Trump Impeached Again
Ten House Republicans join Democrats in impeaching the president for “incitement of insurrection.” Read more of FP’s coverage of the aftermath of the deadly U.S. Capitol attack here.
Presumptive Patriotism, the United States’ Greatest Blindspot
The unquestioned assumption that some groups are more “patriotic” leads to dangerous security risks.
Jan. 6 was a day like no other in U.S. history. And naturally, the gut reaction to such an emotionally charged and traumatic event is to sensationalize certain details. The media, for its part, has been increasingly fixated on the reasoning behind the violent mob attack—and deservedly so—but the problem is that such analysis has led commentators to overlook the most alarming aspect of the calamity: a blind spot in the United States’ national defense strategy. Individuals within the country’s domestic security apparatus have shown they possess some tendency to fall prey to presumptive patriotism—a vulnerability the country’s enemies may well exploit.
Presumptive patriotism—the unquestioned belief that an individual or particular group will behave honorably as a show of patriotism—makes sense if concepts such as honor, fairness, and duty were all uncontested. However, in the United States, these concepts are subject to fierce debate.
Recent discussions concerning duty and privilege have placed a spotlight on what seems to be law enforcement’s affinity toward people who are assumed to share common values with many officers. If people who intend to break the law are perceived to be merely engaging in patriotic acts, it seems, then officers’ perception of duty and their ability to conduct a proper threat analysis are changed. Stated simply, presumptive patriotism clouds their judgment. This might explain why, on Jan. 6, some Capitol Police officers were derelict in their duty and others even appeared congenial toward the rioters.
Some lawmakers have since forcefully condemned the acts of that day, as well as the ignominious law enforcement response. However, it is difficult to assess whether those congressional leaders fully recognize the United States’ true weakness. Granted, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s initial statement warned that foreign terrorists could have easily seized on the moment and “blown the building up.” Yet it is telling that he also chose to deflect toward foreign terrorists, implicitly suggesting that American citizens could not have seized on the moment. Even though statistical data of violent attacks shows that domestic extremists are as deadly a threat—if not more so.
Nevertheless, Graham’s statement reinforces what I have called presumptive patriotism. His statement can be interpreted in only one of two ways: Either he legitimately believes the rioters were incapable of committing such terrorist acts or, despite knowing the danger posed by the rioters, purposefully chose not to alienate supporters of Donald Trump. In either case (or some combination of the two), Graham’s statement demonstrates a major security blind spot.
There are few things cherished more within U.S. culture than patriotism. However, as history has shown, it can be extremely personal and emotionally intoxicating—potentially leading to disastrous outcomes or manipulative exploitation. For evidence of this, one has to look no further than the Confederacy, comprising soldiers who proudly proclaimed themselves to be “patriots” all the while waging a bloody war against the U.S. government—evidently unfamiliar with the idea of treason. The dangers of presumptive patriotism date even further back.
Indeed, the name Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with “traitor.” Once an American hero of the Revolutionary War, Arnold secretly negotiated with the British, attempting to leverage his insider position while offering the seizure of the U.S. military fortress at West Point. The burning question is not why Arnold sought to dishonor his oath to the United States but why the British had sought to turn Arnold into an asset. The answer is relatively straightforward: The British suspected that Arnold’s compatriots could be manipulated by his perceived loyalty to the United States.
Arnold’s plans were ultimately foiled. However, after witnessing Capitol Police officers energetically smile for pictures with violent insurrectionists, there appears to be yet a seismic opening for many modern Arnold-like figures to wreak immeasurable havoc, especially those who share this apparent affinity or may otherwise become blinded by one’s perceived loyalty to the United States.
Any one of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists could have detonated a bomb in the Capitol or, even worse, done so at the direction of one of the United States’ adversaries. Russia, China, and others continue to search for blind spots in U.S. security—and this is surely one of them.
The United States must fully accept that patriotism is susceptible to radicalization and exploitation. Officers must be equipped with modern threat assessment training and participate in more advanced implicit bias training. Leadership throughout the domestic security apparatus must also be well versed in this vulnerability. The country’s leaders likewise have to take personal responsibility for their actions in placing the United States in such a precarious position. If the United States fails to urgently address this flaw, a future 9/11-style attack is more likely to occur, not by the hands of foreign terrorists but by the very same individuals one might otherwise dub “patriots.”
Our Top Weekend Reads
Washington under siege, peace building lessons from Nigeria, and a potential crisis for China’s aviation industry.
Washington, D.C., hasn’t looked the same since rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The Capitol grounds remain barred behind razor-wire fencing and concrete barricades, and more than 7,000 armed National Guardsmen stand watch. With the tighter security, it’s easy to see why the country’s overseas reputation has been tarnished—but that impression may be mistaken.
Meanwhile, amid the chaos of the Trump administration’s final weeks, the U.S. Commerce Department made a little-noticed announcement that has the potential to derail China’s aviation industry. The Biden administration needs to decide whether to go back to business as usual.
And the Dutch should be aware that undemocratic undercurrents in their society are not so different from those across the Atlantic Ocean, albeit at an earlier stage, Caroline de Gruyter writes.
Here are Foreign Policy’s top weekend reads.
The U.S. Capitol has been barricaded since the siege on Jan. 6, with National Guard officers reportedly planning to stand watch into the fall. But U.S. democracy, poor optics aside, is operating as it should, Kelly Kimball and Katie Livingstone report.
For politicians and activists, bridging divides may seem intractable when polarization is so intense. But the experience of the Nigerian city of Jos, which has seen waves of religious violence, shows a path forward, Jacob Choji Pwakim writes.
China’s aviation industry only works if foreign companies sell it the equipment needed to get its planes off the ground. And if U.S. President Joe Biden follows in his predecessor’s footsteps, the industry may be in crisis, Richard Aboulafia writes.
Class resentment in Italy is mounting, but it’s not directed at the rich. Amid economic crisis, many Italians are turning their frustration against public employees, whose jobs are protected by contracts that rule out layoffs and furloughs, Anna Momigliano writes.
In the Netherlands, the government has collapsed as many citizens realize that true reform has become almost impossible. But despite his legacy of failure, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has learned to navigate the frustration, Caroline de Gruyter writes.
Washington Is Under Siege. American Democracy Isn’t.
The enhanced security measures in the U.S. capital have triggered a debate over openness, security, and democracy. But the country’s democracy isn’t dead yet.
Since the storming of the U.S. Capitol by rioters supporting President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, Washington, D.C., has never been the same: The Capitol grounds are barricaded behind razor-wire fencing, with some sections fortified even further with concrete barricades, and more than 7,000 armed National Guardsmen stand watch throughout downtown.
But behind the barriers, lawmakers are burdened with seemingly irreconcilable objectives—upholding an open and accessible democracy while recognizing and protecting against the real and growing threat of domestic far-right extremism. Late last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo highlighting the escalating threat from people angered by COVID-19 restrictions and the 2020 election results, warning that violent actors may be emboldened by the Capitol assault and inspired by foreign terrorist groups, and that they could target elected officials and government facilities in coming months. Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to convene a 9/11-type commission to investigate the causes of the attempted Capitol insurrection.
Due to ongoing threats to the Capitol and the people who work there, the extreme security measures are necessary both in practice and as a deterrent against further attempts, said Rachel VanLandingham, a law professor specializing in national security at the Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.
National Guard officers are reportedly planning for a stay lasting into the fall. And it’s not just security theater.
“I think what happened on the sixth of January is the greatest threat to American democracy, to the American way of government, since the Civil War,” said VanLandingham, a former Air Force judge advocate officer. But she acknowledges the drawn-out security presence and political back-and-forth over securing the capital will take a toll on the country’s image both for citizens and for the rest of the world, potentially outweighing any immediate security benefits.
“The symbolic cost to our democracy is too great,” she said.
The boots might not be leaving Washington’s streets anytime soon: National Guard officers are reportedly planning for a stay lasting into the fall. And it’s not just security theater. In January, a group of representatives wrote a letter to Pelosi urging enhanced safety precautions in the wake of “receiving a significant uptick in threats of violence and even death.” Lawmakers have said it’s a nonpartisan issue, but the letter was signed by 31 Democrats and just one Republican, Rep. Fred Upton, who was one of the few House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the Capitol assault. (Trump was acquitted last week by the Senate in his second impeachment trial.)
Other Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach or convict Trump are also facing a backlash. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey was censured by York County Republicans and faces a hearing with the state party. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was also censured by his local Republican Party and even members of his extended family.
But the tighter security—and especially the specter that it could become near-permanent—is not sitting well with those who represent D.C. itself.
“The openness of the Capitol and our democracy is our strength, not a security weakness that needs to be rooted out,” wrote Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress in a nonvoting capacity, in a statement earlier this month after the acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman recommended permanent fencing and a sustained troop presence around the Capitol.
“I understand and I’m not taking issue with what we’ve had to do immediately following this outrageous attack. But the notion that any part of what we’re doing would become permanent is a failing that we just can’t allow to happen without looking at other available means, of which there are many,” Norton told Foreign Policy in an interview.
Earlier this month, Norton reintroduced a bill to ensure access to public buildings, and, in conjunction with her push for D.C. statehood, she has also introduced legislation that would give Washington’s mayor control over the district’s National Guard; it’s the only Guard formation not under state control, because D.C. is not a state. Both the district’s mayor and some council members voiced support for her opposition to permanent security barriers.
It’s easy to see why the image of America overseas has been tarnished—but this impression may be mistaken.
What happened on the steps of the Capitol in January—and the continued squabbling by the country’s lawmakers—has been sharply criticized by world leaders and analysts for projecting a negative image of the country’s democratic bona fides. The United Kingdom’s Home Secretary Priti Patel, for example, denounced Trump’s remarks during the siege for having spurred the violent attacks. The German politician Norbert Röttgen, head of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament, said that the United States is currently in a spiritual “civil war,” and it will take more than U.S. President Joe Biden’s term in office to reconcile that divide.
It’s easy to see why the image of America overseas has been tarnished—but this impression may be mistaken.
“The visual of what we have in the capital right now is that of a government under threat or under siege. And that’s not the case,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center.
She noted that the security measures should match the threat at hand, and given that Biden took office and is staffing up the government with his own appointees, U.S. democracy, poor optics aside, is operating as it should.
“We really need to be careful to make sure that people around the world understand that something fundamental hasn’t changed in the United States,” she said.
How Civil Wars Start
Three factors come into play, and the United States demonstrates all of them.
Until quite recently, a civil war seemed all but impossible in the United States—something of the past, for most citizens, not of the future.
But the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 and the rise of violent domestic extremism have set off alarm bells about the potential for another descent into internal war. That may seem far-fetched, but there have been literally hundreds of internal conflicts around the world—in countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. And more depressingly, in many ways, the U.S. Civil War never actually ended and may indeed be ramping back up.
Even with U.S. President Joe Biden in firm control, recent events make the risk of wider political violence painfully obvious.
Civil wars are unique in their specific causes, the ways they escalate from clashing interests to violence and the ways they de-escalate, but all civil wars share at least three features in common. First, most civil wars follow some prior conflict (often a previous civil war or, more accurately, the highly skewed and politicized memory of a past civil war). The new belligerents nor the issues need not be exactly the same as the old. Most often, a charismatic leader spouts a narrative about past glory or humiliation that suits their ideology, political ambitions, or even flows from simple historical ignorance.
Second, national identity is divided along some critical axis, such as race, faith, or class. All countries have fracture lines and cleavages, but some divides are deeper than others. Even initially minor cleavages may be exploited by domestic or foreign actors committed to redistributing wealth or power. For example, the Soviet Union (and now Russia) has successfully devoted serious resources to destabilizing the United States and its allied democracies by intensifying existing cleavages.
Although necessary, these first two features—a prior war and deepening cleavages—are not sufficient to spark civil war. For that, you need a third element: a shift from tribalism to sectarianism. With tribalism, people begin to seriously doubt whether other groups in their country have the larger community’s best interests at heart. In sectarian environments though, economic, social, and political elites and those they represent come to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is evil and actively working to destroy the community. Enemies of the state come to displace the loyal opposition, with those having been inside another tribe seen as the most disloyal. It’s akin to how some religions treat apostates and infidels. Often, it is apostates, the former adherents of the faith, that are targeted more readily over infidels, those who had always been on the outside. It is hard not to see echoes of this dynamic at play as Republicans condemn other Republicans over their loyalty (or lack thereof) to former U.S. President Donald Trump
Indeed, the United States now displays all three core elements that can lead to civil breakdown. If one described them—fractured elites with competing narratives, deep-seated identity cleavages, and a politically polarized citizenry—without identifying the United States by name, most scholars of civil war would say, “Hey, that country is on the brink of a civil war.” How did we get here?
The whole story of the United States’ long descent into civil war is too long to tell here, but several main causes stand out. To begin, after the failure of former President Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics and the end of the Cold War (which undermined the Republican Party’s national defense appeal), Republicans had a choice to make. They could either compete with good ideas or resort to emphasizing respect for authority over critical thinking, restricting voter franchise, and making it easier to convert wealth into votes.
The Republican Party chose the easier path. It’s been a minority party nationally and in many so-called red states for more than two decades, but its representation in Congress and the White House has stayed at around over 50 percent. And once you start taking short cuts to win, you really can’t stop. The GOP knows it could lose everything in a fair fight (one-person, one-vote), so it built a powerful infrastructure to tilt the local, state, and federal playing fields.
To make matters worse, as house speaker from 1995-1999, Newt Gingrich innovated a brilliant and democracy-destructive strategy for enabling his party to keep punching above its popular weight in the electorate: Just say no. Whereas Reagan considered someone who agreed with him 80 percent of the time to be a friend (not a traitor), Gingrich’s strategy forbade compromise, which is essential for any working democracy. Either Gingrich got everything he wanted or he refused to play. As former Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell mastered Gingrich’s playbook.
In time, the tribalism that naturally divided the two parties began to escalate into sectarianism. The gridlock across the federal government became yet another argument for shifting power to more conservative states. It also convinced many U.S. citizens that the solution to gridlock was a strong authoritarian leader. Democrats too were caught in this vicious process, unable to maneuver and compromise to move forward. With the legislative branch locked, executive orders by the president became a mainstay of policymaking. During his time in office, Trump issued 220 orders in just four years; former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton issued 276, 291, 254 respectively in their eight years in office.
Neither the escalation to sectarianism nor the rise of more authoritarian national executives would have been possible without a severely damaged information space. The 1990s also saw the rise of cable news and the ongoing shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting. In the old world, professional journalism supported a shared conception of reality. In the new disconnected world, there are multiple competing versions of reality (“alternative facts”), and journalists and journalism—key pillars of a functional democratic process—became unfairly seen as biased to one side or the other. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News was the pioneer of co-opting a journalistic facade to support a specific political agenda, helping to expand the power of conservative minorities.
However, narrowcasting and Fox News are not the end; they’re only the beginning. The information space has been further compromised by powerful foreign adversaries and omnipresent tech companies. Consider that, during the Cold War, the Russian KGB’s biggest disinformation success was to convince U.S. allies and adversaries alike that the AIDS virus had been manufactured in the United States to kill Black and LGBTQ+ individuals. (Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev later admitted and apologized for that one.) That lie, and its destructive impact, took six years to come to fruition. But since the end of the Cold War, active measures have helped enable the accession of an anti-NATO U.S. president, Britain leaving the European Union, “pizzagate,” and QAnon. But the speed and success of Russia’s disinformation campaigns could never have been possible without the internet and, more specifically, Google and Facebook.
So is the United States on the brink of a civil war? A damaged and undemocratic information space makes all the difference as elites jockey for airtime and media space to further divide the electorate in the hopes of securing electoral power over rivals. In each sphere, knowledge is increasingly untethered to reality or history.
In a conflict like this, no one wins. Just consider the tragic case of former Yugoslavia, which started its descent in the later 1980s, succumbing to large-scale political violence in the 1990s. The real way to “make America great again” is to clean up the information space and make it shared (a return to broadcasting over narrowcasting). Once everyone can again agree on the facts, policy disagreements won’t destroy the United States, but they will make its democracy stronger. But if sectarianism continues, more violence is inevitable.
Trump Impeachment Trial Heads For Finish Line
Trump’s defense team will provide a short rebuttal today before resting its case, with acquittal all but assured.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Trump’s impeachment defense team is expected to make and then rest its case today, China bars BBC World News, and Catalonia prepares for regional elections.
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Trump Defense To Wrap Up Today
Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team is expected to issue their rebuttal today before the U.S. Senate after Democratic House managers made their final arguments on Thursday.
Trump’s lawyers are expected to use only one of their allotted two days to make their case, bringing the Senate closer to a vote. David Schoen, one of Trump’s lawyers said they would likely rest their case after only three or four hours of arguments.
If each side declines to call witnesses in the case, the decision to convict or acquit the former president could be made by senators as soon as this weekend.
Acquittal still seems a foregone conclusion, even after a day of forceful arguments and presentations by House managers. Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat, summed up the urgency of the case. “I’m not afraid of Donald Trump running again in four years,” he said. “I’m afraid he’s going to run again and lose. Because he can do this again.”
Although a handful of Republican senators appear willing to vote to convict Trump, a majority remain unconvinced that Trump can be held responsible for the Jan. 6 riots. That sentiment was crystallized by Republican Sen. Rand Paul. “Everybody objects to that violence. Everybody is horrified by that violence. But the question is: Did the president incite that?,” he told Politico.
Democrats need 17 Republican senators to join them in order to achieve a conviction—so far only six appear willing to break ranks.
