If recent polls are to be believed, one year after the assault on the Capitol in Washington, the health status of American democracy is looking none too good. The weaknesses, according to some analysts, existed before the event and were exacerbated by it. But during the current slump, Donald Trump is pulling chestnuts out of a fire which seems to be consuming Joe Biden a bit more each day. Explanations are called for.
One year after the attack that took five lives in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the United States is still far from having recovered health and calm. The symptoms of the social malaise that set in on the other side of the Atlantic continue. The doubts, as well. Thus, according to an opinion poll conducted by CBS News, a third of Americans feel that the use of force can at times serve to defend democratic ideas. Along the same lines, according to another poll appearing in The Washington Post in collaboration with the University of Maryland, only 54% are still proud of their democracy, as opposed to 90% in 2002.
These are results that must be interpreted with moderation. For Lauric Henneton, a specialist in American civilization, American citizens worried about their democracy don’t form a single bloc. According to the assistant professor at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin, they are to be found “as much in the camp of Democrats fearing a Republican coup d’état, as in that of Republicans who perceive the election of Biden as a theft and a menace to democracy.” Moreover, a CNN poll in September 2021 showed that 78% of Republicans — amounting to some 65 million people — still consider Joe Biden’s victory illegitimate. That, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, caused Robert A. Pape, an expert in terrorism at the University of Chicago, to say that some 21 million of them are “the pool of potential recruits” for a future insurrection in the event Trump is defeated in 2024!
‘Still More Suffering’
In the Democratic camp, they also take advantage of this sad anniversary by tugging on heartstrings: So, speaking from the Senate rostrum Monday, Jan. 3, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke of “this indelible stain in the history of our American democracy.” And Democrat Cory Booker, on Wednesday, Jan. 5, confided to AFP that “there is still a lot of suffering.”
This suffering is not, however, new, as social and political divisions flow throughout the history of the United States and seem inherently part of a democratic two-party system. What then are the ingredients that favor a tipping toward generalized anxiety, regarding the system itself? For many analysts, Trump’s first campaign and his surprise victory in 2016 were game changers. When he took charge, the tone changed and, ultimately, “the assault on the American Congress was the climax of a rise in tensions in recent years. This event has merely shed a harsh light on the reality of this country, namely a deep divide that plagues American society,” Henneton continued.
This opinion is shared by Professor Jean-Eric Branaa, of Paris II Pantheon-Assas University, who further justifies the current malaise by “the possible role played by an incumbent president — Donald Trump — but also by the destabilization of certain legislators and Republican political figures. A commission of inquiry is, moreover, still underway against some of those accused of ‘complicity’ in the assault on the Capitol,” the researcher added. Among them is the former chief of staff of the ex-president’s cabinet, Mark Meadows.
As to the existence of a collective post-Capitol trauma, for Henneton, everything is also a question of perception and of beliefs: “Certainly, this event shook up a segment of Americans but this was not exactly the case among Trump sympathizers, most of whom see in it a Democrat maneuver to bring down their hero,” he stated. In this sense, Trump’s decision to cancel his speech scheduled for Jan. 6 — driving home once more that he was the victim of “electoral fraud” — well illustrates this view. “The American ex-president still reduces the events of Jan. 6 as being a simple peaceful gathering whose excesses were the doing of Antifa and leftists,” the specialist added.
This is a rehashed but effective narrative which today still allows Trump to retain strong popularity. “And it is precisely because he succeeds in relating this story and in making vivid this narrative, which a segment of Americans and especially his many supporters subscribe to, that Trump remains in the political game, remarked Branaa, for whom a victory by the ex-president in the upcoming elections remains entirely possible, “as long as no one is able to bring such a strong narrative to Americans!”
Biden’s Broken Promises
And that’s where the shoe pinches, on the Democratic side. Biden is less of a juggler than his predecessor and seems not to have anything much to say or offer. One year after the Capitol assault — which no one saw as an opportunity for the president-elect — the president is in great difficulty. His popularity has not stopped declining during 2021, reaching an average of 42% according to the poll aggregator FiveThiryEight. Which Branaa — for whom the weaknesses of the current president are “disturbing” — explained in his own way, pointing out that “to get 42% during the Christmas period is quite simply abnormal.”
If this result, one of the worst for a president after a year in office, can be explained by other factors, notably concerning his foreign policy — in particular, the pitiful retreat of the United States from Afghanistan — the professor argued that Biden suffers as well from his many broken promises, “such as that of leading the country to calm after the Capitol, or putting an end to the pandemic …”
In spite of his huge recovery plan, including an infrastructure law and subsidies granted to small farmers, Biden’s ratings are declining desperately. The American president is going to have to learn to tell stories.