Is the Capitol Hill violence a warning 
for the world’s liberal democracies, 
asks A L I Chougule

For close observers of the pro-Trump and far right extremist movements in the US and European nations, the scenes that unfolded on Capitol Hill last week were waiting to happen. On January 6, thousands of Trump supporters flocked to Washington to protest and overturn the results of the November 2020 presidential election. They had listened to their president say he would never concede, that American elections were no longer free and fair and that he lost because the election was rigged. Then he egged on his supporters to march on the Capitol building. Moments later, chanting “This is our House’, they broke past security lines at the Capitol, in an attempt to overthrow a democratic process that was on inside the house: a joint Congressional session to count electoral votes and officially confirm Joe Biden’s victory. As grim as last Wednesday’s events were, they were also predictable and almost inevitable.

Predictable because one can draw a straight line from years of conspiracy theories and dangerous propaganda spouted by the far right and Donald Trump himself, across the internet and in the right-wing media, creating intricate and dangerous alternative realities, to Trump rallies and his refusal to concede the election to the siege of the Capitol.

Shattered reality

For those who were fed on a steady diet of lies, last Wednesday’s events were the result of a realisation that there was no grand plan for Trump to magically retain office. If the presidential election showed that America is a divided nation, the endless stream of propaganda, conspiracy and lies of the past four years and events of the last few weeks show America in a crisis. It is a culmination of years of hatred, trolling and violent harassment of blacks which, at times, spilled into the streets but has shown its true impact now. Violence is one outcome; shattering of a shared American reality, the glue that holds the country together and makes democracy possible is another.

Who is to be blamed for the Capitol attack and assault on democracy? Mainstream western media has blamed Trump. Some opinion writers have said that Trump is too dangerous to leave in office for even one more week. His language of patriotism is too dangerous. Wednesday wasn’t Trumpism’s “last gasp”. It was a manifestation of a divided society, in which millions of Americans, as opinion writer Charlie Warzel has said in New York Times, “are actively courting conspiracies and violent, radical ideologies in order to make sense of a world they don’t trust.”

Great nations are created by statesmen, democracy is nurtured by evolved, responsible and liberal leaders. But Trump, using the language of patriotism with a promise to make “America great”, used most of his four-year term to weaken democracy and undermine institutions. If his election four years ago shocked the world, the fag end of his presidency is very distressing.

Warning for others

As many global leaders expressed horror at what happened at Capitol Hill that literally “shook the world”, placing the blame squarely on Trump, many saw it as a stark and disturbing warning for all the world’s democracies: if this could happen in the US, it could happen anywhere. Some saw it not merely as a US national issue, but an attack on the very fundamentals of democratic structures and institutions. As leaders and government officials around the world responded with the sort of statements previously issued by the US State Department when political violence consumed other countries, even some of Trump’s vocal admirers distanced themselves from the violence that unfolded.

The attack on the Capitol, coming less than a day after the Hong Kong police had arrested more than 50 democracy activists, was seen as a deep blow to America’s global credibility, making it harder for America to hold to account authoritarian leaders who trample on democratic values. Clearly, the US has lost the moral authority to preach democracy and human rights to other countries.

For many foreign leaders, the scenes in the US were also reminders of recent political attacks on democracy at home. Germany drew a parallel between the storming of the US Capitol and last year’s attempt by a far right, anti-vaccine German mob to enter the Reichstag, the building that houses Germany’s parliament. Some Germans also felt reminded of the National Socialist riots of the 1920s and 1930s.

In the Netherlands, angry farmers, often led by the far-right Farmers Defence Force, have been destroying government offices and threatening politicians since 2019. Going further back, in 2006, a far right mob stormed the Hungarian parliament and engaged with police for weeks in the streets of Budapest, which ultimately saw an increase in radicalisation and return to power of current Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Far right on centre stage

How and why did we get thus far? First and foremost, through a long process of failures of democracy, short-sighted opportunism of the mainstream right and mainstreaming of far-right ideas and people. Donald Trump has been a major catalyst for this process.

The same is true of nationalist and right-wing leaders like Marine Le Pen of France, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Recep Erdogan of Turkey, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Political scientists and commentators, who have studied international far right forces over three decades, say that they have never seen them as emboldened as in the last decade. Beyond Europe, illiberal and hardline right wing forces are on the march. In India for instance, right-wing forces are on the rise and their mainstreaming has been an ongoing process since 2014.

There is a lot that separates nationalists from one another, but, according to Princeton political philosopher Jan-Werner Muller, “It’s possible to pick out shared tendencies coursing through their politics: governance based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponising the economy to secure political power.”

Democracy under threat

So, is democracy itself as vulnerable as the buildings that were breached in Budapest, Berlin and now, Washington? Political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has spent many years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe, Latin America and his own country, the US. He believes that democracy is under threat worldwide. “The US is a pretty old democracy, it is also a rich democracy. This should make it stable. The fact that we are seeing the erosion of democracy in the US should be a warning for other countries,” says Ziblatt.

The crucial difference between the US and other global democracies, according to German political scientist Sebastian Bukow, co-author of best-selling book ‘How Democracies Die’, is that while in the US, democracy has been repeatedly questioned by the president himself, in most of the Western European democracies right wing leaders are supported by a small radical minority in society. The disturbing phenomenon over the last two decades is the global trend of the rise of illiberal democracy, which found a hospitable environment in the US.

One can see the signs of illiberal democracy finding ground in India through the siren song of right-wing nationalists and because of the current potency of politics as a culture war, as also due to the dilution of democracy by democratic means. The dwindling checks and balances, waning power of countervailing and intermediary institutions, amid growing polarisation and declining trust in shared definitions of common good and also facts are all a threat to India’s Constitutional, liberal democracy.

The writer is an independent senior journalist.

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