What We’re Following Today
China blocks BBC. Chinese authorities have blocked BBC’s World News channel from broadcasting in China, a retaliatory move after British authorities barred CGTN—the English language version of the Chinese state media giant CCTV—earlier this month. BBC World News was not widely available in China even before the ban, however, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab still lamented the decision as “an unacceptable curtailing of media freedom.”
Mario’s moment. Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister-in-waiting, is one step closer to leading the country after he received the support of the members of the largest parliamentary party. The Five Star Movement’s members voted to back Draghi in a tight online ballot, suggesting a shaky coalition ahead—the motion to support the former European Central Bank leader garnered 59.3 percent of votes.
China and India pull back. China and India have begun pulling back troops along their disputed Himalayan border, months after a deadly clash between the two sides. On Thursday, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said troops would be removed in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner,” while China’s defense ministry said it had begun a “synchronized and organized” disengagement. Military officials from both countries have been in de-escalation talks for months following a June 15 skirmish that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, along with an unknown number of Chinese.
Keep an Eye On
Catalonia votes. Residents of the Spanish region of Catalonia go to the polls on Sunday for regional elections. In a sign of the waning strength of the region’s independence movement, the Socialist Party of Catalonia is favored in polls to take power for the first time in a decade. The party’s leader, Salvador Illa, has ruled out forming a coalition with any pro-independence parties ahead of the vote. Like most elections held during the coronavirus pandemic, the region is taking extra health precautions in its preparations—which include converting FC Barcelona’s almost 100,000-seat Camp Nou stadium into a polling station.
Ebola in Congo. A woman has died in Congo’s Kivu province after contracting the Ebola virus, the second death from Ebola recorded in less than a week. Despite the deaths, the World Health Organization has found no cause for alarm, saying sporadic cases often follow a major disease outbreak. Congo’s 11th Ebola outbreak was deemed officially over in November, after authorities observed 42 days without a new case.
Venezuela cooperation. The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is in talks with the country’s opposition leaders over purchasing vaccines using U.S.-held funds, Reuters reports. Julio Castro, the medical adviser of opposition leader Juan Guaidó appeared to acknowledge the meeting on Twitter, mentioning the establishment of a national roundtable for access to COVAX. “We welcome the beginning of the construction of a joint strategy among all,” he wrote. Paolo Balladelli, Pan American Health Organization’s Chief of Mission in Venezuela, said between 1.4 million and 2.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been reserved for the country.
Odds and Ends
Google has threatened to leave Australia over proposed legislation that would force it to compensate news publishers for content displayed on its search engine. The bill is expected to be introduced into parliament next week.
Australia is heavily dependent on Google’s search capabilities, with 95 percent of searches going through the platform.
The uphill battle facing competitors in replacing the service was highlighted by some quick research by Bloomberg. Searching for “best beach Sydney,” brought up a beach 600 miles away on one rival search engine; another brought up the Bondi Beach post office.
That’s it for today.
Historic Second Impeachment of Trump Gets Underway
While a conviction seems unlikely, Democratic lawmakers seek accountability for the former president’s instigation of the mob that stormed the Capitol.
Rep. Sara Jacobs had been a member of Congress for four days when a violent pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Hours after escaping the House chambers that rioters breached and huddling in a safe room, she went back to her office. The first thing she did when she got there was issue a public call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
Now, a month after the violence that bookended Trump’s tumultuous four years in office, the Senate is following through on those calls with a historic second impeachment trial against the former president. Proceedings are set to begin on Tuesday.
The trial will prompt lawmakers to revisit the Jan. 6 violence and set a new course for U.S. politics, establishing how and when Congress can hold a former president accountable for his actions and defining the fault lines in the Republican Party as it grapples with whether to embrace or ditch Trump in coming elections.
Jacobs, who worked on conflict stabilization issues at the State Department and United Nations before running for Congress, also argued that convicting Trump could head off future political violence. “You need the highest level of accountability the first time you have a violent incident like this or else you’re much more likely to have future instances of violence,” said Jacobs, the freshman Democrat from California.
House Democrats and a small number of Republicans have endorsed the impeachment proceedings. They argue Trump incited the mob that ransacked the Capitol after refusing to accept the election results and doubling down on baseless claims of election fraud at a rally near the Capitol that presaged the violence.
Many other Republican lawmakers have rebuffed those charges, casting the impeachment trial as a partisan political performance. Some Republican lawmakers argue Trump does not shoulder the blame for the mob’s violence. Others say he does share some blame but his actions don’t warrant a post hoc impeachment, or they question the constitutionality of such a trial.
Like Trump’s first impeachment trial, the outcome appears preordained. Voting to convict Trump on charges of inciting violence will require two-thirds of the chamber—67 votes. The chamber is evenly divided, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, and few see a pathway to getting 17 Republicans to turn on their party’s former boss who still dominates their identity and platform.
All the political debates, disputes, and internecine party warfare that revolve around the upcoming trial are domestic. But Jacobs also sees the impact of the trial as global.
“We’ve lost our ability to actually encourage other countries and work with them as they’re having political violence and electoral issues,” Jacobs said, adding that it was important to “rebuild our standing around the world and regain a lot of our soft power that’s been lost over the past four years and especially on Jan. 6.”
Some foreign leaders have expressed similar sentiments. “We are used to believing that the United States has the ideal democratic institutions, where power is transferred calmly,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Axios in an interview last month. “After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy.”
The impeachment proceedings, scheduled to begin on Tuesday afternoon, are expected to last about a week, with lawmakers on both sides urging a speedy trial. Trump is the third U.S. president to face impeachment, the first ex-president to face impeachment (though not the first former senior government official), and the first president to be impeached twice.
In the opening round in the Senate, Trump’s defense team will argue that the trial itself is unconstitutional as Trump has left office. “The Senate is being asked to do something patently ridiculous: Try a private citizen in a process that is designed to remove him from an office that he no longer holds,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in a 78-page brief they sent to the Senate on Monday.
Some of Trump’s most important allies in the Senate, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, have endorsed this argument and doubled down on complaints that he is facing unfair and politically fueled attacks after leaving office.
Others have pushed back. Nearly 150 constitutional law scholars released an open letter last month arguing that the Senate can conduct an impeachment trial on a former president. Chuck Cooper, a prominent conservative attorney who has represented former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, also argued that the U.S. Constitution does not bar the impeachment trial of a former president.
There is some historical precedent from the 18th and 19th centuries: Sen. William Blount in 1797 and U.S. Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876 were both impeached after leaving office.
Trump has remained conspicuously quiet since leaving the White House. The former president was barred from many social media platforms after the Jan. 6 violence but has also not conducted any major interviews ahead of the trial.
President Joe Biden has remained largely silent as well, demurring when pressed by reporters on the matter. He declined to say whether the Senate should vote to convict Trump during a recent interview with CBS News.
“Look, I ran like hell to defeat him because I thought he was unfit to be president,” Biden said. “But I’m not in the Senate now. … I’ll let the Senate make that decision.”
What Can Insurance Tell Us About the Capitol Mob?
And how Biden can use economic theory to stave off more riots.
The events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have occasioned a lot of analysis of the reasons people mobilize politically. Some have pointed to deep polarization, others to disinformation, and still others to economic crisis.
The connection between economics and protest is well documented. The phenomenon existed at least as long ago as the First Secession of the Plebs in 495 B.C. and is a cornerstone of Marxist theory. More recently, protests emerged in Thailand and Indonesia in response to dropping financial markets during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In 2011, protesters rallied against austerity measures in Greece and the removal of a fuel subsidy in Bolivia. Chile just rewrote its constitution in response to such protests. And France has had a “grand debate” over economic fairness that was a direct result of protests by the “yellow vest” movement in 2018.
Still, although scholars tend to agree that bad economic times are associated with more protest, the relationship is far from fleshed out. One issue is that “bad economic times” as a concept tend to conceive of an individual’s economic circumstances as one-dimensional, composed only of income. For many, though, economic well-being is dependent on other sources of wealth as well, such as accumulated assets or support from the government. We know that individuals can make up for losing their job, for example, by tapping into savings to cover their immediate needs—that’s called “consumption smoothing.”
What researchers are beginning to find out is that it is when individuals cannot smooth their consumption that they most turn to an immediately available form of political participation: protest. It is more appealing than other political options to address economic issues mainly because it can push the government into implementing policy that increases well-being relatively quickly. Other forms of political participation, such as voting, operate on long-term time schedules.
So what are the circumstances under which would-be protesters cannot smooth consumption? Here, a comparison to insurance is helpful. Insurance, in the case of consumption smoothing, is a stock of assets that, when exchanged for cash at some point in the future, functions as income. Insurance takes two forms: private and public. Private insurance (wealth) is an individual’s stock of accumulated assets. Public insurance (think unemployment benefits) is funded by the government but does the same thing as private insurance. In both cases, the stock of available funds grows as more money is contributed incrementally—whether by personal savings or tax contributions—and can be liquidated and used as income if needed.
But smoothing consumption is much harder when a negative shock prevents wealth from being exchanged for cash. For example, the corralito policy the Argentine government put in place in 2001 prevented withdrawals from bank accounts. This stopped a bank run, but it also made it hard for people to make ends meet. If an individual no longer has enough insurance to smooth consumption, the benefits of protest start to outweigh the potential social and physical costs. And if the shock is bad enough, it can alter the future expectations of many individuals simultaneously, coordinating many individual-level decisions and resulting in a mass movement. Economic crises can therefore be a coordinating device for collective action.
Data from 11 Western European countries between 2002 and 2018 shows this to be the case. In an analysis based on survey data, the effect of a recent income shock (losing one’s job within one year) on protest participation was smaller when the respondent had some form of income insurance. That is, individuals who lived with an employed partner or received unemployment benefits from the government were less likely to protest.
To see this effect, consider a hypothetical 30-year-old recently unemployed high school graduate in the United Kingdom in 2016. She was not a member of a union and was a political moderate. If her income did not come mostly from social insurance, having an employed partner decreased her probability of protesting from 5.7 percent to 3.2 percent. If she also received social insurance as income, her probability of protesting decreased to 0.00001 percent.
Across a whole population, insurance also mitigates protest in the aggregate. Consider that wage cuts are generally associated with more protest. However, a concurrent increase in savings tempers this increase. In general, savings increase when individuals are insecure about the valuation of other assets: People sell investments, cease borrowing, and shift to cash because of unsure revenue streams. Having cash on hand is a sign that people expect to have to smooth consumption using accumulated assets. Meanwhile, rising unemployment generally correlates with more protest. Yet concurrent increases in the stock market reduce this effect: Increasing asset values in the market soothe concerns about unemployment.
Even more than income, then, household economic security overall matters. So how does this apply to the Capitol riots?
Participants in that mob included a CEO and someone who flew to Washington on a private jet. These people likely have plenty of wealth and are not economically anxious. However, other rioters may have been: Donald Trump enjoys support among people concerned about shifting employment markets and technology supplanting human labor. On the other side of the political spectrum, participants in Black Lives Matter protests call attention to police brutality but also highlight the systemic economic gap (in both earnings and assets) between Black and white Americans that remains from centuries of disenfranchisement of Black people.
Different propensities for racism, nativism, violence, and evidence-based decision-making certainly separate these two types of protests. But it’s clear that while neither set is purely about economic interests, household economic security underlies some participants’ ability and willingness to mobilize. The Biden administration would thus be wise to balance enforcement of the law with an attempt to solve underlying problems. Any ability to improve household economic security across the board will likely help Biden unite the country and reduce protest along the way.
The Internet Is a Crime Scene
How we conceptualize the role social media played in the Capitol siege will set the stage for information governance across the globe.
In the aftermath of the Capitol siege, journalists, researchers, police, and archivists are racing to gather evidence as platforms purge content and accounts in record numbers. Although the scramble is reducing the capacity of Trump supporters to stage a second attack, it is also preventing others from identifying and collecting evidence for the trials of those involved in the first one.
This moment shows the need for international data preservation laws that would require technology companies to create processes and protocols that make information accessible for journalists, civil society organizations, law enforcement, and researchers. As platform companies delete an incredible amount of content while the FBI calls on these companies to hold onto the information, it is clear that the absence of clear regulations benefits those who tried to overthrow the U.S. government, and serves authoritarians who use social media to misinform the public.
The internet is a crime scene in the specific sense that its major platforms were used to connect, organize, and coordinate #StopTheSteal. As such, the technologies were not just reimagined, but also took on new meanings last week, even though their features remained largely unchanged. Social media on a lazy Sunday afternoon is of course different from social media during an insurrection. That’s why the context of use—who, what, when, where—is so important to identifying when it is being used for actionable offenses.
For many years, OSINT (open-source intelligence) researchers and journalists have developed methods for the analysis of networked data that has led to a better understanding of the identities of criminals and their motives. Police and journalists are increasingly using social media as a platform for investigations, gathering potential evidence, witness accounts, and other clarifying information, hoping the digital traces they find on social media can provide clues for both legal action and rapid-response reporting. During this last week, some public social media users have become active participants in these investigations, engaging in crowd-sourced research and using both verified facts and misinformation to theorize narratives and sort evidence.
Crowdsourced investigations require swarm intelligence, which relies on a particular design feature—threaded conversations, where groups can gather intel and verify it over time. Forums such as Reddit, Twitter threads, Facebook groups, and anonymous message boards allow large groups of individuals to gather evidence and marshal resources during a breaking news incident, communally building a single narrative about an event. Popular posts on these forums attract increased participation from users, and thus greater visibility on these sites, enrolling more and more individuals in the process. Using those and other intelligence, investigators working in parallel can tie together very different pieces of an event or crime.
Users on the subreddit /Datahoarder, for example, began archiving and uploading content related to the siege for public access soon after the attack. Bellingcat, an investigative journalism outlet known for its open-source investigations, shared a spreadsheet organizing user-submitted videos and images. Even private companies like Intelligence X, which specializes in archiving, created its own publicly accessible datasets. The FBI put out a call to the public asking for any digital media that may help in their investigation. And researchers, the authors of this article included, have saved countless terabytes of media, taken screenshots, and relied on the archival work of others to ensure that disinformation campaigns are preserved.
While the siege on the Capitol has focused attention on this kind of work, it was far from an isolated event. Globally, evidence scraped, archived, verified, and analyzed from social media has aided investigations into alleged war crimes, human-rights abuses, and other criminal activity, providing the evidentiary basis for advocacy work, legal proceedings, and social science research. In 2017, when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a member of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, for the war crime of murder, it did so largely based on seven videos of the killings that were posted to social media.
Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps, meanwhile, has used verified video footage and other open-source data collection techniques to document the deaths of 304 men, women, and children in the crackdown on the November 2019 protests in Iran. The Syrian Archive has a dedicated project for preserving content removed from platforms in their effort to document human-rights violations in Syria. And within academia, organizations like UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center have used OSINT techniques to verify, investigate, and document human-rights violations and potential war crimes in Morocco, Myanmar, and Syria.
Despite the value of archiving and sifting through data, balancing preservation with the need for technology companies to remove content that may be illegal, dehumanizing, or otherwise potentially harmful has remained a challenge. This tension is born out in Myanmar where the sheer volume of hate speech targeting the Rohingya population on Facebook has forced the platform to admit in 2018 that its services were used to “foment division and incite offline violence.” As such, social media posts have become crucial pieces of evidence for investigators. A statement by the International Fact-Finding Mission, recommended that all platforms “retain indefinitely copies of material removed for use by judicial bodies and other credible accountability mechanisms addressing serious human rights violations committed in Myanmar.” However, when Gambia, which brought the case to the International Court of Justice, filed a suit against Facebook to compel the company to hand over documents and communications from Myanmar officials’ profiles and posts that the platform had previously removed, Facebook filed an objection.
One idea for addressing this challenge is the “human-rights locker” (also known as a “digital locker” or “evidence locker”), where publicly shared content—including content and accounts that have been removed by the platform—is collected, preserved, and verified for future research and investigation by select individuals and groups, like social scientists, researchers, advocacy organizations, historians, journalists, and human-rights investigators. Although many platforms have specific procedures for data requests, they are inconsistent, can take a long time, may be costly, and may differ by jurisdiction.
A locker would try to remedy some of this, while continuing to allow platforms to do the necessary work of removing hateful and dangerous content out of circulation where it could otherwise be amplified by trending or recommendation algorithms. Ideally, a set of standards would apply across platforms to address how digital information is stored, how to preserve a digital chain of custody, who can access the information, a credentialing process for those wanting access, and what safeguards should be in place to prevent potential abuse of data. This dataset would contain only public posts and accounts, not private messages, and pertain to significant events. Furthermore, social media companies should provide information on why the content was removed, whether it was manually or automatically flagged for removal, and whether appeals were made to reinstate the accounts or content.
A comprehensive approach to managing hate speech and disinformation is desperately needed to protect communities from the harms caused by large-scale abuse of social media. A human-rights locker, in addition to consistent and transparent enforcement of company content moderation policies, would be part of this. It would obviate the need for some search warrants, which have often resulted in stalemates between law enforcement agencies and platforms. And further, it would provide equal access to researchers studying disinformation campaigns and violent incitement, and their many impacts on elections, public health, and safety. Finally, such a system would allow independent audits of removed accounts and content, so that tech companies can be held accountable for their mistakes or for not being thorough enough.
