By Wiktoria Kępczyńska:
On 6 January 2021, unprecedented dramatic events took place in the American capital. An angry mob of protesters, dissatisfied with the election defeat of their candidate, stormed the heart of American democracy – the Capitol. This event was dubbed an ‘insurrection’ by policy makers and the media on the right and left. The fact that five people were killed there and Donald Trump, who was leaving the White House, was seen as the main instigator adds to the drama of the whole story. And it is these two aspects – the incitement to march on the Capitol as the direct cause and the loss of human lives as a result of these actions – that make it impossible for the political class, and indeed the entire nation, to ignore this circumstance.
Political violence in the US is not a new phenomenon. Four presidents assassinated while in office testify to the strong polarisation of this nation, where the emotional and political fervour of two antagonised electorates – Democratic and Republican – has often prevailed over common sense and led to tragic consequences.
America is torn apart. The electorate of the “Blue” states associated with Democrats is synonymous with an open society, with its tolerance for all kinds of ethnic, racial or sexual minorities and belief in the key role of the state in building the well-being of citizens. Republican supporters in ‘Red’ states, on the other hand, stand for a limited state and fear of the imaginary or even real ‘alien’. These are two different visions of the social order, which use a specific language that is not entirely intelligible to the other side. And it is precisely this language, with the significant participation of traditional and electronic media, that intensifies mutual hatred. These are two different narratives, differentiated according to identity and ideological rather than economic criteria. A veritable Eldorado for all sorts of political charlatans who use the language of contempt, exclusion and fear instrumentally, often for their own personal gains.
In this case, however, a new element has emerged, as it was the incumbent head of the most powerful country in the world who incited political violence in order to contest the results of an allegedly fraudulent election. In other words, the supreme representative of the executive, supported by 74 million of Americans (compared to Biden’s 81 million), used his office and its privileges to undermine the legitimacy of the legislature, which decides on the validity of the electoral process. Although it was not formal, to some extent Donald Trump’s actions had an “institutionalised” character – because they were backed by all the authority and gravity of the presidential office.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. The American political system, as in all liberal democracies, has a mechanism built into it that guarantees the maintenance of political balance (“checks and balances”). The integrity of the state is demonstrated by institutions that control each other and cannot go beyond a strictly defined scope of authority. So much for theory. Traditionally established procedures are always secondary to the “human factor”, understood as the susceptibility to error in politically surprising circumstances.
No contingency plans or step-by-step outlines of the competent authorities are capable of predicting and adequately responding to a verbal appeal by a representative of the executive to challenge the verdict of a legally elected legislature. A skilful manipulator reading well the emotions of the crowd and the whole sequence of “spontaneous” reactions of citizens convinced that they have been deceived escape rational, systemic regulations.
Well, are they really only “spontaneous”? Revolutionary reactions of crowds are always the result of the coexistence of anger accumulated over years and a populist able to channel that anger. In this particular case, the populist is a politician with an enormous ego who despises the entire democratic process that is impeding him. His undisguised adoration of authoritarian dictators like Kim Jong-un ‘materialised’ on that fateful 6th of January, when an aroused, rebellious people spoke out, according to his will. The truth is, however, that it was not the whole nation, or even part of it, but a handful of conspiracy theorists who decided to cut Washington establishment down to size. Even Republicans themselves have no doubt about the criminal nature of this revolt, which is not reflected in the wider society. There was therefore no insurrection or national uprising, just a brawl. A handful of radicals took advantage of the above-mentioned human factor to exploit a gap in the security system. Not in the system of American democracy – that can certainly cope perfectly well – but in the inability to predict the actions of the Head of State. Or, to be more precise, his language, which fuels social animosity.
Yes, words mean a lot. The command “So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue ” will always backfire on president Trump. Surely, after the impeachment procedure was launched against him for the second time, he is now aware that he will face severe punishment for his verbal sowing of hatred. Freedom of expression is not unlimited, even in the United States. Just as references in social life to the degeneration of totalitarian systems are criminalised in many countries, so too incitement to break the law is a violation of the social contract. Trump is no exception to this. Moreover, as example often comes from above, decency and respect for the rules of discourse are the responsibilities of the leaders of the free world. For it is the language used in the public space that determines the citizen-government and citizen-citizen relationships. And this whole unfortunate incident proves that the American leader has never taken seriously the principles of responsible language – the one that unites rather than divides.