seal of approval of the electoral votes. (Historically, Congress has not intervened in election vote counting since 1877). 

For the last 250 years, this has been the process through which each party and each presidential contestant were recognized and accepted. In fact, the recognition of a new president starts much earlier, as early as the closure of vote counting, with the defeated candidate acknowledging their rival as the winner.

With very few exceptions where the counting had been delayed due to some legal challenge, this concession by a defeated candidate has been a hallmark of American democracy. It is a time honoured tradition, and an example of smooth transition of power from one administration to another.

A refusal to concede

But Donald Trump refused to accept Joe Biden’s election even after the last vote was counted in each state and each state had declared the results. Joe Biden received more than 81.3 million votes (51.3%) against Donald Trump’s 74.2 million (46.8%), a margin of well over 7 million votes. Joe Biden received 306 electoral votes against 232 for Trump. Yet, a pouting Trump would not accept this result. 

Not even after the official certification of the results by the states confirming the result (which is the most important legal portion of the presidential elections).

He and his team of lawyers, led by the nefarious Rudy Giuliani, filed case after case to litigate results in the states where he had lost. But he lost all of them -- 62 to be precise, including one in the Supreme Court which declined to hear his appeal.

But nothing would stop a stubborn Donald Trump. He never ceased to claim that he was the “winner” and that his election has been stolen by a cabal of corrupt state officials, vote frauds, and vote machines.

So, he appealed to his ragtag army of supporters even after the results were over. He even appealed to one state official to overturn the results in his favour by “recalculating.” 

When all these nefarious actions did not yield results, he turned to his supporters -- this time in a rally on the very day the Congress had to meet to tally the results formally. He appealed to them to march to the Capitol and ensure that they overturn the election results. 

What further complicated this year’s final step was the joining in the fray of election dispute by a band of Republican Congressmen and Senators. 

Joining the Trump chorus of false or rigged voting, they declared their intention in late December to challenge the election results of a few states where Donald Trump had lost. 

It is ironic that the storming of the Capitol happened when Mike Pence, the vice president, was chairing the joint session of the Congress to tally the results. 

The protestors not only disrupted the hearing but also occupied the entire precinct, as well as the Chamber, forcing their entry and even occupying the Senate Chairman’s seat and Congress Speaker’s office. The entire mind-boggling spectacle occurred in open view, with cameras watching all over the world. 

The rioters had to be dispelled from the Capitol building with National Guards and Armed Police brought from outside (under Federal Law, the Capitol building is off limits for local police). 

As of this writing, the Capitol premises are free of Trump rioters. But no one knows what they may do on January 20, the inauguration day. 

For nearly 250 years, the US has been priding itself as the Shining City on a Hill, as an example and role model of democracy. What happened on January 6, 2021 may turn this image into a Dark Light on US Democracy. 

No one in their worst imagination could have dreamt of such trashing of democracy, and least of all the most valued institution of democracy -- the Congress. 

But there is hope yet. Because democracy has sustained this country for two and a half centuries, and although it has produced the ilk of Donald Trump and his supporters, it has also given people like Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Barack Obama. Joe Biden is molded by this history. We will soon forget Trump and bury the image he tried to give this country.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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