As the human-rights scholar Jay Aronson puts it, “Archives are not neutral. They exert social and political power.” Depending on who has access and how they’re used, archival data can hold people to account, reveal crucial information about how our society works, and become a tool for advocacy. Following news that social media platforms would begin taking down misinformation related to COVID-19, more than 40 organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists, WITNESS, Article19, and AccessNow signed a letter asking these companies to preserve all data on content removal so that researchers and journalists could study how online information flows ultimately affected health outcomes. Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t be the only ones with access, nor should only those who have brokered backdoor deals. Researchers, journalists, advocates, and civil-society organizations also play a role in ensuring a just future, and they should be given the means to do so.
Washington Must Treat White Supremacist Terrorism as a Transnational Threat
After the Capitol attack, the U.S. government needs to recognize racist extremists as a national security risk and create a high-level counterterrorism czar to disrupt their financing and dismantle their networks.
The explosion of white supremacist violence displayed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. Before Donald Trump and the QAnon-inspired crowd of seditious conspiracy theorists that backs him arrived, there was the so-called Michigan Militia, which in the mid-1990s inspired Timothy McVeigh to murder 168 people by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And before that, for nearly a century, Southern white supremacists, organized into terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, murdered and terrorized Black Americans. This happened because, in an eerie echo of today’s events, the legitimate results of the 1876 presidential election were overturned, prematurely ending Reconstruction and advancing white power while betraying the promise of equality for Black Americans.
White supremacist terrorism has been a feature, not an outlier, of American life.
And as the national security community is well aware, terrorism is multidimensional in nature. It therefore requires a multidimensional response, one that does not yet exist in the fight against white supremacist terrorism.
One needs to look no further than QAnon, the violent, anti-Semitic conspiratorial movement that has metastasized in dozens of countries. It is a hydra-headed beast whose inspiration is Trump, a man believed to be the savior of white people everywhere.
Far-Right Extremism Is a Global Problem
And it is time to treat it like one.
From Brazil to the United States, Hungary to New Zealand, right-wing extremist ideas and groups are posing a grave threat to democratic societies. Within this context, the ongoing support U.S. President Donald Trump receives from parts of his base despite the drop in his approval numbers and the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 reflects the continued evolution of a global threat. As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden emphasized after a right-wing terrorist killed over 50 people at a pair of mosques in her country, “there is no question that ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades, but their form of distribution, the tools of organization—they are new.” If there is any hope of repairing those divides and advancing equality, rule of law, an inclusive civil society, and respect for human rights, the United States needs to work with other countries and multilateral organizations to build a coalition to combat the growth and spread of right-wing extremism.
Nearly 20 years after the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of what American leaders dubbed the “global war on terror,” the world finds itself confronting a new threat. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, as the international community focused on al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other groups espousing a particular interpretation of Islam to justify their terrorism, right-wing extremism grew around the world. Social media platforms and chatrooms offered important mediums for people to share ideas, connect, and learn from each other regardless of geographical location, facilitating connections that might otherwise have been difficult to form.
While right-wing ideology and groups are not new to many parts of Europe, the growth in immigration from Muslim countries, increased movement of individuals within the European Union, and the mainstreaming of far-right ideas from populist politicians as a response to the rise in immigration contributed to a right-wing surge in the 2010s. For example, the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik executed his brutal and deadly attack in Oslo and on Utoya Island in July 2011. In his manifesto, he described a need to defend Europe from Muslim domination and multiculturalism. In response to the attacks, Norway changed its laws to redefine the requirements for a terrorist conviction, agreed to share fingerprint information from criminal investigations with the United States and EU to enable other countries to monitor the actions of individuals who cross borders, and launched a nationwide strategy against hate speech in 2016. The strategy embraced recommendations from the United Nations incorporating both international and domestic approaches. Norway’s whole-of-society approach to addressing extremism ensures that citizens are actively involved in promoting the country’s values to combat threats.
As Norway was still working on its response, major right-wing terrorism hit the United States. In 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine Black people in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Similar to Breivik, he believed that white people needed to be protected from the dangers of other groups. For Roof, that included Jewish people, Latinos, and Black people. Roof also espoused key features of right-wing extremist ideas focused on nostalgia for a historic white past of greatness to counter perceived white victimization in the present.
Although the U.S. response to the attack did not result in a nationwide reckoning on right-wing extremism as Breivik’s strike in Norway did, it did lead to dialogue and initiatives at the local level in South Carolina that pointed to steps that could be taken at the national level as well. The 2015 murders forced South Carolina residents, activists, politicians, and academics to confront the state’s long history of racism and discrimination. Civil rights activists and the University of South Carolina joined forces to establish the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation, to encourage local communities to confront racism and the state’s history by building stronger alliances and relationships across racial lines.
The deadly attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 underscored how right-wing extremism had continued to grow around the world. Similar to Breivik, the Christchurch shooter, who mentioned the Norwegian by name in his own manifesto, referenced protecting white people of European descent from immigration, Muslims, and other threats he described as amounting to “white genocide.” The New Zealand government moved quickly after the attack to address right-wing extremism. It changed the country’s gun laws to ban the kind of semi-automatic weapon used in the attack, and it demonstrated visible support for New Zealand’s Muslim community. New Zealand worked with France and technology companies to find solutions to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content on social media platforms based on applicable laws of the countries supportive of the Christchurch Call, as the plan became known, as well as industry standards and international human rights law, including the freedom of expression. The attack also led to a nationwide interrogation of the country’s values and treatment of its diverse communities. In a report released in December 2020, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attack reveals the failure of the country’s security forces to track the right-wing extremist threat and the hate, discrimination, and poor treatment Muslims and other groups have encountered in New Zealand. The report provides a series of recommendations including strengthening engagement with those communities and restructuring the security agencies that are responsible for counterterrorism.
Over the course of the 2000s, right-wing extremist ideas were mainstreamed as they permeated political parties and influenced politicians.
It isn’t just outright attacks that mark the spread of extreme right-wing ideology. Over the course of the 2000s, those ideas were mainstreamed as they permeated political parties and influenced politicians.
In 2010, Viktor Orban became Hungary’s prime minister. During his tenure, he has expressed anti-refugee and anti-immigration ideas and argued that Europe was being overtaken by other cultures and groups, particularly Muslims. Using the power that comes from controlling the state, Orban and his party have undermined democracy by changing laws to place loyalists in the civil service, attacking academic institutions, limiting press freedom, and pushing the concept of a singular Hungarian national identity. Orban has even praised Trump for his “America first” platform. In response, thousands of Hungarian citizens have marched to protest the government as an Orban spokesperson blamed the demonstrations on George Soros. Recently, opposition parties have united to challenge Orban and his party’s rule in the 2022 elections.
In 2014, Narendra Modi and his right-wing party won the majority in the Indian elections. Before his victory, the U.S. government had denied Modi a visa because of his suspected support for and indifference to Hindu extremist mob attacks on Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister there. Despite his more recent embrace by the international community, Modi has encouraged the most extreme factions of his party and, with allies, has brought extremist ideas into the mainstream, advancing the idea of India as a Hindu country irrespective of its great diversity. Politicians from his Bharatiya Janata Party have also sought to advance a narrative of Hindu victimhood to justify supporting anti-democratic measures like the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Bill, which excludes Muslims from a list of persecuted religious groups from neighboring countries who could be eligible for Indian citizenship. To challenge Modi and the government’s actions, hundreds of thousands of Indians have mobilized to provide counter-narratives to their propaganda and disinformation. The Indian news site AltNews fact-checks politicians, articles, and other information, identifying misleading and false reports to inform the public.
The 2018-2019 rise of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency in Brazil demonstrated how right-wing extremist ideas have continued to emerge. During his campaign, Bolsonaro advocated a platform of returning Brazil to its former glory through attacks on government institutions and minorities, as well as violence against criminals, activists, and opposition parties. Using social media, he was able to grow his support across the country. Bolsonaro has also been a vocal supporter of Trump and even endorsed Trump during his reelection campaign. As a result of Bolsonaro’s attacks on Brazilian democracy, marginalized groups in Brazil are becoming more involved in politics to reimagine the country’s civil society. Black women in Brazil are running for office on platforms focused on human rights and dignity, anti-racism, and equality
These examples all show that, rather than treating right-wing extremism as isolated incidents parochial to particular countries, it is time to recognize it as a global and evolving phenomenon. If the United States and the international community do not quickly mobilize resources to unite against this threat, they may lose an important chance to stem its spread. The actions that individual countries, local governments, journalists, and ordinary citizens have taken to combat right-wing extremism over the past decade offer examples for what an international effort might look like.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has an opportunity following the U.S. Capitol riot to marshal the international community around addressing right-wing extremism. The Biden administration should work with partner countries to expand the scope and mission of the Global Counterterrorism Forum to address right-wing extremism and its different permutations. This will not be easy, since the United States and other countries will have to confront historical and national biases and traumas involving race, religion, and ethnicity, making tough and strategic choices on how to move forward. But it is necessary.
A key to battling right-wing extremism will be addressing disinformation. Social media, chatrooms, and websites (along with algorithms tracking an individual’s internet behavior) enable people around the world to construct their own reality and reinforce existing beliefs while making them susceptible to influence from different groups and individuals. Anti-democratic ideas are able to spread more rapidly and find audiences across national borders. Biden had the right idea when he suggested holding an international conference on democracy to discuss the challenges the world is facing. However, such a conference will make little progress if disinformation is not a part of the discussion and plan of action. That’s where an existing network like the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which has experience facilitating the sharing of ideas, improving international digital literacy, and offering a united front, could come in.
As the global population continues to become younger, it is imperative to develop international approaches to address extremist ideas that make individuals, societies, and institutions vulnerable. Between the economic shocks of 2008 and those resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, young people are demanding change from Chile to Hong Kong. As a result, the Biden administration should work with the United Nations to better assist these generations through vocal and financial support for organizations advancing an inclusive civil society, democracy, and equality. That should help protect them from falling prey to extremism to begin with.
Battling right-wing extremism will not be easy, as many politicians and political parties have incorporated elements of its ideas into their platforms, but democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights around the world are worth the fight.
The American Far-Right Is Dangerous but Disorganized
Despite murderous ambitions and abundant guns, the Capitol assault was a failure.
How can we best understand a failed putsch? When thousands of rightists marched on and breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 as legislators debated the certification of the November election results, it was the most dramatic threat posed to the orderly transition of power since the United States became a multiracial democracy in the 1960s.
Judged by the lofty objectives of its most militant supporters, however, Jan. 6 was a disappointment. Although demonstrators rapidly overwhelmed the unprepared U.S. Capitol Police and the initial reinforcements from Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police, and ransacked much of the building, they were unable to kill or capture the vice president or legislators, hold the Capitol against the additional forces sent to clear it, or prevent Congress from certifying the election results in the early morning of Jan. 7.
As shocking as the Capitol insurrection was, it demonstrated the limits facing the far-right as it attempts to compensate for its electoral setbacks by taking to the streets and taking up arms. If the U.S. far-right becomes more organized and disciplined, and if the political conditions that allowed the attack to get as far as it did aren’t addressed, violent actors might emerge within the movement who are better positioned to pursue last week’s unmet aspirations.
The stated goals of the far right on Jan. 6 were radical: reversing the outcome of the election itself. But the tactics most employed were primarily those of low-intensity violence. The insurrection was ultimately unable to bring high levels of violence to bear. While there were some armed rightists present, and police recovered a handful of firearms and Molotov cocktails and defused pipe bombs planted at the Republican and Democratic National Committee buildings, most militants fought with fists, flagpoles, chemical spray, and thrown projectiles.
Most demonstrators at the barricades were unwilling to directly fight the police and followed the lead of more militant comrades who used the familiar tools of the riot to overpower police: fists, melee weapons, and irritants. These tactics appear frequently in street contention, even among movements praised for their nonviolent power. Whether in 1980s Poland, Serbia in 2000, Egypt in 2011, or the ongoing situation in Belarus, even overwhelmingly nonviolent movements employ barricades, throw stones, brawl with cops, or ransack state buildings.
In Ukraine’s 2013-14 Euromaidan protests, the Yanukovych government’s downfall was precipitated in part by the challenge posed by militant demonstrators, among them far-rightists, and their willingness to meet lethal police repression with Molotovs and even firearms. Although police recovered firearms and Molotovs in the United States last week, none had been used against police. While 11 Molotovs might shock U.S. audiences, anti-austerity protests near the Hellenic Parliament in Greece may feature dozens of firebombs thrown.
The level of violence was also low relative to the firepower available to U.S. militants. For many militant groups in Europe, firearms acquisition is a challenge. Groups need the discipline to steal weapons or appeal to a state sponsor, or have the resources to access the black market, all while avoiding hostile detection, just to wage armed struggle. U.S. far-rightists can easily access a legal market and acquire firepower and ammunition stockpiles many of their counterparts could only dream of. Yet the majority assaulting the Capitol did not bring firearms, and those that did declined to engage in gun battles, even after police shot and killed an unarmed demonstrator. As one Proud Boy put it, most demonstrators were unwilling to “take it to the next level.”
Access to paramilitary gear and equipment does not itself create strong paramilitaries. Many far-rightists, lacking prior experience with repression, fail to develop the skills necessary to successfully challenge the state. This difficult learning curve was on display in abundance at the Capitol. While some demonstrators dressed the part with tactical gear, they made themselves easily identifiable by failing to cover their faces, change their distinctive outfits, or even offering up their names and declaring their possession of illegal weapons to the authorities.
Some groups, such as the Proud Boys, have gradually improved their tactics. They coordinated their movements over radio at previous Washington marches and, after facing a handful of arrests and stab wounds when they assaulted random bystanders and counterprotesters in their last marches, this time appeared to forgo their obvious black-yellow uniforms. The Oathkeepers, another prominent militia group, brought not just protective gear but radio communications and moved as a group.
The rally and attack on Jan. 6 benefited from being planned in the open, allowing disciplined groups of more violent demonstrators to complement the overwhelming mass of less organized participants. However, sustaining higher levels of violence requires more clandestine and well-organized groups that can evade and endure state responses like the federal crackdown unfolding now.
Although the Proud Boys have continued to grow and provide violent heft to rightist demonstrations, building a comparable organization capable of directly challenging the state is more difficult. Militias, though well-armed, often struggle to branch out past the legal grey area of “armed protest,” leading to operational security disasters like the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor. Neo-Nazi militant groups such as Atomwaffen Division and the Base, despite their gleefully advertised desires for an apocalyptic race war, were rife with government or anti-racist infiltrators and failed to execute organized attack plots.
While overshadowed by the Capitol debacle, government authorities have been largely successful in preventing the emergence of highly organized, highly lethal far-right groups. It is therefore unsurprising that the most deadly form of far-right violence in the United States remains mass shootings conducted by individuals embedded within far-right online communities and subcultures, who minimize the risk of detection by resorting to solitary, uncoordinated acts.
How, then, did a variety of openly discussed plans to assault the Capitol during a mobilization urged by some of the most powerful politicians in the country catch so many by surprise? D.C. officials mismanaged two far-right street mobilizations by allowing Proud Boys and other street militants to assault local counterprotesters and bystanders in November and December, disproportionately focusing police resources on separating “mutual combatants,” while discouraging residents from counterprotesting.
Fears that street clashes might provoke Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act or federalize the MPD further encouraged an attitude of waiting out far-right street politics. Neither D.C. officials nor USCP expected or prepared for the Capitol to be stormed, and encouragement and assistance within the Hill may have exacerbated this problem. The solution for the inauguration, an influx of tens of thousands of National Guard and federal law enforcement personnel and stifling security measures, are unsustainable, and the creation of a new domestic War on Terror is dangerous.
This approach might temporarily shift the calculus of various far-right actors, but it is highly unlikely to defuse the movement. Most participants will return to hometowns that cannot be turned into armed federal camps for weeks on end. Some, seeing their more reckless colleagues hauled off to federal court, will demobilize, others will learn from their mistakes. Sympathetic and cynical politicians will court their support. Some may rejoin police departments tasked with managing their local demonstrations. Police repression of future demonstrations might mitigate their damage but could also increase the appeal of more militant or underground organizations. Some actively welcome and may provoke repression to be as indiscriminate as possible to exploit this dynamic.
Although the far-right remains relatively disorganized, each successful street action provides opportunities for groupuscules to cohere and for more casual participants to deepen their commitments. Leaving the disruption of this process in the hands of the state places high hopes in the same institutions that unleashed police riots and mass arrests against Black Lives Matter and leftist movements.
As uncomfortable as it is to reconcile with the purportedly non-partisan prerogatives of a neutral state, the far-right cannot be reduced to a criminal or national security problem. Like all movements, it is inherently a political challenge. That it could inflict such a shock to the political system on Jan. 6 despite the relative disorganization and low levels of force underscores the gravity of that challenge. Meeting that challenge, in whatever arena it appears, will require the opponents of the far-right to out-organize it.
Jan. 6 Changed Tech Forever
Silencing @realDonaldTrump was the easy part. Now the hard work begins.
The digital insurrection finally happened.
Last week, Twitter blocked @realDonaldTrump for life. Meanwhile, Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” as his own company was cutting U.S. President Donald Trump off from millions of digital disciples for the duration of his presidency. Then, the digital payments company Stripe booted all payment activities related to the Trump campaign, while Shopify took down Trump-associated online stores. With Pinterest, GoFundMe, Snapchat, and many others piling on, suddenly the bandwagon was spilling over. As the dominant platforms became inhospitable for the Trumpists, there was a rush to more welcoming alternatives; yet the principal refuge, Parler, soon found that Google, Apple, and Amazon had shut off its oxygen.
