Like much of the rest of the world, I watched the events of yesterday in Washington with horror, but with a fatalism after these years of Trumpism.
We’ve all observed his disrespect for the law and for social norms, and as he became more beleaguered after losing the election, he went up a gear and urged insurrection. His refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election was flagged by journalists, as was his request that the Proud Boys ‘stand by’ and that state officials put down the protests with guns. Populism transformed into fascism, as he invokes the image of socialists and communists rampaging across the country, burning neighbourhoods and rigging elections.
There is no centre-ground in the discussion about Trump, as he has done everything to destroy the norms of democracy that anchor public debate. The majority of Republicans support him not because of legal proof, media scrutiny or supportable facts, but because the media is supposedly biased against him; the Washington swamp needs cleansing and he will Make America Great Again. It is emotions, rather than facts, that motivate them, and fascist movements throughout history have relied upon such combinations of hatred, conspiracies and betrayals to win support.
One of the biggest lies circulating on social media is that the liberal left is the biggest threat to democracy.
Since when did anti-fascists, rather than actual fascists, become the big threat? Is it because all these social campaigners and environmentalists have been secretly filmed training with semi-automatic weapons in hemp fields? Or knitting bullet proof armour out of yogurt? Where is the killing spree by young people using gender neutral pronouns? On the other hand, I do know that Jo Cox MP, was killed by a man shouting ‘Britain First’. I know that the biggest single act of political violence in modern, western Europe was the Oslo bombing and cold-blooded massacre of young social democrats that killed 77 people in Norway by a right wing fanatic who was motivated by a hatred of ‘cultural Marxism’.
The fallacy of an equivalence between left-wing protest and armed right-wing militias is seen by the response to many of the protests in the US during the last year. Contrast the phalanxes of camouflage-suited riot police that defended the White House and other Washington buildings during the summer of Black Lives Matter protests, with the thin blue line inside the Capitol Building we saw yesterday.
Contrast the reactions of many police forces in the US to largely peaceful protests of hundreds of thousands with the lack of reaction when armed men roll up to intimidate elected officials by rallying and parading outside their homes.
Peaceful protest is perfectly legal and here in the UK the police even have a role in facilitating it. It often does cause disruption and inconvenience, but must never tip over into violence and incipient terrorism, which is what we saw happen in the Capitol Building.
The lesson from the US is that democracy has to be actively defended and we need to unite to do it. We need a discussion about how we counter this threat in the age of culture wars. That starts by recognising that the things that unite us are far more important than differences over particular issues, political parties or strategies for change.
Our democracy is far from perfect. The British state has spent the last 40 years running spying operations against left-wing groups and environmentalists. Over a thousand groups from the young liberals to the Green Party and Doreen Lawrence have all been under surveillance by undercover police and other methods. Mostly it has been a waste of their time and taxpayers’ money. Only in recent years have the security services turned their attention away from groups committed to nonviolent direct action and towards neo-fascists who prefer violence to voting.
Plus, during the past year Parliament has seen unprecedented power grabs by No 10 – some, one could argue, could be justified as an urgent reaction to the pandemic. But most have been simple and persistent irritation from our chaotic, incompetent Prime Minister and Cabinet at having to answer to MPs and Peers. Our system could be a lot better, but at some levels it does work, especially in terms of holding the Government to account. Except when it can’t, because the Government has put blocks in through sneaky secondary legislation.
What we need now is a programme of democratic renewal that we can all agree upon. We need reforms that bring election law into the modern age, expose the sources of dark money to some light and get rid of undemocratic arrangements like first-past-the-post and the unelected House of Lords.
As I’m an optimist, I hope that two things have come out of this for the USA. First, that the US Congress might find some common ground for moving forwards. Secondly, that Trump’s brand is devalued for all but the most tenacious.
I wish I could add a hope that our Government has learned its lesson on supporting demagogues, but sadly I can’t believe that this Government can learn any lessons.
And let’s not forget that Trump has access to the nuclear codes for another two weeks.