Although severely damaged, U.S. democracy has resisted. Similar challenges lie ahead for other, more fragile political systems.
As Aristotle said in “Poetics,” the end of a drama should be “surprising, yet inevitable;” and if we agree, Donald Trump’s four years as president of the United States have come to an appropriate end.
The Capitol is the most impressive building in Washington, D.C. Because of its imposing size, many first-time visitors to the city believe it is the White House. Despite many turbulent years of democracy in the United States, congressmen and senators have been able to work safely within its honorable walls for more than two centuries. The last time the enemies of democracy managed to storm the Capitol was back in 1814, when British troops took to the streets of Washington.
This helps explain why the events of Wednesday, unlike many other sordid events of the last four years, will be remembered for decades. For the first time, a popular uprising interrupted the deliberations of the freely-elected representatives of the American people — and the person responsible for bringing this mob together, the one who mobilized it, is not a fanatical terrorist or the leader of a strange religious sect, but the president of the United States.
After losing his reelection bid by 7 million votes, Trump began spreading increasingly desperate conspiracy theories about alleged voter fraud. Even today, with unprecedented behavior, he cannot accept that Joe Biden defeated him in a free and fair election.
The end of that sordid spectacle was scheduled for Wednesday, when Congress was due to certify the results of the election. Nothing was going to stop Biden from becoming the 46th president of the United States.
In his latest desperate attempt to subvert the result of a free election with the vague appearance of widespread support, Trump urged his supporters to go to Washington to protest. On Wednesday, he addressed them, saying: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol … Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
Encouraged by these inflammatory words, and by the shameful weakness of the local police, some protesters broke through the flimsy barriers intended to protect the heart of American democracy. Members of Congress and senators had to stop their important work and get to safety. Hundreds of Trump supporters broke into the building and began looting.
In the House chamber, security guards drew their weapons and tried to stop a growing flood of agitators from getting in. A few hundred meters away, several of them had already broken through the remaining barriers. A man naked from the waist up, wearing a fur hat and horns, stepped into the Senate chamber and turned toward the hemicycle as he flexed his muscles in triumph.
In reality, the most surreal insurrection since Woody Allen’s film “Bananas” didn’t achieve much. The police finally took control of the Capitol. The tremendous shame of what had happened seemed to embarrass a few of those who have been held hostage by Trump for so long, including Vice President Mike Pence, causing them to distance themselves from their kidnapper. The House and Senate continued with the vote and approved with a clear majority the result of the election.*
Even after four years, during which Trump has attacked the democratic institutions of the United States in a multitude of ways, the images of the insurrection have nevertheless managed to outrage and surprise us. Throughout the day, I received about a dozen messages from friends around the world who could not believe what they were seeing on their television screens in Washington, D.C. And yet, for scholars of authoritarian populism, these events seem inevitable.
Since entering politics, Trump has always made it clear that he was the only one representing the American people. This conviction is what has led him, every step of the way, to come into conflict with any democratic institution that might serve to limit his capricious exercise of power. From Trump’s point of view, neither judges nor elected representatives have the right to disrupt the will of the people, as interpreted by his narcissistic mind.
This fundamental idea also explains why Trump is unable to accept the legitimacy of the election result. Because he believes he represents the true voice of the people, any election that appears to prove otherwise cannot be free or fair. For anyone who believes his populist premise, the abstruse conspiracy theories about stolen votes are the most logical explanation for something that is otherwise impossible.
It is all horrible and embarrassing. But in the midst of this horror, we must not forget that, during the last four years, American democracy has endured a tough test that many other countries have tragically failed.
The U.S. press has reported on Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions. Civil society groups have come up with ways to defend them. Tens of millions of citizens have voted to remove Trump from power. Local election authorities have shown extraordinary courage in the face of tremendous attempts at intimidation. Ultimately, a number of Republican congressmen and senators have certified the result of the election.
The institutions of the United States have been severely damaged; at best, it will take decades for them to regain their credibility and prestige. Wednesday’s images will haunt us for many years to come.
However, in many other countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, authoritarian populists have managed to take over the political system completely, and there are many others waiting behind the scenes, ready to apply the same rules.
The victory of the populists is not inevitable, but after witnessing the terrible damage a narcissistic television personality has been able to inflict on the world’s oldest democracy, no one will be surprised if they manage to succeed in other countries. The momentous war between democracy and populism has only just begun.
*Editor’s note: The role of Congress is to count the electoral votes certified by officials in each state.