All that is to say, Jan. 6—the day a pro-Trump mob overran the Capitol building—will change tech as we know it. Quite possibly, the siege served as the proverbial last straw, and even Big Tech, with all its aspirations for facilitating unfettered communications, could not look the other way after much of the day’s violence was set off on their platforms.
That said, there was a second momentous event that occurred on Jan. 6 that may also have contributed to this sudden surge of high-mindedness. The Democrats picked up two Senate seats in Georgia on that day and, after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, will control the presidency and both branches of Congress. The Democrats already had a hefty 449-page report from the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law to use to build a case for reviewing and reimagining the power of Big Tech, long a goal of the party, and now it had to power to do so as well.
After last week’s violence, it may seem like a good thing that a new reality for tech is unfolding. There are, however, several reasons to be concerned, too.
The most significant cause for concern is one I wrote on earlier this month: Tech has not been a high priority for the most important person in the new government, Biden. But to get it right, Biden cannot simply turn to the industry as a convenient scapegoat now; he needs to take a more holistic view, seeing the sector as a tool for addressing many of his priorities: pandemic response, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate action.
Calls for reining in the power of tech companies—and the industry’s own responses—are inevitably reactive.
Second, calls for reining in the power of tech companies—and the industry’s own responses—are inevitably reactive. This was true when news of privacy breaches, such as Facebook’s deal with Cambridge Analytica, broke. It is true when concerns about misinformation—about a raging pandemic or political conspiracy theories—reach a boiling point. It is true when a presidential Twitter account with over 88 million followers at its peak is shut down after it has already delivered 59,558 tweets, rife with untruths, provocation, and outright dangerous content. Trump has been analyzed as the single largest driver of pandemic misinformation and the most prominent disseminator of elections misinformation, but his social media accounts were allowed to persist until rioters took the Capitol. Given the centrality of the industry in the global discourse, in the world economy, and in the stock market, it is unacceptable that Big Tech has not actively taken a long view and anticipated the risks and opportunities its products offer. The same goes for governments, which still struggle to cobble together forward-looking policy and legal frameworks that can withstand and obviate the nonstop sequence of crises. When remedial action is taken by the likes of a Twitter or Facebook CEO, it should make everyone uneasy that a few individuals can wield so much power to determine the future of democracy. It should make them wonder why elected officials let it get to this point.
Third, any drastic action that is expedient and reactive can have unintended consequences. For example, by banning certain users on their platforms, Twitter, Facebook, and Google create fertile ground for new splinter platforms to gather adherents—and, before long, you have the digital parallels of Fox News. To make matters worse, these alternatives can fly under the law enforcement or regulatory radar as they turn to end-to-end encryption and blockchain technologies. How else would organized armed “protests” at 50 state capitols already be planned in the lead-up to Inauguration Day? On the other hand, enacting laws that hold the platforms directly accountable for all the content they carry adds new risks, as only very large, dominant players, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, will survive, as they are the only ones that can afford the legal consequences.
All this is not to say that Jan. 6 broke tech and there is nothing to do about it. Instead, here are three ways in which Biden and tech leaders can, as the incoming president might say, build back better.
First, Biden should appoint an internet czar and stand up a regulatory agency with oversight across the tech industry: a Federal Digital Commission, perhaps? The United States should have a single point of accountability and integration. Currently, there is no such agency overseeing one of the nation’s most significant, complex, and multidimensional industries. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have been pinch-hitting, because some of the issues fall under their jurisdiction. But a holistic regulation of tech requires more than piecemeal approaches or litigation that focuses on narrow issues, either because there is no government agency with a broad enough mandate or because the lawyers do not believe they can win a more complex case. Technology is not just a modern version of the telephone or the telegraph. It integrates communication, algorithmic analysis and decision-making, cybersecurity and public safety, commerce, payments, user-driven innovation and creativity, entrepreneurship, social justice and inclusion, artificial intelligence, automation and data insights, and so much more.
One of the historical challenges with establishing a brand-new federal agency was the divided nature of government; while both Democrats and Republican lawmakers have had an interest in curtailing the power of tech, they have never been able to agree on their core concerns. Now, with full control over government, the Democrats have the votes to, finally, put a dedicated regulator in place with authority to regulate the tech sector in an integrative and forward-looking manner.
Second, the government does need to take action on reforming tech, but the focus should change. The drumbeat prior to the election was about anti-competitive behavior and antitrust. These are important concerns, but more essential ones have arisen and should take priority. As I have noted earlier, antitrust litigation, historically, drags on for a long time and mostly results in settlements. Antitrust action wins headlines and is certainly going to keep some powerful supporters who will wish to persist with it: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a likely advocate, is now writing a book on the subject. But a long, drawn-out litigation process might completely overshadow a more pressing unresolved tech-related issue that has emerged as the central lesson of the Jan. 6 attack. This has to do with an arcane but essential law that has been described as “one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet”: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides websites, including social media companies, that host or moderate content generated by others with immunity from liability, thereby allowing them to host a wide variety of content.
There is little doubt that a systematic reworking of this liability shield will have the political winds blowing on its back. Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo and Tom Malinowski intend to update and reintroduce a bill eliminating such protections when it comes to content that foments civil rights abuses or terrorism. Fellow Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky also plans to act to limit Section 230 protections for companies that fail to consistently enforce their terms of service. But the circumstances of last week have shifted the balance on Section 230 reform; apart from the difficulty of finding a clean way to rework the law, one of the issues with taking a consistent path forward had been that Republicans felt that the shield gave license to the social media platforms to censor conservative voices, while Democrats felt that the shield was permitting too many such voices to be given a megaphone. To make matters worse, Biden had suggested revoking the law altogether—which would have shut down the web as we know it and, sadly, cannot be taken as serious presidential guidance. Now, there is likely to be more urgency and consensus on the objectives of a reform that balances the numerous concerns and helps pave a better path toward reformulating it.
Finally, investors—who are, ultimately, the most powerful stakeholders influencing executive decisions in tech companies—should step up. In recent years, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings have become an important part of investability considerations. ESG investing is expected to accelerate in a post-pandemic world. And so, CEOs of the tech companies have an incentive to not run afoul of this surging class of investors. After Jan. 6, a key part of the “S” in ESG as it relates to Big Tech should include a company’s impact on democratic institutions and the actions it takes to protect society against violence, “infodemics,” or misinformation in both public health and public discourse and acts of civil unrest—even while supporting open discourse and free speech.
Shutting down @realDonaldTrump after the mayhem of Jan. 6 was the easy part—even though it took an unprecedented national crisis to get to it. Even taking the first steps toward impeaching the man for a second time, while an event of historic proportions, seems so inevitable that it appears straightforward. Now the hard work of fixing the fundamental democratic institutions must begin. A key part of that effort is to fixing tech. The first step in this journey is to recognize that one of the most powerful foundations of the American democratic project, which was threatened and then revived last week, is the Constitution. It has mostly held up because of wisdom and foresight on the part of its framers. Tech, too, is now foundational to the American project and for others worldwide. It is time we applied those principles of wisdom and foresight to the way we way we approach tech as well.
Democracy at Home and Democracy Promotion Abroad Aren’t the Same
Hypocrisy has long been a component of U.S. foreign policy. The Capitol riot doesn’t change that.
Watching the storming of the Capitol last week, many progressive critics of American foreign policy concluded that the country’s chickens were finally coming home to roost. This was the blowback from America’s many military interventions, forever wars, and coup attempts. Regime change had returned to Washington. For these critics, the implication was clear: To save its own democracy, America should dramatically scale back its foreign-policy ambitions.
But drawing too simple a link between the United States foreign and domestic failings makes fixing them more difficult. Doing so may appeal to a desire for moral order in the universe, yet it risks misdiagnosing the pernicious role of racism in American politics. Restoring American democracy while righting its foreign policy requires acknowledging the messy, more troubling relationship between them.
There has never been a clear moral harmony between America’s behavior in its own territory and in the world. The country has proven all too capable of simultaneously expanding freedom at home and empire abroad. From the outset, giving more rights to Americans while violently stripping them from others often went hand in hand. In the 19th century, this was true even within North America. Under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, universal white male suffrage helped bring about the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation during the 1830s of about 100,000 Native Americans. After the Civil War, slavery ended even as expansion of settlers into the American West accelerated. In the early 20th century, America embarked on a period of progressive reform, but also colonialism—with figures like President Teddy Roosevelt championing all of it. When the 19th Amendment recognized women’s right to vote, U.S. soldiers were occupying three Latin American countries. Decades later, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the National Guard to end segregation in Little Rock and the CIA to end democracy in Tehran. President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, then carpet-bombed Vietnam while abetting genocide in Indonesia. More recently, of course, we elected our first black president while fighting multiple forever wars in the Middle East.
In short, if chickens came home to roost, America’s should have returned a long time ago. Or never left at all.
So why does this matter? When the United States began building its formal overseas empire in the wake of the Spanish-American War, many critics feared it would ultimately destroy the Republic and its democratic traditions. But looking back from today—even with all the alarming developments of the last few weeks and years—it is hard to argue that the United States is less democratic, less egalitarian, or less free than it was in 1898. One major reason, of course, is the work that has been done to begin dismantling the country’s entrenched racism. Indeed, many of the progressives now warning about the relationship between democratic decline and imperialism are deliberately highlighting the role of white ethno-nationalism in both phenomena.
They are certainly correct that racism has long compromised American democracy and facilitated its foreign wars.
Perhaps it is pedantic to quibble about the exact nature of the relationship. But correctly parsing it can offer three important insights: First, America’s racism has never needed foreign policy for fuel. Second, anti-interventionist arguments have often been most effective when couched in a racist language of their own. And third, the choice between promoting democracy at home and abroad is a false dichotomy.
First, it is telling that it was only after a century of toppling foreign governments that some Americans suddenly became comfortable, in 2021, trying to topple their own. Why did the men who fought a brutal counterinsurgency in the Philippines, for example not come back and storm the Capitol building? A number of people have argued that the answer lies precisely in the progress the America has made. That is to say, it is the creation of a more genuinely pluralistic country, culminating in the election of a black president, created the violent backlash we are witnessing today. From this perspective, the problem is purely domestic, a result of prejudices that proceeded and could outlast America’s foreign misadventures. Ending forever wars and spending more of the Pentagon’s budget on social problems might be valuable for their own sake, but they can only do so much if the real issue is more fundamental.
Moreover, racism is sufficiently pervasive that it has also been a potent tool for anti-interventionists. Some of the strongest opposition to American colonialism in the Caribbean a century ago came from those who claimed that ruling over the region’s “savage” or “uncivilized” natives would be an impossible and unprofitable task. The fascist sympathies of many “America First” anti-interventionists in the lead-up to World War Two is well known. Even today, a subtler form of prejudice remains popular among politicians trying to keep the United States out of foreign conflicts. In announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, for example, President Donald Trump explained that Turks and Kurds had been fighting for hundreds of years and that “[t]here’s a lot of sand that they can play with.” It was a cruder version of an argument that Democratic presidents have made as well, be it former President Bill Clinton blaming Bosnia’s genocide on ancient hatreds or President Barack Obama saying the Syrian civil war was a product of “conflicts that date back millennia.” These tropes will remain tempting to advocates of a more restrained foreign policy. But suggesting that foreigners are fundamentally ungovernable is just as wrong whether you’re making the case for or against trying to govern them.
There is, of course, a more compelling argument that, facing domestic crisis, America would be arrogant to preach democracy to others and irresponsible to waste its resources doing so. But this misunderstands the history and logic behind democracy promotion. Indeed, there has always been a significant gap between America’s democratic rhetoric and the state of its democracy. Americans flatter themselves if they think foreigners have only just noticed. Ideally, recognizing this discrepancy can inspire America to live up to its professed values, even if only to advance its own interests. Fighting fascism forced Americans to confront racism and religious prejudice at home. During the early Cold War, America’s need to undermine Soviet propaganda and enhance its influence in Africa also served as effective arguments in the battle against segregation.
At best, Americans have defended democratic values overseas because they realized the fragility of their own democracy and believed it would be more secure in a more democratic world. Over the past four years, Americans have watched Trump leverage his corrupt ties with autocratic leaders and seen how right-wing nationalists around the world share conspiracies and draw inspiration from each other. This should make it all the more apparent that the struggle for democracy is a shared one, to which even a deeply flawed America must also contribute.
As the shining city upon a hill, America has spread light but also, too often, cast a dark shadow over others. The mythology of American exceptionalism gave many Americans a messianic faith in their ability to spread democracy while blinding them to the risk that they might face the same authoritarian threats they had observed—or supported—elsewhere. If recent events have provided a more objective perspective, it will hopefully drive Americans to rejoin the global fight for democracy with renewed conviction and humility.
A Chastened America Will Be Better at Preaching Abroad
There’s never been a better time for the United States to promote democracy around the world.
It’s known as Bloody Thursday. As with last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol, it was sparked by a last-ditch attempt to subvert an election, this time in North Macedonia. Fearing prosecution should he lose power, an unscrupulous autocrat, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, urged his supporters to stop parliamentarians from “stealing their country.” As demonstrators grew in number and anger, Gruevski’s elected loyalists impeded the opposition leader, Zoran Zaev, from forming a government. When Zaev finally surmounted the last obstacles to ousting Gruevski, a mob of self-described patriots stormed Parliament, brandishing flags, wreaking havoc, and attacking Zaev and other so-called traitors. Blood spilled from Zaev’s face as he was repeatedly struck. Belatedly riot police expelled the mob.
The comparison between the April 27, 2017 assault on the Macedonian Parliament and last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol is as fair as it is humbling. One of the oldest and definitely the most powerful republic now shares the ignominy of a violent, failed putsch with a small Balkans country. But there is one important difference between the two incidents. No Macedonian officials will come to Washington (as American officials successfully did in Skopje) to advise them on how to pick up the pieces and move forward with their democracy.
Instead, the United States is offered worried encouragement from allies, and schadenfraude from Russia and China. Reveling in the Capitol Hill chaos, Moscow and Beijing have asked how the United States can support so-called color revolutions or protesters in Hong Kong when it repudiates anti-government “protesters” who attack the Capitol. People of goodwill in the Balkans and around the world, including in America, are also asking whether the United States has standing to preach democracy anymore. Can America promote democracy if the Capitol, the symbol of its democracy, is in tatters?
The answer is yes. Washington can and must continue to promote democracy, even as it rebuilds its own badly fraying model. The United States cannot afford to give up its role as a leader and proponent of democracy out of an exaggerated—and spurious—sense of humility. Outgoing President Donald Trump has weakened its democracy and, paradoxically, revealed some surprising strengths. These examples of resilience are what distinguish it from the likes of North Macedonia and its neighbors in the Balkans and across the Mediterranean to the Middle East, as well as in Africa and Asia. A closer examination shows that the United States, chastened by its brush with democratic disaster, is better poised to advocate for reform around the globe.
First, in 2020, the American people voted in record numbers not just to defeat the illiberal candidate, but to endorse the pro-democracy candidate. It’s critical to remember that President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, from its first day, was framed as a stark choice of values—not just of policies, prosperity or competence. Consistently rebuffing Democrats who urged him to reprise the winning 2018 congressional campaign formula of pocketbook issues and health care, Biden resolutely stuck with “fight for the soul of the nation” as his cri de coeur.
COVID, health care, racial and economic equality figured prominently in his appeal, but Biden framed them all in the essential task for any democracy: overcoming division. Just a month before the election, Biden went to Gettysburg to give the biggest speech of his campaign. Using the iconic Lincolnesque backdrop, Biden returned to the same example that launched his pursuit of the presidency: the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Eighty-one million votes later, Biden—and the country—can claim a mandate to repudiate authoritarianism, division, and bigotry, and to affirm core democratic values.
Second, the belated revulsion among Trump’s own supporters over his conduct and the assault on the Capitol bolsters the Biden democracy mandate, and it spoils the claim that his seven million vote victory fell short of a rebuke of Trump.
In the wake of the rioting, several (far from all) Republican members of Congress reversed course and dropped their unlawful objections to the electoral college tally. The senators who initiated and stuck with the reckless scheme have felt a backlash, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who had already warned that overruling the electors and the courts would spark a “death spiral” in U.S. democracy. A number of senior administration officials, including cabinet members, have resigned in protest of Trump’s actions and the assault of the Capitol. A few Republicans in Congress have joined with Democrats in calling for Trump to leave office before his term is up. One Republican senator has stated that Trump’s actions were “impeachable.”
In short, the attack on the Capitol, the first institution of U.S. democracy, has become an incipient reaffirmation of American democracy. That many Trump supporters cling to their views, and even support the assault, is secondary. The majority of the American people has spoken, and now Republicans and Democrats in Congress have affirmed the Biden pro-democracy victory.
Going forward, it is critical to hold Trump accountable—not just to deny him the possibility of holding office, but to reaffirm the norm against using political violence, or parliamentary maneuvering to overturn election results as McConnell had warned. The Senate majority leader is right to sense disaster for his party if Republicans fail to hold their colleagues accountable. Last week’s spectacle in Washington has triggered traumatic memories in North Macedonia from the 2017 attack on Parliament. Members of the guilty political party, including its leader, are now trading recriminations and denials over the unforgettable and unresolved incident. Republicans who deny Trump’s and their own culpability for the Capitol siege should rue the remark of former member of Parliament Gordana Jankulovska: “April 27 left traces in all of us.”
