Images broadcast from the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. this week are sickening. The building was breached by a mob rejecting Joe Biden’s victory in the November election and demanding that Donald Trump remain as president. One person was shot in the melee, Capitol offices and the chamber were looted and incendiary devices were found there and elsewhere in the city. No one should be surprised by this grim and depressing turn of events. It is the natural culmination of weeks of increasingly strident, baseless and desperate assertions by the president and his supporters that the election was stolen.
The damage will be cleaned up and Biden will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20. All responsible for this catastrophe must be held accountable but that will not undo the damage that has been done. The scenes of lawlessness and destruction will be seared into the popular imagination not only in the U.S. but around the world. The image of the United States has been indelibly stained.
The violence that erupted this week was inevitable. Trump has been priming this pump for years. It began during the 2016 campaign, when his primary defeats were dismissed with charges of cheating. Even after he beat Hillary Clinton in that election, he insisted without evidence that he had prevailed in the popular vote — which he lost by millions — because of illegally cast ballots.
Trump began to discredit the 2020 election before votes were even cast, claiming that changes to voting procedures to account for the COVID-19 outbreak would undermine the results. Those denunciations became more shrill after he lost the election and some of his supporters took up his cause with frightening devotion. The lack of any evidence and a series of defeats in the courts — 60 by last count — did nothing to deter them or diminish their energy.
The manic intensity erupted Wednesday in Washington when a mob, encouraged by Trump to assemble and protest in support for him, stormed the U.S. Capitol, forcing suspension of proceedings to certify the Electoral College results and evacuation of the building, all of which played out on television. One protestor was shot and later died and looters proudly desecrated the building. It is telling that the mob carried the Confederate flag and the “Trump flag” — a U.S. flag with a blue line running through it. Both confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s declaration on Wednesday that the violence “borders on sedition.” “It was not protest,” he added, “It is insurrection.”
Order was quickly restored and Congress went back into session to certify the Electoral College results. Some senators and representatives who had planned to challenge the results reversed course and voted to affirm the outcome. They deserve little, if any, credit for acknowledging reality. Remarkably, several others held to their original positions and demanded a debate.
It has long been argued that Trump is both a cause and a consequence of this chaos. That is no longer true. He emerged from a party that was undergoing an identity crisis, took control and shaped it with a nihilistic vision that merged his personal interests with those of the Republican Party and the United States. Enablers were crucial to his success. Rather than call him out, they encouraged others “to take him seriously, not literally.” After his defeat in the November ballot, the prevailing wisdom was to let him rant: What harm could he do? Some gave moral support to his baseless claims of fraud, insisting that doubt without evidence was enough to challenge an election result. The price of their indifference is now appallingly clear.
But Trump was the critical actor. He piled the tinder, poured the gasoline and then fanned the flames of discontent. Even after they stormed the Capital, Trump did not repudiate nor condemn the rioters; instead, he repeated claims of election theft, and then merely urged them to “go home,” telling them that “we have to have peace” and that they are “special.”
The future is uncertain, but sometimes its outlines are clear. The horrific ending of the Trump administration was not ordained, but it was foreseen and ever more likely as bad behaviors were ignored and enabled. Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic representative from Virginia who served as a CIA case officer, recognized what had transpired. “This is what we see in failing countries,” she said. “This is what leads to a death of democracy.”
That is unlikely in this case. Americans are sobered, horrified and outraged by these events. Still, friends of the U.S. and supporters of democracy must denounce the violence and demand a return to regular order. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato was right to say that he “hoped for a peaceful transfer of power,” but that is not enough. He must denounce the violence and demand that the results of the election be respected. We expect better from the United States and we must let our ally and partner know that it is falling short of the example it has hoped to set.
The United States will survive this moment, but it will be wounded. We must recognize that even the United States, a bastion of democracy, can be undermined, destabilized and seduced by an autocrat. The guardrails can be and are being stressed and it is up to us all as citizens to see them made strong.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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