The fragility of our democratic system was made very clear by the Capitol Riot on January 6th. After the inauguration, partisan tensions seemed to disappear, but when President Biden and Vice President Harris assumed their official positions, the same old discord and tensions returned. While a calmer political climate would seem long overdue after the tumultuous events of the past few months, it’s important to question the reasons behind the short lived calm. Since the outcome of the 2020 election was officially recognized by the press, the guarantee of having a peaceful transition of power seemed to disappear. The worst fears of many were realized on January 6th when a mob of violent, destructive, and deluded Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and staged an insurrection.
January 6th marked the official counting and certification of electoral votes in Congress, when senators and representatives could voice objections to the legality of the election. In most election years, this day is highly symbolic and simply a time for American democratic ideals to be celebrated and observed. Indeed, prior to this year, few Americans were even aware of the significance of January 6th in our election process.
However, because of President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election and his encouragement of his followers to ‘stop the steal’ and protest Biden’s win, his supporters were motivated to physically object to this democratic process taking place in the Capitol. Ironically, many Republican senators and representatives had been planning to back Trump’s claim of voter fraud on that day, so the violent insurrection only delayed their own objections from being heard.
The insurrection at the Capitol showed great disrespect and sedition by a few thousand Americans. As the world watched, one of our most sacred symbols of democracy was ransacked by a group of hate-spewing insurgents. The feeling of utter shock that so many Americans felt while watching these people crash through the building, scale walls, and vandalize congresspersons’ offices will remain with them forever.
Despite repeated language from the former President that subtly encouraged an uprising, nobody expected to see the level of chaos that was exhibited on that day. It is easy to feel desensitized to the events that took place, especially while observing the absurd costumes and buffoonery of many of those caught on camera. However, the hypocrisy of policemen taking selfies with the armed rioters, allowing them to wander the Capitol with limited resistance must be recognized and addressed. Four rioters lost their lives, and the lives of hundreds of US members of congress were put in danger. More importantly, Brian Sicknick, a brave police officer, was overpowered, beaten, and killed in this violent and unnecessary clash. Many weeks later, two more officers who witnessed the riot committed suicide.
When examined more deeply, this event shows an increasingly dire divide between the Democrats and Republicans, and a distortion in the perspectives of millions of people across the country. The anger and disillusionment of those who stormed the Capitol is understandable to some degree because of the way they receive information. The echo chamber created by the former President’s tweets and the various ultra-right news sources and social media platforms emphasize conspiracies and support the denial of facts. The never-ending claims of “fake news” also perpetuate misinformation and normalize the rejection of facts when they don’t fit a particular view. This had led to interpersonal animosity and a weakened democracy.
In the hours following the raid, many politicians changed their previous decision to challenge the electoral votes. In an effort to display unity, they continued the proceedings on that same day and into the night. Almost all of the senators expressed their deep disturbance and regret about the event. Much of the denial about the election was present before the riot seemed to evaporate, implying that it was more of a politically strategic move than a reflection of their deeply-held beliefs. By challenging the electoral votes without any solid evidence of fraud, they were supporting the conspiracies of the same insurrectionists that threatened their lives just hours before. They were completely justified in exercising their constitutional right to challenge the votes, but doing so in the context of a dangerous misinformation campaign only served to further strangle our core democratic principles. Regardless of political affiliation, people throughout the US are grateful for our strong democratic traditions, whether shown in the form of conducting recounts or evidenced by a smooth transition of power.
Politicians from both parties stressed the importance of unity and bipartisan collaboration, but as President Biden makes more executive decisions in office, this illusion is starting to fade. We go into the new presidential term with words like cooperation and compromise ringing in our ears, but the path forward must not be one of concession to the views of those who sympathized with the denial of the election. This mindset has led to the Capitol Riot and it is not unreasonable to assume that something like that, or worse, could happen again.
Disagreement between parties is normal, but putting on a show of perfect unity to the public will not solve the widening gap between the members of Congress. Trump’s refusal to attend Biden’s inauguration encouraged his supporters’ beliefs that the election was stolen. Furthermore, the initial bipartisan effort to condemn Trump’s part in the riot has faded. Claiming that unity between parties can be achieved by ‘moving on’ from the Capitol riot and not examining its implications just serves the agenda of one side of the divide. In light of the upcoming impeachment trial, Senator Rand Paul continues to argue that the trial is unconstitutional since Trump is no longer in office, and the Republican party is showing overwhelming loyalty to the former president. Even Senator Mitch McConnell, who had blamed Trump for the riot saying, “the mob was fed lies” and people were “provoked by the President,” has now backtracked and is agreeing with most of his party members with regard to minimizing the necessity of a trial. The short-lived nature of the criticism against the former President by the Republican Party shows how powerful his influence remains. Even more alarming, new evidence has emerged about the in-depth planning of the Capitol riot and the violent intentions of insurrectionists to kill members of Congress.
Despite this contentious state of affairs, there have been some displays of real unity between the parties. The impact of these past few months has also altered the dynamic within the Republican party and set an uncertain future for its members. In the House’s vote to conduct Trump’s second impeachment trial, ten Republican representatives opted to vote for the impeachment. So far, the Senate has also approved all of Biden’s nominations for the Cabinet.
To productively move on from the Capitol riot and the rocky transition of power, the Republican party must be direct about its goals and the extent to which it plans to let former President Trump’s presidency define its future. It will require genuine commitment to honesty and transparency from both parties to make progress under the Biden administration. Rather than minimizing the events of January 6th, it is important to understand why it happened and what must change to ensure that our fragile democracy is never again threatened by its own citizens and leadership.