Third, the Biden administration has every right to humbly preach because Biden aims to practice what he’s preaching. Already one year ago, in his call for a global Summit for Democracy, Biden pointed the finger homeward, at the United States, underscoring the work that Americans would have to do first to fix our own failings. For example, the United States has slipped to its lowest rankings on corruption in nearly a decade, in part due to the widespread belief that “rich people can buy elections.” Biden has zeroed in on the fight against corruption, promising to make it a “core national security interest.” There is no hypocrisy in urging other countries to strengthen their democracies when your president’s sleeves are rolled up to tackle the same deficiencies at home.
Fourth, U.S. institutions and democratic norms have taken a battering under Trump, yet the judiciary still shows the type of independence often absent internationally. Judge Stephanos Bibas, one of Trump’s many judicial appointees, dismissed baseless election claims made by the Trump legal team with this blunt declaration: “Calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.” Such robust defiance of political authority is exceedingly rare in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. Judges in Lebanon, for example, were apparently cowed into allowing powerful explosives to be stored unlawfully in a populated port area, leading to the massive, deadly explosion in August.
Republican officials in the state of Georgia braved public attacks, harassment, and humiliation from the president, as well as death threats from other sources. These normally obscure officials chose to carry out their duties. Compare their fortitude to the corruption and diffidence of weak functionaries in poorly performing democracies around the world.
Fifth, Trump’s chronic polarization, particularly his populist appeals grounded in dramatized fears (like the “invasion” of the Central American migrant caravan), can inform better domestic and foreign policy. Those so-called ancient tribal hatreds of the Balkans no longer seem so particular and foreign now that we have seen how easy it is in the United States to summon hate, fear, and bigotry against “the other.” In both cases, the antidote lies in understanding the grievance and challenging the purveyors of hate, a task that may actually be easier in the Balkans—where the proponents of bigoted and paranoid narratives are known—than in the United States, where they are diffuse and not so prominent, other than Trump himself.
The last and best reason for the Biden administration to avidly promote democracy is that there is simply no alternative. In the end, all governing authority must be accountable to the governed.
The answer to Russian and Chinese charges of hypocrisy after the Capitol assault is not embarrassed silence but determined counterattack. Americans must reject any parallel between color revolutions—uprisings of citizens animated by abuse at the hands of their leaders—and the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol—an uprising animated by the lies of the leader himself. Our place is to stand with citizens who are willing to stand up for their rights. Indeed, after four years of open admiration for dictators like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and highly selective interest in human rights, activists around the globe are thirsting for a vigorous, principled American voice to back their demands for rule of law and respect.
Now that Americans can see the consequences of open disinformation in the United States, they must work with democratic partners around the globe to combat the subtle and sophisticated efforts of Moscow, Beijing, and their allies to sow confusion, incite division, and corrupt democracies. Electronically fueled disinformation is a global threat to democracy—precisely the type of issue that justifies the Summit for Democracy that Biden has proposed.
In sum, the United States can still lead by “the power of its example,” as Biden has urged, as long as it acts with both the confidence and humility that his Secretary of State-nominee Antony Blinken has also urged. The Trump era has indeed humbled us. But like a biblical parable, the experience has ripped away our pretenses, teaching us to pay attention to what is precious, lest we lose it. That means grasping that in an age of polarization and disinformation, the bar for legitimacy is even higher. Elected and appointed officials, civil servants, and even ordinary citizens who want to preserve democracy have to be scrupulously fair in their conduct and their comments.
Americans have lost their naivete about their democracy under Trump. That makes them all the more qualified to lead on democracy under Biden.
The U.S. president was impeached on charges of “incitement of insurrection” in a vote that laid bare deep divisions within the Republican Party over its post-Trump future.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to impeach President Donald Trump again, making him the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
Ten Republican lawmakers joined all 222 Democrats in supporting impeachment, which came a week after a pro-Trump mob violently breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, fueled by baseless claims from the president that the election was stolen from him. The final tally of the vote was 232 in favor and 197 against.
The articles of impeachment now go to the Republican-controlled Senate, where the process of removing the president from office before his term is up seems highly unlikely.
The Senate is expected to reconvene on Jan. 19, just one day before President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office, leaving little time for an impeachment trial and vote. In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he had “not made a final decision” on his vote and intended to listen to legal arguments in the Senate—though he said that the upper chamber would not reach a verdict until after Trump leaves office.
But even if Trump is not removed from office prematurely, the vote represents another historic stain on the president’s legacy during his final weeks in the White House, a period of time that past presidents have used to focus on a smooth transition to their successors and take victory laps on their policy accomplishments. Neither of the other presidents who have faced impeachment—Bill Clinton or Andrew Johnson—has faced charges as severe: “willful incitement of insurrection.”
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The Capitol Invasion Was a Coup From Below
Trump borrowed from the playbook of his favorite dictator, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, by inciting a mob to launch an insurrection.
Military coups were once considered things that happened in faraway places where strongmen had not conceded to civilian rule. But not anymore. A lively debate about coups has now kicked off in mainstream American discourse.
The words being bandied about are either borrowed from the French (coup d’état), Spanish (golpe) or, less frequently, German (Militarputsch). Until now the debate has revolved around a simple question. Was the assault on Capitol Hill a coup attempt?
Here in Foreign Policy, Paul Musgrave argued that it was a “coup attempt,” while Naunihal Singh maintained that, however disturbing the events may have been, they did not fit the definition of a coup.
But framing the debate as yes-or-no question limits our ability to understand what happened. When new or unprecedented events occur, analysts need a new vocabulary to discuss them.
The assault on Capitol Hill is best understood as a specific type of coup attempt—one that I call a “coup from below”—in which civilians are the ones who plot, instigate, and mobilize.
In a conventional military coup, members of the armed forces either act alone, or in some cases are aided and abetted by civilians. But in coups from below, these power dynamics are reversed: civilians take on the role of protagonists, while the military is relegated to a secondary role. These dynamics may change, if military or security officials later gain the upper hand, as they often do.
I lived through a coup in Egypt in 2013 that even experts failed to recognize as such. In my book Coups and Revolutions, I argue that we need to change the way policymakers and academics think about coups—and how we respond to them.
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How to Know You’ve Lost Your Grip on Reason
Five warning signs that your political views no longer fulfill the most basic of democratic criteria.
The shocking events last week in Washington underscore what we’ve known for a long time: The label “United” States is something of a misnomer. America remains a deeply divided society, and nowhere is that clearer than in how the population has responded to the sight of a deluded mob, incited by lame duck President Donald Trump, invading the House and Senate in a violent attempt to stop the certification of Trump’s decisive electoral defeat.
The signs of division are apparent. President-elect Joe Biden and others may cling to the notion that “this is not who we are,” but even after the mob was expelled, more than 120 Republican representatives opposed certifying the election results. Six Republican senators voted with them. They did so even though Trump’s attempts to challenge the election in the courts had been summarily rejected more than 60 times and refuted by Republican Party officials in several key states. Yet immediately after the assault on the Capitol, a YouGov poll showed that 45 percent of Republican voters supported the attack, with 29 percent saying they supported it “strongly.” Other polls are not quite as stark, but even they show a substantial fraction of the population thinks what happened was a defense of democracy, not an attack on it.
The usual framing of America’s current polarization portrays this as a gulf between left and right, with a diminishing number of moderates. Another way to characterize the present divisions, however, may be to draw a distinction between “reasonable people” and “unreasonable people.” What threatens the nation are not differences in ideology, debates over specific policy issues, or even deep constitutional questions; the real danger is the growing number of unreasonable people in U.S. public life. By “unreasonable,” I mean those who are either unwilling or unable to be swayed by facts or honest discussion, and who prefer to build and live in dream palaces of their own imagining.
The presence of unreasonable people matters because the core principles of democratic politics—and especially the commitment to free speech, unfettered media, freedom of association, and the like—assume that the citizenry (and especially its leaders) are receptive to rational discourse in the “marketplace of ideas.” This assumption is perhaps most clearly expressed in the chapter “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” found in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. No matter how much our initial preferences may differ, a liberal society rests on the belief that open expression and discussion will bring new facts to light, identify what is working well and what has gone wrong, and spotlight injustices or other departures from core principles. Over time, open debate and discussion will eventually weed out inaccurate information and change enough minds to produce a change of course.
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All the Capitol Rioters Should be Tracked Down
But not in ways that will only further entrench the surveillance state.
“This is not who we are,” was the rallying cry of many on social media and in the news after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Another common refrain was the chagrined comparison of the United States to “banana republics” or “third world” authoritarian dictators. But for Black Americans and for millions of people in the global South, this is, indeed, who America is, and it is the direct product the country’s politics—not just four years of disinformation, corruption, and white supremacy, but centuries of enslavement, genocide, and imperialism.
By all accounts, the plans of white nationalists to descend on Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 were no closely guarded secret. Yet, the country, including police in D.C. seemed completely unprepared to deal with the violence. Some video clips even appeared to show police officers either allowing people through barricades without resistance or actively directing them to move forward, with at least one police officer posing for a selfie with one of the intruders and another helping a woman walk down a flight of stairs. Some off-duty police officers and members of the military were apparently part of the mob, flashing their badges as they stormed the building.
So certain were many of the rioters that the police would be on their side that they were taken aback by the officers who stood firm. “This is not America,” cried one woman who was part of the mob, “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.
Across the country, many observers were shocked into disbelief. But not in Black America, which is used to two systems of policing: one that protects white life and property; and one that takes away Black life and property. Like many other institutions and systems, policing in the United States has its roots in the period of enslavement, when slave patrols controlled and prevented enslaved persons from escaping, and the Reconstruction era and beyond, when Black codes limited the physical and economic mobility of Black Americans
Of course, many more institutions are implicated in the national amnesia beyond the police. Media descriptions of the woman who was shot and the man who suffered a heart attack during the riot at the Capitol are sharply different from coverage of Black people who are killed by police. Reportage including photographs of neatly manicured, well-dressed people describing their occupations, and quoting their family members, humanize them in a way the victims of police brutality are rarely offered, despite their never having participated in seditious, violent acts. Social media conglomerates and elite universities, too, are equally complicit for accommodating (and thereby validating) disinformation and racist attacks for so long as one of many legitimate possibilities in public discourse and political life.
How to move forward is an urgent but vexing question. There are some areas of agreement and others that need greater clarification and need for informed discussion and consensus:
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‘This Was Like Charlottesville on Steroids’
Security expert Erroll Southers speaks with Foreign Policy on the roots of the Capitol assault.
The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 has shocked Americans—not just at the sight of an insurrection encouraged by a sitting president, but at the security failures that allowed domestic terrorists to reach the heart of government. To understand what went wrong, Foreign Policy’s deputy editor James Palmer spoke to Erroll Southers, a professor and leading security expert who is director of the Safe Communities Institute and Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, as well as being a former FBI agent.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: What went wrong on Jan. 6?
Erroll Southers: Where do I begin? Obviously, they did not heed the open-source information by individuals and groups about their planned intentions for Jan. 6, accompanied by the statements from the executive office and the constant drumbeat since Nov. 3 to suggest that the election was unfair or rigged—and this could be corrected despite 60 lawsuits, 59 of which failed, a rejection from the Supreme Court, and all of the Electoral College votes being in place. The first thing that went wrong is that the agencies involved, despite all of that information, especially the [information about] violence, thought they were going to have a peaceful assembly, and that it would end peacefully. It went totally off the rails when some of the speeches were made in the speeches that morning.
I honestly believe a 9/11 Commission should be undertaken to review this incident. There was a full independent review of the Charlottesville incident—an excellent review by an independent group—and this was like Charlottesville on steroids. The review has to cover the multiple intelligence failures. Months ahead of this, [the Department of Homeland Security]’s threat assessment unit was gutted by the executive branch. The agencies didn’t work together anticipating this kind of activity. Requests to send in the National Guard were ignored—and so it went from bad to worse to terrible. The Charlottesville review, although the department didn’t like it, was very fair.
Leading up to this, we knew there would be violence that day. In fact, I predicted violence at every state capitol, and there was violence at many of them. This was not a secret. You didn’t have to have a security clearance to know what was going to happen.
I have a number of courses I teach to largely public safety officials, police, fire, and emergency managers. I’ve told them all along, the anti-government groups, left or right, are not friends of yours. If you wear a uniform, you are the most visible form of what they disagree with, every day. And unfortunately now we have two police officers dead. There are also going to be some really interesting reveals about the complicity of some of the officers that day, aiding and abetting the bedlam.
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Miami’s Spanish-Language Media Is Overrun With Trumpist Conspiracies
Right-wing Cuban Americans believe they’re fighting U.S. communism.
In the aftermath of the deadly overtake of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, Spanish-language radio in Miami remained abuzz with conspiracy theories and unfounded election fraud claims. Blame for the outbreak of violence was largely aimed at the imagined presence of Black Lives Matter and antifa.
To be sure, there was a shared sense of shame that crossed party lines, with widespread condemnation of the destruction and the five deaths that resulted after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol to disrupt formal proceedings to certify election results in favor of President-elect Joe Biden.
But Trumpism remained firm among many supporters—including Cuban American voters who provided a boost for the Republican Party during the November 2020 presidential elections as well as those who traveled to Washington to take part in the pro-Trump rally that preceded the Capitol mayhem. The Cuban flag has been present at many pro-Trump rallies, and flags from other countries with a strong right-wing element among the American diaspora were present on Jan. 6 as well.
Social media influencers with large followings such as Cuban American YouTube celebrity Alexander Otaola argued there is a tendency among far-left liberals to “criminalize” Trumpism and warned “the opposition” that Democrats now have “absolute power,” which he characterized as “dangerous.”
Otaola told his followers that the United States has entered an era of censorship and pre-communism. Trump, like other Republican politicians, has promoted a hard-right, anti-socialist agenda that resonates with right-wing Cuban Americans. Coming from a country where speech critical of the government can mean jail time, the Facebook and Twitter bans against Trump, for example, are viewed as censorship. Issues such as universal health care feel like government takeover of private enterprise.
“It’s communism, it’s socialism, it’s everything that we don’t want in this country,” Otaola said on his YouTube broadcast “Hola! Ota-Ola,” urging viewers not to fall victim to the Trump defeat but rather refocus their energy to continue the battle.
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The Trump Mob Combined the Worst of Left And Right
The president’s supporters are full of sound and fury, signifying far less than they claim.
In The Making of The President 1968, a deeply shocked Theodore H. White describes, first, the anarchic violence of student radicals ransacking university campuses, and then the furious backlash that propelled the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama. In stoking the alienation of “the white workingmen of America,” White prophetically observed: “George Wallace uncovered a reality that will be of concern for years.”
Half a century later, in last week’s assault on the Capitol Building—and thus on government itself—we have witnessed a convergence that White could scarcely have imagined between the expressive violence of the 1960s left and the hate-filled politics of the contemporary right. The imagery has been disorienting. Those of us old enough to have participated in the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War may have watched the scenes of bearded, placard-bearing men scaling the walls of the Capitol with a weird wrench of feeling. The muscle memory said, “Right on, brother!”; conscious thought cried, “How dare you?”
Extremists on both the far-right and left have long shared an affinity with romanticized and ritualized violence. In the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Sixties, Black Panther leaders like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton enjoyed a lurid glamor; their place has been filled in our own time by the gun-toting cowpunchers who joined Cliven Bundy and his family at their 2014 melodramatic confrontation with federal officials over access to Western grazing. Many of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s rallies throbbed with a mood of violence that occasionally precipitated actual attacks against protestors or journalists. But rage and paranoia on the right was sated by a simple fact: Trump won. Had he lost in 2016, we might have seen the mayhem we’re witnessing today.
What was postponed has now arrived. It’s all too possible that last week’s riot represents not the dying spasm of a defeated remnant, but the advent of a new era of violence carried out in Trump’s name and with at least implicit blessing. The more that leading GOP officials part ways with Trump, as they have in recent days, the more he will tighten his grip on the acolytes whose dreams and nightmares he orchestrates. The mob awaits directions.
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White Supremacy Created the Capitol Assault
The Trojan horse of racism put democracy’s enemies inside its walls.
U.S. President Donald Trump has committed sedition in broad daylight and incited a violent attempted coup that had the unintended effect of disrupting a political one. Both attempts failed for many reasons, but the question is how they even got that close. The answer is simple. The invaders were not Black.
While many of the police present made heroic efforts to protect the people inside the halls of the Capitol building during the mob attack on Jan. 6, and one gave his life doing so, they were hampered by leadership that did not see the real threat that the mob posed, by law enforcement posing in selfies with the attackers, but most of all by the assumption of white innocence and the years of white supremacist infiltration into police forces across the country. It is commendable that the police tried to show some humanity and attempted to keep the situation from escalating. But the juxtaposition of the images from the police response in the Capitol and to Black Lives Matter protests is telling. Had the Capitol rioters been Black, the police would have been ready with tanks.
White supremacy and, with it, the presumption of white innocence explain how in the 2014 Ferguson protests, the National Guard arrived in overwhelming numbers, and even peaceful Black protesters were deemed “enemy forces.” It also explains why federal law enforcement underestimated the size of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” protest by over 20,000 people and kept their presence too small and too far away to react. According to the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, they were afraid of the optics of an armed confrontation with citizens and wanted to avoid a “Tiananmen Square moment.”
This is strange, as both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have known for some time that right-wing white nationalists are the top domestic terrorist threat to the United States. Observers of sites and apps like TheDonald.Win and Parler sounded warnings about the coming armed confrontation, as users declared their intentions, believing that they were in a “post-legal phase.”
The media and governmental leaders initially had great difficulty in deciding what to call the people who broke the barriers, and they still haven’t quite settled on a term. They were protesters, Trump supporters, alleged Trump followers, insurgents, conspiracy theorists, terrorists, patriots, a mob. Very special people. Few would call them by the most accurate name: tacitly sanctioned white supremacists.
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It Happened Here
Trump’s movement is a uniquely American fascism, built on a century of American imperialism.
Stunned by the bloodshed and chaos in the U.S. Capitol Building on Wednesday, Americans were left scrambling for comparisons. Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, compared the siege to his experiences as a combat officer in Baghdad. “I expected this as a US Marine in Iraq. I never imagined it as a US Congressman in America,” he tweeted as the would-be counterrevolutionaries overpowered the guards.
Others reached further back into America’s vocabulary of imperialism. Many, in the media and on both sides of the aisle, echoed former President George W. Bush’s statement that storming the legislature is “how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic.”
What those comparisons have in common is their sense of foreignness, the myth that these are things that rightly happen over there, and are less acceptable here. Even the words we use most for what the mob was trying, explicitly, to do—to stop the government from proceeding with a constitutional, democratic transfer of power away from their chosen leader—are foreign: coup d’état, autogolpe, putsch. Alien names keep them at arm’s length, easier to dismiss as an anomaly.
But it did happen here. And the examples the officials tried to compare it to were extremely American. Moulton was in Iraq because Bush ordered the U.S. military to invade, for financial and political gain. “Banana republic,” meanwhile, was coined in 1901 by William Sydney Porter, better known as the short story writer O. Henry, to describe the chaos of living in Honduras under U.S. imperialism and an economy dominated by a single export crop. (Three years after he debuted the word, the U.S. Marines invaded there, to support a coup on behalf of the fruit company now known as Dole.) Americans brought the chaos with them.
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Chinese Media Calls Capitol Riot ‘World Masterpiece’
Instructions sent to reporters emphasized attacking democracy and promoting censorship.
The phrase “beautiful sight to behold” started to trend on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) on Jan. 7—the words originally used by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to describe peaceful Hong Kong protests in June 2019.
China’s state-affiliated media Global Times posted side-by-side photos comparing Hong Kong protesters occupying the city’s Legislative Council in July 2019—a month after Pelosi’s remarks—with Trump supporters invading the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
China’s Communist Youth League also used this phrase when posting photos of rioters storming into the Capitol, describing the tragic moments as a “world masterpiece.” These Weibo posts drew thousands of comments and were retweeted thousands of times.
In the past year, as COVID-19 hit hard on China’s economic growth and political stability, a whole generation has learned to hate foreigners and foreign countries. To be sure, the government has always done its part to breed nationalism. But now a constant stream of 24/7 content supports it, and all opposing voices have been destroyed. When foreign media outlets write about problems in China, they are seen as hostile foreign forces, and when U.S. democracy stumbles, Chinese netizens celebrate.
Reporters were told to write articles to feed into this celebration.
A reporter from Chinese state media shared with me the guidelines she received on how to report the Capitol riot. She was told to focus on how the United States’ global reputation would be damaged and deteriorated in her article, mentioning how world leaders were shocked by this insurrection and were concerned about their alliance with the United States. She was also asked to write on how democracy could be hijacked by a group of uneducated people and how democracy could only be realized when the population is highly educated—and that China’s current education level is not suitable for democracy.
In the morning of Jan. 7, a reporter from Phoenix Media told me that an article published by her team about how social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube had all put restrictions on President Donald Trump’s accounts had spawned a series of online discussions about how Western countries such as the United States “don’t even have freedom of speech.”
These discussions were led by China’s Foreign Ministry and were fueled by a number of pro-Chinese Communist Party bloggers. A large number of Chinese netizens have long been under the impression—picking up cues from right-wing media elsewhere—that there is no real freedom of speech in Western countries. They accuse the Western world of holding double standards when criticizing the Chinese government for blocking website content, monitoring internet access, banning dissent and disagreement, and deleting social media accounts.
The reporter expressed concerns about how people interpreted her article and how that would make it even harder to start any discussion about freedom of speech and human rights in China. She had recently interviewed a few #MeToo victims and felt saddened seeing feminists fighting in an environment where the government’s control over the internet, media, and individual bloggers is tighter than it has been in the past decade—and where patriarchy is resurgent. The violence at the Capitol had aided the Chinese government, she said, by giving it another justification for arguing that control of speech is necessary.
Beijing never misses an opportunity to glorify its governance when liberal democracies are challenged. The violent, ugly, and criminal behavior of the rioters provided Beijing the perfect narrative to claim that censorship is a superior model for governance. That’s a story that China is eager to push as it cracks down on Hong Kong, where 53 pro-democratic politicians and activists were arrested on Wednesday. And while many Chinese netizens are celebrating the so-called failing of U.S. democracy, some are also reflecting on why the United States, known as the “lighthouse of democracy,” is instead leading others into the darkness.
‘This Is Not Who We Are’ Is a Great American Myth
The crisis at the U.S. Capitol shows that Americans lack a shared understanding of their political past and present. Transitional justice can help.
George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a neighborhood store. Breonna Taylor was killed in her home by police while sleeping in Louisville, Kentucky. Ahmaud Arbery was lynched by a trio of neighborhood vigilantes while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. In 2020, Americans protesting structural racism and anti-Black violence were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, pelted with rubber bullets, misrepresented as threats to the public peace, and subjected to arbitrary arrests in cities across the United States.
Then, on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021—a day the world will not soon forget—hundreds of supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump besieged the U.S. Capitol in a serious attempt to overturn the results of the free and fair election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice president. After rushing doors, breaking windows, and charging through the halls of Congress, the insurrectionists sat in the Senate president’s seat, put their feet up on the House speaker’s desk, ransacked congressional offices, and defaced statues. The consequences? A remarkably small number of arrests and even some selfies with security officers.
Wednesday’s events reflect a double standard between how law enforcement responds to different groups based on their race. Last year, Black Lives Matter protesters were overwhelmingly peaceful but were subject to ill treatment by the authorities and smeared as rioters and looters. By contrast, some conservative politicians and news media have denied, excused, and even defended the pro-Trump insurrectionists who attempted to seize the citadel of U.S. democracy and managed to walk away from the scene.
Policymakers, academics, and citizens have long decried the discrepancy in the treatment of Black people, and people of color more generally, in comparison to white people in the United States: in policing, employment, housing, health care, and many other areas. This inequality has adverse consequences for democracy. It sharpens social cleavages, normalizes the marginalization of certain groups, and limits the full and equal participation of all people in political, economic, and social life.
The anti-democratic behavior and racism that have defined the Trump era should be addressed through transitional justice: first, so that Americans can develop a shared understanding of their political past and present, and second, so that there can be justice for all.
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Trump’s Collapse Is Biden’s Triumph
Amid the Capitol chaos, the U.S. president-elect is entering office already empowered, and Trump is now "damaged goods" for 2024.
With Republicans deserting U.S. President Donald Trump in droves and talk of impeachment in the air, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in Jan. 20 in a charged atmosphere of desperation, anger and hope that is almost reminiscent of when Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man Biden says he wants to emulate, took office in 1933.
Biden himself appeared to sense his opportunity, delivering a double whammy to Republicans on Thursday, the day after violence engulfed the Capitol building, by announcing Merrick Garland as his nominee for attorney general—the same man whom Senate Majority Leader (soon to be minority leader) Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for when President Barack Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court.
And in what could be called a screw-you-Donald speech, Biden made plain what the attorney general’s job was—which was not to protect the president. “You won’t work for me,” Biden said. “You are not the president’s or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me. It’s to the law, the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, as Biden seized the moment to pledge a restoration of American values, the Republican Party appeared to be falling to pieces. According to Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist, the events of the last few days have dramatically changed the calculus for 2024.
“Before this happened, people’s expectation was that Trump would get out and immediately announce he was running again. And that with his popularity with the rank and file and money in bank, he would dominate. That no longer will be the case. He’s damaged goods.”
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What Could Stop an ‘Unhinged’ U.S. President From Ordering a Nuclear Strike?
Not a lot, it turns out.
Amid a renewed drive to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump after a mob stormed the Capitol building this week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put out a stunning statement on Friday calling on the U.S. military to look into possible precautions to prevent the commander in chief from military action or ordering a nuclear strike.
The statement, which came on the heels of Pelosi’s second conversation with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in as many days, sent the already-crazed U.S. capital into a tailspin, but it wasn’t immediately clear how the Pentagon responded.
“The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement that also charged Trump with “dangerous and seditious acts.”
A spokesman for Milley said that Pelosi initiated the phone call and that the top U.S. military official “answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority,” but the spokesman did not offer any further details.
To help answer the questions of what can (and can’t) be done to check the president’s power to order a nuclear strike, Foreign Policy took a look at how a possible decision might be reached.
What can the military and Congress do to stop the president from ordering a strike?
Legally speaking, not much, if anything. Neither Pelosi nor Milley is in the chain of command to make the decision over whether to employ nuclear weapons; that authority rests with Trump and the U.S. defense secretary, who would act together in making such a move. While officials such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the American nuclear triad, are charged with transmitting orders for the use of those weapons and advise the president on a launch, Trump would not need the agreement of the military or Congress to strike. Asked on Monday by reporters whether he would follow an order from Trump to launch a nuclear weapon against Iran, Stratcom chief Adm. Charles Richard said he would “follow any legal order I am given” and added that the system of nuclear command and control has “served us well for 70 years.”
While experts agree that there’s no way to challenge the president’s authority to order a strike, not everyone is as sure as Richard that it’s a good idea. “The president has sole, unfettered authority to order the use of nuclear weapons with no ‘second vote’ required,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “If you think that’s crazy, I agree with you. But many people being appointed by Biden to national security jobs disagree with us.”
Where is this concern coming from?
It’s not entirely clear. Though the New York Times reported in November 2020 that Trump sought options to strike at Iran’s nuclear program just days after his election loss, the conversations apparently died out, even as the United States sent nuclear-capable bombers to the Middle East around the anniversary of the U.S. drone strike that killed the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, in January 2020. But Pelosi’s statement comes on the heels of reports that Trump appears increasingly unhinged after the assault on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, and the speaker also included threats to impeach the commander in chief—now backed by more than 200 members of Congress—if he doesn’t immediately leave office, or if the cabinet decides not to invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and remove him.
How quickly could Trump order a strike?
It depends on the scenario. Military aides to the president carry at all times a briefcase with the nuclear launch codes that is popularly known as the “football.” That allows the commander in chief to quickly order a nuclear strike, verified by an identification card held by the White House that confirms to Pentagon officials the order is legitimate. Lewis, the nonproliferation expert, wrote in Foreign Policy in 2016 that the president might have as little as eight minutes to decide whether to strike, though nuclear strike plans laid out by the Pentagon also give the commander in chief the ability to approve a delayed attack or counterattack. Land-based nuclear-tipped missiles can be fired within two minutes of an immediate launch order from the U.S. president, while submarine-launched missiles can fire within 15 minutes, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Growing Number of Trump Officials Resign Following Insurrection at Capitol
Wednesday’s assault was not the first time the president has incited violence, but for several administration officials, it was a step too far.
The clock is ticking on U.S. President Donald Trump’s time in office, with just under two weeks left until he departs. But some officials are bowing out early after Wednesday’s insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, a Trump-instigated assault carried out by a mob of his supporters who continue to dispute the results of the election.
The president’s friendliness toward violent supporters is nothing new. In 2017, he infamously branded white supremacists and neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right rally Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people.” On Wednesday, he likewise referred to the Capitol’s ransackers as “very special” people.
But for some Trump administration officials who stomached Charlottesville and more, Wednesday’s siege was apparently the breaking point. In their resignations, most have invoked the necessity of a peaceful transfer of power, rather than any particular aversion to extremist tactics or Trump’s fitness for office. In fact, at least one State Department official—Gabriel Noronha—was fired Thursday for tweeting that “President Trump fomented an insurrectionist mob that attacked the Capitol” and is “entirely unfit to remain in office, and needs to go.”
Here is a growing list of now-former Trump officials who saw the insurrection as the final straw in a chaotic and controversial four-year tenure.
Elaine Chao, secretary of transportation
Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, became the first member of Trump’s cabinet to resign in response to Wednesday’s events, specifically citing Trump’s role in addressing his supporters in Washington.
Chao’s departure could be followed by other cabinet members, and it came just after a call from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for the cabinet and outgoing Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th amendment to remove Trump from office in advance of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Speculation was building ahead of the resignation: Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who himself condemned the violence at the Capitol as a “failed insurrection” on the Senate floor on Wednesday night.
Betsy DeVos, secretary of education
Late Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned in a letter sent to Trump—becoming the second cabinet member to step down after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao submitted her resignation earlier in the day.
DeVos’s departure followed a sternly worded tweet Wednesday, in which she warned that “the eyes of America’s children and students—the rising generation who will inherit the republic we leave them—are watching what is unfolding in Washington today.” DeVos urged her colleagues to “set a better example for them” and commit to a peaceful transition of power.
Mick Mulvaney, special envoy to Northern Ireland and former White House chief of staff
Mick Mulvaney, who served as Trump’s chief of staff from January 2019 until March 2020, when he assumed a diplomatic posting as special envoy to Northern Ireland, resigned Wednesday night in a call to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Mulvaney’s resignation followed a slew of tweets on Wednesday in which he called for Trump to “discourage any violence immediately” and “be presidential.” When Trump released a video message—later deleted by Twitter, which shut down the president’s account for 12 hours due to its dangerous and false claims about the election—Mulvaney fired back that “the president’s tweet is not enough” and reiterated the importance of a peaceful transition of power.
Matt Pottinger, deputy national security advisor
Matt Pottinger, a former journalist and U.S. marine who served on the National Security Council since January 2017, resigned late Wednesday in the wake of the violence at the Capitol. First as Asia director and later deputy national security advisor, Pottinger was an influential and hawkish behind-the-scenes figure in the White House, playing a leading role in shaping Trump’s China policy.
Pottinger has not commented on his departure, but it comes amid speculation that other NSC officials including his boss, national security advisor Robert O’Brien, are also considering resignation. O’Brien, who has been especially loyal to Trump, reportedly returned to Washington from Florida on Wednesday night, with the capital still under curfew.
Mark Vandroff, senior director for defense policy at the National Security Council
Mark Vandroff resigned from his spot on the NSC after Pottinger, a departure first reported by Defense News. Vandroff did not provide a reason for his decision.
Ryan Tully, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council
Ryan Tully was the second NSC official to resign, as first reported by Bloomberg on Thursday. Tully served as a deputy assistant to the president and the senior director for European and Russian affairs—making him Trump’s top Russia advisor, a high-turnover role he assumed last July.
Tyler Goodspeed, acting chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers
Tyler Goodspeed, one of Trump’s top economic advisors, also resigned on Thursday. He had served as the acting chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers since June 2020 after two abrupt resignations.
John Costello, deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and security at the U.S. Department of Commerce
John Costello resigned on Thursday morning, tweeting that Trump had “long disregarded and diminished the rule of law and the constitution.”
Stephanie Grisham, chief of staff to first lady Melania Trump and former White House press secretary
Stephanie Grisham, First Lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff, resigned from her position on Wednesday afternoon. She did not provide an immediate reason for her departure, though it is assumed to be a response to Wednesday’s violence at the Capitol.
Sarah Matthews, deputy White House press secretary
Sarah Matthews was selected to serve as White House deputy press secretary by press secretary Kayleigh McEnany in June 2020. She resigned from her post Jan. 7 following the rioting on Capitol Hill.
Anna Cristina Niceta, White House social secretary
Anna Cristina Niceta, the White House social secretary, resigned from her post Wednesday.
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This article is periodically updated to include new resignations.
U.S. Diplomats Draft Dissent Cable
State Department officials expressed anger at the department’s gag order on messaging as violence wracked Washington.
A group of dozens of State Department officials are filing a formal dissent cable directed at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the department’s lack of forceful public messaging about the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob this week, according to three officials familiar with the matter.
The dissent cable, which one person said has been signed by over 70 officials, reflects mounting anger within the department over the administration’s response to the mob that ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 with lawmakers still trapped inside. The mob, following a rally in which President Donald Trump doubled down on baseless claims the election was stolen from him, temporarily interrupted President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral certification. Trump later committed to a peaceful transition of power but refused to explicitly concede defeat.
Diplomats who advocate for fair elections and democracy abroad privately said the events that Trump helped instigate this week did untold damage to U.S. stature and prestige on the world stage. They pointed to U.S. adversaries and autocratic rulers, from those in Russia to Zimbabwe, who were trying to use the scenes of violence in Washington to undermine U.S. calls for democratic reforms in their own countries.
As U.S. allies abroad watched with shock and horror as the mob breached the Capitol, the State Department ordered its embassies not to issue any new statements, social media posts, or public messaging on the development, as Foreign Policy first reported. Critics within the department said that order left U.S. public diplomacy abroad temporarily marooned during what some American leaders have referred to as one of the darkest chapters in modern American democracy.
But others said it was simply meant to prevent embassies from issuing pre-prepared posts on other issues given the gravity of the situation in Washington—and stressed it was only a temporary pause. Since then, Pompeo as well as various U.S. ambassadors around the world have issued their own statements condemning the violence and addressing the implications for America’s image on the global stage.
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Trump Promises “Orderly” Transition
Without mentioning Biden by name, Trump acknowledged a “new administration” will take power on Jan. 20.
In a video posted on Thursday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to publicly concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden for the first time.
Without mentioning Biden by name, Trump acknowledged the vote certification had been finalized by Congress, and said his focus was now on “ensuring a smooth, orderly, and seamless transition of power.”
“This moment calls for healing and reconciliation,” he added before telling his supporters that “our incredible journey is only just beginning.”
The move comes as Trump faced backlash from some in his own Republican Party for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday. The Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for Trump to be impeached for a second time, but only if his cabinet is not up to the task of removing him via the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Trump’s speech can be seen as an attempt to recast himself as a sober defender of U.S. institutions in order to escape prosecution under an incoming Biden administration. Or it simply could have been because the president was seeking to have bans on his Twitter and Facebook accounts lifted so that he can maintain his media influence upon leaving office.
Et tu, Mike? In order for Trump to be removed under the 25th Amendment as Pelosi has suggested, Vice President Mike Pence must convince a majority of the president’s cabinet to support removal. Outgoing Education Secretary Betsy Devos will not have to make that choice; she announced her resignation on Thursday, citing Wednesday’s violence. Nor will Elaine Chao, the outgoing Labor Secretary, who also handed in her resignation on Thursday.
Below cabinet level, a string of other Trump staffers are now jumping ship. FP’s Allison Meakem, Audrey Wilson, and Cailey Griffin have compiled a running list.
Writing in Foreign Policy, John R. Allen, a retired U.S. general and the president of the Brookings Institution, makes the case for invoking the 25th amendment immediately.
Impeachment? If Pence stands by the president, another impeachment is possible. Such a move may be newly attractive for the ambitious Senate Republicans wishing to challenge Joe Biden in 2024, especially if they can disqualify Trump from seeking office ever again.
Jonathan Tepperman, Foreign Policy’s editor at large, spoke with Pablo de Greiff, the first U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence to understand how attempts to prosecute other heads of state have fared around the world.
The fallout. The Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford wrote a piece on misplaced U.S. foreign policy priorities and excessive ambition in the wake of Wednesday’s attack. Ashford argues that a domestic focus must come first: “Washington’s foreign-policy elites remain committed to the preservation of a three-decade foreign policy aimed at reshaping the world in America’s image. They are far too blasé about what that image has become in 2020.”
Carnage Comes to the Capitol
Donald Trump decried ‘American carnage’ in his 2017 inaugural address on the Capitol steps. His rhetoric made it a reality in 2021.
Incited by the president of the United States, a violent mob of Trump supporters broke through barricades and stormed the U.S. Capitol yesterday as lawmakers gathered to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Four people died, one after being shot by police. Across the nation’s capital, several explosive devices were identified and defused. Legislators donned gasmasks and hid under furniture, fearful of being attacked by roving gangs marauding through office buildings on Capitol Hill.
In late October, in Foreign Policy, we warned that Election Day violence was likely. Thankfully, most of the country was spared that day. We also argued that “the dangers may only grow should Trump lose,” and the only way to avoid violence was if “the president tones down his rhetoric and should he lose, gracefully concede defeat.”
What occurred yesterday in Washington, D.C. happened because of outgoing President Donald Trump’s violent rhetoric and relentless incitement of his most fanatical and deranged supporters, enabled by feckless politicians motivated more by ambition than principle. In a moving prayer, the Senate chaplain warned, “We always reap what we sow” and that “these tragedies have reminded us that words matter, and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”
The violence and lawlessness that unfolded was without question politically and ideologically motivated. The throngs of Trump supporters who gathered to engage in property destruction, trespassing, and acts of physical violence—including attacking U.S. Capitol Police—should not simply be dismissed as people distraught over the loss of their preferred candidate.
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America Can’t Promote Democracy Abroad. It Can’t Even Protect It at Home.
Wednesday’s failed insurrection shows how the global ambitions of foreign-policy elites are divorced from reality—and undermined by domestic dysfunction.
The jokes were funny, until they weren’t.
“What if journalists wrote about U.S. politics the way they wrote about other countries?” asked a dozen tongue-in-cheek articles since 2016. Twitter users joked about the embattled president of a former British colony, huddling in his palace, refusing to concede the election. But all of that ended Wednesday afternoon, when a violent mob rushed past U.S. Capitol Police and invaded Congress, forcing the evacuation of lawmakers and ending with tear gas, gunfire, and at least four deaths. The pictures called to mind Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank, the Arab Spring, or the streets of Venezuela. For those watching around the world, the United States had become what American leaders so often decried: a weak democracy unable to prevent violence and bloodshed from marring the transition of power from one leader to the next.
It’s a sign of how broken U.S. foreign-policy debates are that the primary reaction from many commentators was to worry about America’s moral authority and global leadership. There were comments about how happy China’s Xi Jinping must be and worries that this would undermine U.S. democracy promotion abroad. Michael McFaul, a former Obama-era ambassador to Moscow, tweeted that “Trump today delivered his latest, but hopefully his last gift to Putin.” Meanwhile, a group of NGOs, including the National Endowment for Democracy, issued a statement reaffirming its “commitment to stand in solidarity with all those around the world who share democratic values.” In short: in the middle of a literal coup attempt aimed at halting the certification of a democratic election, with insurrectionists storming the Capitol, many foreign-policy hands were fretting about whether the United States could continue to spread democracy and human rights abroad and whether it might impact America’s ability to engage in great-power competition with China.
To call these reactions out of touch would be an understatement. At this point, the United States has bigger problems than an inability to promote democracy around the world or worrying about an ambitious global competition with China. U.S. domestic politics are staggering under the weight of decades of partisan abuse, and while most institutions have so far proved resilient, there is no guarantee they’ll stand up to the next autocratic wannabe. Almost the only institution that retains the trust of the American people is the military, a distinction that carries its own worrying implications.
Wednesday’s violence will certainly impact the United States’ global image, although the last four years under Donald Trump have done plenty of damage already. And while it is certainly true that the political turmoil that has engulfed the country since November will make it harder for the United States to build an international coalition against China, it’s hard to see why U.S. policymakers are prioritizing rallying an ambitious and poorly defined “alliance of democracies” to push back against China, rather than trying to stop the bleeding at home.
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Impeachment Calls Gain Momentum After Pro-Trump Mob Storms Congress
Trump has become “unmoored” from reality, warns lone Republican congressman joining Democrats in calls to remove the president.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to remove President Donald Trump from office a day after a pro-Trump mob launched an assault on the U.S. Capitol that temporarily interrupted Congress’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election. Democratic lawmakers began drawing up fresh articles of impeachment against Trump on Thursday, setting the stage for another dramatic political showdown and potential constitutional crisis in the final days of Trump’s presidency.
Speaking at her weekly press availability on Capitol Hill, Pelosi, whose office was ransacked by violent demonstrators Wednesday afternoon, called Trump’s actions “sedition.” She said that if Pence failed to act, she would take up fresh articles of impeachment against the president, with less than two weeks to go before Inauguration Day and just over a year after the House first impeached Trump.
“If the vice president and cabinet do not act, the Congress may be prepared to move forward with impeachment,” Pelosi said. An impeachment resolution led by Reps. David Cicilline, Ted Lieu, and progressives headlined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already circulating on Capitol Hill. A successful impeachment requires two-thirds consent of the Senate—but, if passed, would bar Trump from running for election again.
Pelosi joins more than 100 Democratic members of Congress who have called on Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is set to take over the upper chamber’s top job after Democrats took control of the Senate with two runoff victories in Georgia this week.
As of Thursday afternoon, only one Republican has announced support for removing Trump: Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
“All indications are that the president has become unmoored not just from his duty, nor even his oath, but from reality itself,” Kinzinger said in a statement. “It’s for this reason that I call for the vice president and members of the cabinet to ensure the next few weeks are safe for the American people and that we have a sane captain of the ship.”
Some of Trump’s staunchest Republican allies on Capitol Hill have sharply rebuked the president for doubling down on baseless claims that the election was stolen and riling up the crowds that went on to storm the Capitol complex. “It’s past time for the president to accept the results of the election, quit misleading the American people, and repudiate mob violence,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said in a statement.
Biden labeled the rioters who breached the Capitol complex as “domestic terrorists” and accused Trump of “trying to use a mob to silence the voices of nearly 160 million Americans” who voted in the presidential elections.
Several senior Trump White House aides and one of his cabinet officials resigned in protest, less than two weeks before they were scheduled to leave their jobs as the new administration came in. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tendered her resignation on Thursday afternoon, saying in the letter that the attack on the Capitol “deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”
America, Welcome to the Ranks of Struggling Democracies
What needs to happen next if U.S. democracy is to survive.
Violent conflict over contested elections has plagued authoritarian and undemocratic countries around the world, as well as democracies that are troubled and threatened. On Wednesday, the United States became the newest member of this unfortunate club.
Based on my experience working on election observation and democracy promotion in some 50 countries over the last 30-plus years, I am convinced that the chances of the United States remaining a genuine democracy may well depend on the way the country’s leaders and institutions now react. If Wednesday’s events aren’t treated as what they are—a seditious attempt to overthrow the results of a democratic election, encouraged not only by President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and insane conspiracy theories but also by a significant number of Republican senators and members of the U.S. Congress—then I fear that this kind of disruption and political violence could escalate and one day have more success than the pro-Trump mob had with their attack on the election process.
These events have made it so obvious that it hardly bears repeating: What distinguishes a genuine democracy from a troubled or fake one is that all major candidates and parties accept the election rules and process, and that the losers accept and respect the results.
Far from accepting the results of an extremely well-run election that was not close by any means, Trump and his enablers—U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, and many others—rejected the election results and moved to overthrow them without even a hint of a legitimate basis for complaint. The violence on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol was an entirely foreseeable result of their baseless, undemocratic, and unconstitutional challenge to the electoral process, and it constitutes a direct threat to U.S. democracy.
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The United States Can’t Stay a Great Power Without Beating Threats at Home
Before taking on challengers like China, Washington must put its own house in order.
Today, the gravest threats to U.S. national security come not from foreign adversaries and strategic competitors but from extremists and domestic terrorists who are attempting to subvert American democracy in support of President Donald Trump. The United States, once regarded—if sometimes chiefly in its own eyes—as the global champion of democracy, has grossly failed to achieve a peaceful transfer of power.
The invitation and encouragement of such mobs by Trump and his enablers in Congress has provoked violence and sedition in the Capitol in which only America’s adversaries can rejoice. Even in urging violent rioters to “go home in peace,” Trump continued to claim falsely the election had been “stolen” and was “fraudulent.”
The future of American democracy appears disturbingly precarious, and the damage of the past four years may take decades to repair. Not since the Civil War has white supremacy so threatened the American republic. At the height of the crisis on Jan. 6, the phrase “civil war” was trending on Twitter as violent insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, interrupting the certification of the results of the Electoral College.
Yet even in the face of such urgent dangers to the security and integrity of U.S. national security, certain American politicians and policymakers continue to assert that the primary dangers to the United States and its national security come from China. To be sure, China’s rise presents significant challenges to the United States and to American leadership, yet to point to a foreign adversary or competitor as the chief threat when there is such shameful sedition at home is at best terribly discordant. As during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the civil rights challenge at home undercuts any moral claims abroad—something that once helped spur activists in the United States to make their country better.
Over the past four years, American strategy has concentrated on “great-power competition” as a priority. But from today we should be more concerned about great-power self-destruction, as the failures of leadership during the Trump administration and attempted sabotage of our democracy by right-wing extremists continues, in ways that can also benefit Beijing.
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Why Ghana Does Disputed Elections Better Than the United States
Lessons from democracy-building efforts abroad for use at home.
Maintaining democracy requires solid institutions like competent election management bodies and an independent judiciary. But it also takes sustained political leadership and society’s commitment to respect and abide by established norms. The danger of ignoring these norms can be fatal.
Yesterday, the U.S. Capitol building was overtaken by protesters who refused to accept the loss of their preferred candidate, President Donald Trump. The National Guard was activated in an attempt to bring order to the chaos that has resulted in the aftermath of an otherwise peaceful and properly conducted election. In the days, weeks, and years ahead, as the country does some soul searching to grapple with the consequences of eroding democratic norms, Ghana’s history with elections offers some lessons in how democracy is sustained.
Having previously suffered from a series of debilitating coups and military dictatorships, the West African nation has had six presidential elections since 2000, including three democratic transitions in which the party in power lost and the opposition peacefully assumed the presidency.
All of these elections were extremely competitive, and they often resulted in a runoff; on one occasion, in 2012, the losing candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, went to the courts to contest the results. The Ghanaian Supreme Court ruled against him, and Akufo-Addo eventually conceded. For a short period, though, it seemed unclear if he would accept defeat. Nevertheless, he did, and Ghana’s democratic consolidation continued. Four years later, Akufo-Addo won the election and assumed the presidency. Although the country’s democracy is stronger today, its most recent election this past December was messy—a reminder that the democratic process can be untidy and that maintaining democratic norms requires sustained effort.
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Trump’s Enablers Face Violent Reckoning
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says Trump will “deservedly be left a man without a country.”
In his first words as president four years ago, Donald Trump warned of “American carnage” in the nation’s streets, schools, and factories. Facing the final certification of his electoral defeat in Congress this week, Trump brought that carnage to the doorstep of democracy. At the president’s urging, a mob of his supporters marched to the U.S. Capitol and then broke into the complex, holding the proceedings hostage for hours before the National Guard and backup law enforcement officials showed up.
Congress reconvened hours later, with Vice President Mike Pence certifying Biden’s victory early Thursday morning. By then, the president’s refusal to condemn Wednesday’s attack, in which one woman was killed inside the Capitol, had already pushed several administration officials already contemplating resignation over the edge.
Trump, whose Twitter account was muzzled last night after he continued to baselessly question the Nov. 3 election results, released a statement promising an “orderly transition on January 20th” just after the certification.
Abandon ship? Trump’s statement has done little to stanch the bloodletting inside the White House. The highest-level departure so far is Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, a former journalist and U.S. Marine and an architect of the administration’s hard-line strategy on China. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who has previously been loyal to Trump, is also said to be considering leaving over Wednesday’s scene. So is Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell, the main White House interlocutor with the Biden transition team.
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former acting chief of staff who spent much of Wednesday urging the president to speak out on Twitter, also resigned as special envoy to Northern Ireland, as has Ryan Tully, the senior director for European and Russian Affairs at the National Security Council, Bloomberg reports.
Also out: Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff and former White House press secretary, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews, and White House social secretary Anna Cristina Niceta. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Intelligence and Security John Costello also resigned on Thursday, tweeting that Trump had “long disregarded and diminished the rule of law and the constitution.”
Mattis unloads. Unlike some other Trump alumni, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hasn’t frequently stepped into the spotlight to disavow his former boss—until now. Late Wednesday, Mattis issued a scathing rebuke of the president and his enablers, seething with venom even by today’s standards.
The full statement: “Today’s violent assault on our Capitol, an effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule, was fomented by Mr. Trump. His use of the Presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo-political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice.
“Our Constitution and our Republic will overcome this stain and We the People will come together again in our never-ending effort to form a more perfect Union, while Mr. Trump will deservedly be left a man without a country.”
The Military Stayed Out of the Insurrection, but It Isn’t Over Yet
Trump failed because key Republicans backed down and the military stayed out—yet critical questions remain.
The angry mob that attempted an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol yesterday failed. Congress, presided over by Vice President Mike Pence, reconvened to fulfill its constitutional duty to formalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
To be sure, the insurrectionists succeeded in a number of things. First, they breached the defenses of the Capitol building and put the lives of legislators and staff at risk. Second, they created scenes of chaos that will stain the United States’ reputation for the rest of history. Third, they underscored once again that outgoing President Donald Trump is the least capable leader in a crisis that Americans have had in their lifetimes. The spectacle of a president unwilling to denounce those physically attacking another branch of government is the gravest failure of a failed presidency precisely because what was required of Trump at that moment was so easy. Fourth, the insurrectionists wrecked the political careers of numerous Republicans hoping to challenge Biden in 2024—most prominently, I suspect, that of Trump himself.
But the mob failed in its larger goal of thwarting the constitutional order and handing the presidency back to Trump—or perhaps one should say that they will fail, since there is still a mopping up that need to be completed. First, all those who stepped beyond their right to peaceful protest by crossing police barriers and entering the Capitol Building need to be held accountable in courts of law. Second, those who went further still and prepared explosive devices and other violent mayhem that was thwarted must likewise face justice. Third, whatever conspiracies fomented the insurrection need to be uncovered and prosecuted. Fourth, any attempt to replicate Wednesday’s chaos elsewhere in the country needs to be nipped in the bud with a decisive and preemptive response by law enforcement. And finally, every single Republican must denounce both the criminal actions of the insurrectionists and what drove them: the massive and baseless allegations promoted by Trump and his misguided enablers about the legitimacy of the November elections.
Because this was the closest the United States has come in modern times to a violent takeover of political power, critical questions remain. Two of the most pressing: Why was the protection of the Capitol building and the Joint Session of Congress so inadequate after Trump had been telegraphing a confrontation for many weeks? Was the U.S. Defense Department slow in mobilizing National Guard units to back up the beleaguered Capitol Police—and if so, why?
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Mob Invades U.S. Capitol as World Looks On
The attack on Congress sets a new low for the United States as it begins 2021.
A violent mob of protesters loyal to and egged on by U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday as lawmakers were attempting to officially certify the victory of President-elect Joe Biden in November’s election.
Rioters overwhelmed local police, invaded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, looted furniture and mementos, and ran freely through the hallways of the Capitol as hundreds of lawmakers went into hiding.
Washington, D.C. authorities say four people died during the violence, one of whom was shot by police. The joint session of Congress reconvened late on Wednesday evening and, after debating through the night, officially certified Biden’s victory early on Thursday morning.
The events seem to have taken local authorities by surprise: Police could be seen jostling with protesters while clad in bike helmets and light protective gear—a far cry from the mass militarization the city saw in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd during the summer.
The world reacts. International reaction came swiftly. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the scenes as “disgraceful” and called for a peaceful transfer of power. “American democracy tonight appears under siege,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, meanwhile, retweeted posts comparing the protesters to those that stormed the Venezuelan National Assembly with Juan Guaidó last year.
It can happen here. If the limp U.S. response in 2020 to the coronavirus pandemic shattered the long-held belief (in official Washington at least) of an exceptional America, unique among nations, Wednesday’s scenes of a people’s legislature under armed assault dusted away any remaining shards.
President-elect Joe Biden, in urging Trump to tell the mob to stand down, employed rhetoric that sometimes seemed from a bygone era. Congress, a den of gridlock for the past decade, was a “citadel of liberty” under attack. The Capitol scenes “do not reflect the true America,” Biden said.
Other politicians had more practical concerns. Rep. Ilhan Omar has begun drafting articles of impeachment against the president. Her Democratic colleague Sen. Tom Carper was more circumspect, cautioning against retribution and urging lawmakers to “turn the page.” Even so, Carper was calling for Trump’s resignation soon after making those comments.
The insurrection lives on. As Wednesday’s attack makes clear, there is a vocal minority with no interest in reconciliation. Brendan O’Connor, the author of a forthcoming book on the extremist groups given new life by President Trump, told Foreign Policy that these organizations are in for the long haul.
“We need to prepare ourselves for this kind of thing in the years to come,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think that political violence and political street violence is going away: This is part of politics in the U.S. now. “
It’s also part of U.S. national security concerns. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that of 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States since 1994, 57 percent of those were planned or carried out by right-wing extremist groups, (and that share is even higher if only recent years are taken into account).
QAnon and on and on. Among the protesters were tell-tale signs of QAnon support, which Justin Ling describes as a “conspiracy movement-cum-mass delusion.” It’s beliefs have now become so mainstream in Republican circles, Ling writes, that “Trump is, for all intents and purposes, the new Q.”
A coup? Not quite, says Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College and the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups in an interview with FP Editor-at-Large Jonathan Tepperman. Paul Musgrave, argues that it was undeniably a coup attempt.
America the exceptional? It’s not easy to say how much the storming of the Capitol will contribute to the decline in the reputation of the United States abroad. That’s because that decline has already been so steep: A Gallup poll of 29 countries in 2020 found that 20 already had approval ratings of U.S. leadership that are at new lows or that tie the previous record lows.
Now We Know What Happens When a President Won’t Concede
For 244 years, Americans have taken peaceful transitions of power for granted. But a “Republic of Laws” is a delicate flower, easily crushed by men.
For nearly two and a half centuries, Americans have grown all too complacent about the peaceful transfer of power every four or eight years, priding themselves on having a “government of laws and not of men,” as Gerald Ford memorably said after he took the oath of office following President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
But it wasn’t until Wednesday’s astonishingly violent assault on the U.S. Capitol building, incited by the recalcitrant and delusional President Donald Trump, that many Americans realized how thin a thread the Constitution hangs on: the grace and integrity of the person in the Oval Office.
Indeed, a great deal of what has made American democracy work hasn’t been the Constitution per se, but the good luck and sense Americans have had to put such people in office—starting with George Washington, who by himself started the tradition of limiting presidents to two terms. And John Adams, the first occupant of the White House, who was all too aware of the fragility of the young republic and feared demagogues. Soon after he moved in Adams wrote a letter to his wife, asking the blessings of heaven and saying: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” His prayer was later inscribed on a fireplace mantle in the White House.
Or consider even Nixon, thought to be one of the most corrupt presidents, who as vice president graciously presided over the certification of John F. Kennedy’s victory over him in 1960, even though Nixon knew that Kennedy’s razor-thin win had possibly come about through fraud. Nixon declined to ask for a recount—though he could have—and in a brief speech said the election was an “eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system.” Then-Vice President Al Gore did something similar in 2000, even though he had won the popular vote and was victim of a much-criticized Supreme Court decision, telling his supporters to accept President George W. Bush and declaring that their “disappointment must be overcome by our love of country.”
Peaceful presidencies and transitions, in other words, have worked mainly not because of words on parchment but because of the quality of people called upon to enact them and observe constitutional rules. Part of it has been pure luck: the selection of people of good will. The almost heaven-sent good fortune to have men like Abraham Lincoln in place before the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II, and Kennedy managing the Cuban missile crisis. As the 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck is said to have once remarked: “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”
But that’s the thing about luck: Eventually you run out of it.
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U.S. Allies Abroad Condemn Pro-Trump Mob Storming U.S. Capitol
European leaders urge Trump to finally concede the election for the sake of American democracy.
Worldwide, leaders reacted to the sudden storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob with a mixture of shock and sadness, calling on the president to back down from his baseless claims of election fraud and ensure a peaceful transition of power.
Throngs of pro-Trump supporters breached security perimeters at the Capitol after violently clashing with police, interrupting the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over the president’s protests. The violence marks the first time the Capitol has been breached since the British burned Washington in 1814.
U.S. allies who have looked to American democracy for inspiration suddenly found themselves issuing the sorts of statements normally reserved for unrest in the world’s most politically fragile countries.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that the “enemies of democracy will celebrate today’s unfathomable pictures out of Washington.” He warned that “inflammatory language leads to violence, whether on the steps of the Reichstag or, now, in the Capitol.” Norbert Röttgen, who chairs the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, added that “this is the last chance for Republicans to decide between democracy and Trump.”
“Horrible images from Washington,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted, calling on Trump to recognize Biden as the next president immediately.
Some allied leaders avoided calling out Trump specifically but urged the democratic process to be respected. “Shocking scenes in Washington, D.C. The outcome of this democratic election must be respected,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet.
“American democracy tonight appears under siege,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, tweeted, calling the unrest an “unseen assault” on “institutions and the rule of law.” His boss, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, opted not to dwell on the ongoing siege at the Capitol and instead put her trust in the “strength of US institutions and democracy.” She added that Biden won the election and that she looks forward to working with him.
“Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted. “The United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.” Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted that the scenes from Washington were “utterly horrifying” and expressed solidarity with those “on the side of democracy. … Shame on those who have incited this attack on democracy,” she wrote.
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Colum Lynch contributed to this report.
Why This Wasn’t a Coup
Here’s the right language for what’s happening in Washington—and why the terminology matters.
What is happening on Capitol Hill? News coverage offers a partial, if incomplete, grasp on the facts. Thousands of pro-Trump protesters, many wearing Make America Great Again hats and waving Blue Lives Matter or Don’t Tread on Me flags, have thronged the area. Mobs, some possibly armed, have smashed windows, overwhelmed the police, and stormed the Capitol building. Tear gas has been deployed in the Rotunda. Security guards and police have been photographed in at least one armed standoff—with whom is unclear—and at least one person has been wheeled out of the building in a stretcher, covered with blood.
Much less clear is how to describe what’s going on—what to call it. A coup? An insurrection, as President-elect Joe Biden labeled it? A mere riot? To understand the language—and why it matters—Foreign Policy’s editor-at-large Jonathan Tepperman spoke to Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College and the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
[The political scientist Paul Musgrave argues that Wednesday’s violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol is a coup. To read why, click here.]
Jonathan Tepperman: What’s the right term for what’s happening in Washington right now? Given President Donald Trump’s clear but indirect incitement, does it qualify as a coup or an autogolpe, or is it sedition? And why does it matter what we call it?
Naunihal Singh: This is not a military coup because that would involve the president using the military or the Secret Service or some armed branch of the government to get his way. Nor would I argue that it is what some people have called a civilian coup or an executive coup. Even autogolpes involve the threat of military force.
I think it’s extremely telling that the violence we’re seeing is coming from street protesters whom Trump has incited. This is the president of the United States. He is the most powerful man in the world, in quotes. And yet he’s not using any of his official authorities. He’s using his bully pulpit to stir up what is a poorly organized ragtag bunch of protesters who are being treated with kid gloves in a way that peaceful protesters in Portland, in D.C., and all over the nation were not treated last summer. In fact, if the D.C. police or the National Guard had treated this bunch of protesters the way they treated any of the Black Lives Matters protesters, they would never have been allowed to breach the first perimeter, let alone get into the Senate building. There are two reasons they’re being treated with kid gloves. One is that they are affiliated with the president, so they have some political protection. The other is that the protesters have, for a long time, styled themselves as Blue Lives Matter supporters, so law enforcement may have been hesitant to use force against them.
In neither case is this actually a threat to the Republic. But, look, whether or not force was used, the president engaged in an illegitimate, immoral, and probably illegal attempt to grab power.
JT: Let’s talk about that for a second. What we did have is the president inciting protesters, who then went to the Capitol to interfere with a constitutionally established process to democratically transfer power to his successor. What should we call that?
NS: I’m not a lawyer, but we have to look and see whether it satisfies the requirements of sedition—and if the shoe fits, we should call it that. This is a violation both of principles and of law, being incited deliberately.
I get why people call it a coup: It’s because they want to say it’s an illegitimate power grab. The problem is that then they end up looking at the military as the actors who are engaged in this power grab. Whereas, in fact, what you have is Trump and all the people who are enabling Trump. Imagine for a second that there was a similarly violent case involving Black Lives Matter protesters. I bet you Facebook and Twitter would have suspended all their accounts, would never have let them make their appeals. They would have been entirely shut out of the ability to use any form of mass media to communicate to the people. And that isn’t what we’re seeing here.
JT: Does it change the equation or the terminology if, for example, the stories about the civilian leadership of the Defense Department initially refusing to help the D.C. police are confirmed?
NS: Maybe, yes. If, in fact, what we are seeing here is not just an unwillingness to adequately police but a tacit cooperation with the protesters, then yes. Look at the mass revolutions in the Philippines or in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. All of these mass protests involved the military siding with the protesters and refusing orders to fire. If we get to that point, then, yes, it’s a coup. But I don’t believe we’re at that point yet. I think what we’ve got is something else, and it’s very dire, but it’s not that thing.
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Why Nobody Protected the Capitol
The Capitol Police didn’t fail to prepare for an attack. It failed to imagine what kind of attack was coming.
The U.S. Capitol Police has 1,800 men and women dedicated to protecting the people’s citadel. Since September 11, their numbers have swelled, their procedures have changed, their perimeters have expanded, and their preparedness for a persistent threat has been plain. But they have been fighting an old battle. International terrorism is no longer the major threat they face, and arguably, it has not been for years.
What is happening today is the result of this failure of imagination. Security officials may claim the threat posed by a mob of white vigilantes was too far out of mental reach—it was something they could conceive of but not calibrate their plans for. But that’s an indictment, not an excuse. It’s a failure of the Capitol Police’s own leadership, and a failure of the Department of Homeland Security, to take right-wing radical agitation seriously. It is also a consequence of prejudice, although we should not be too hasty to make assumptions about the racial sociology of a security agency like the Capitol Police that has such a specialized mission.
To say that Congress was not prepared isn’t to suggest that no preparations were in place. In 2011 and 2017, when members of Congress were attacked by shooters, the constellations of agencies and officials who have some jurisdiction over congressional security—the Senate Sergeant-of-Arms, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, the Metropolitan Police Department, and even the FBI—adjusted their procedures; more Capitol Police officers attended the “Personal Security Detail” course put on by the Secret Service at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
After 9/11, Congress established an alternate site at a local military base, a place where members could convene in the event that the Capitol was rendered inoperative. But that plan, which is highly classified, operates under the assumption that members are not trapped in place by thousands of people. Today they are. Congressional leadership can be evacuated through the Capitol if it has been reduced to a riot zone using tunnels that have been dug under the building. Those lead to newly hardened “hard rooms,” mini-bunkers that are scattered around the entire complex. We will soon know whether Congress made use of these contingencies.
But now what?
The D.C. National Guard has been mobilized and placed under control of the Department of Justice. Step one: Evacuate the members of Congress safely, using heavily armed people corridors to bring the representatives and senators to vehicles that will deposit them at safe harbor sites off campus. Step two: Begin a room-by-room clearing procedure, much like the police does when there’s a mass shooting, passing trespassers to arresting officers who will transfer them into a custodial detention area. Step three: Use K9s and technical surveillance technology to go inch-by-inch over the entire complex, clearing rooms of IEDs or surveillance devices in advance. Step four: start an after-action report.
Most Americans blinded themselves to the consequences of the president’s long-running incitement because we have allowed ourselves to ignore the direct links between his words and the actions of others. That’s easy for me to say, though: I’m a white man whose political affiliation would not be evident to people who might be looking to target others on the basis of race or gender or ethnicity. A large number of my Asian American friends in Los Angeles have been the victim of hate crimes in the wake of the president’s “China virus” jab. What happened today shocks them but does not surprise them.
After Congress certifies the election, members will go back home. And if we’ve learned a lesson from today, many of them will be targets. And it will be up to state and local officials to pick up the slack. Today, these agencies should make contact with their elected representatives and agree on a security plan for the near future. The permanent threat from right-wing revenge terrorism, incited by the president, made more virulent by the information ecosystem that his supporters drink from, and now actualized by a successful takeover of one of the most secure buildings in the world, is part of the Trump legacy—and America’s present.
National Guard Deployed as Pro-Trump Rioters Storm Capitol
The U.S. president doubles down on baseless claims he won reelection, while Biden decries an “insurrection.”
The Trump administration and local authorities have ordered thousands of National Guardsmen to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to quash a violent mob in support of President Donald Trump that forcibly halted Congress’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election, even as the outgoing president stopped short of conceding the election and doubled down on baseless claims that the presidency was stolen from him.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that National Guard units were set to arrive, along with “other federal protective services.” The Washington Post first reported that the District of Columbia’s entire National Guard had been activated, sending 1,100 guardsmen into action, after a request from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to stop the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also announced that 200 guardsmen under his direction were set to head to Washington, but it was not immediately clear which other units would be arriving.
“The D.C. Guard has been mobilized to provide support to federal law enforcement in the District,” chief Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “Acting [Defense] Secretary [Christopher] Miller has been in contact with Congressional leadership, and [Army] Secretary [Ryan] McCarthy has been working with the D.C. government. The law enforcement response will be led by the Department of Justice.”
Biden, speaking in Delaware, condemned the violence and said, “it’s not a protest, it’s insurrection.”
“Our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times,” he added. “There has never been anything we can’t do when we do it together. And this god-awful display today is bringing home to every Republican, Democrat, and independent in the nation that we must step up. This is the United States of America.
“President Trump, step up.”
His comments came after a surge in violence at the U.S. Capitol following a rally in which Trump riled up his supporters and urged them to march on the Capitol.
A woman is reported to have been shot in the chest in the Capitol building, while law enforcement have found at least one improvised explosive device on the grounds of the Capitol as unprecedented scenes of lawlessness played out throughout the afternoon.
By law, local officials have no direct authority over the D.C. National Guard, which can be ordered in by Trump or the secretary of the army, McCarthy. Some 340 National Guardsmen were already in place in Washington at the time that the violent protests began, but they were not armed and stationed at points in downtown, away from the Capitol. A platoon of police officers from Montgomery County, Maryland, which borders D.C. to the north, also arrived at the complex late Wednesday afternoon. Videos from inside the Capitol also showed FBI swat teams in military fatigues at the building.
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Audrey Wilson contributed reporting for this article.
This Is a Coup. Why Were Experts So Reluctant to See It Coming?
A political scientist explains why some experts have clung to “It can't happen here” for too long.
Wednesday morning, like most mornings, I woke up to the usual round of politics news sites and newsletters: Politico Playbook, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Most of the day’s news concerned Tuesday’s runoff elections in Georgia, which apparently delivered control of the Senate to Democrats; other articles concerned the ongoing pandemic and the future of commuting in the post-pandemic world.
One article caught my eye: a Washington Post article by David Nakamura about whether the protests and petitions against the counting of Electoral College votes added up to a coup attempt. The piece quoted several liberal commentators and historians as saying that it obviously was, but the thesis was that what we were seeing as of Tuesday did “not yet meet the formal academic definition of an attempted coup.”
[The political scientist Naunihal Singh argues that Wednesday’s violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol is not a coup. To read why, click here.]
Some of the experts quoted in the piece urged calm and even insinuated that being alarmist about the indications that protesters aimed to cause severe unrest could be self-fulfilling. I filed this, and another incident, away and set about my daily business of testing and interpreting theories about politics. I looked forward to spending the day tapping out code in the data analysis tools Stata and R and occasionally checking in to make sure that the counting of ballots was going on as automatically, if a little more dramatically, as expected.
As I write this a few hours later, rioters incited by President Donald Trump have stormed the Capitol building. Both the House and the Senate have suspended their counting because of security threats. Reportedly, shots have been fired. A photograph of a rioter occupying the House speaker’s chair shows that the Capitol is, essentially, being occupied. C-SPAN is reporting that senior members of leadership of the legislative branch are being held in an “undisclosed location.” Reporters are refusing to divulge their locations on the grounds—entirely reasonable—that doing so could endanger their safety. The National Guard has been deployed.
It’s undeniable at this point. The United States is witnessing a coup attempt—a forceful effort to seize power against the legal framework. The president has caused the interruption of the process that would certify his removal from office. The mechanics of constitutional government have been suspended. Americans are in danger of losing constitutional government to a degree unmatched even during the Civil War, a period when secession itself did not postpone either the holding of elections or the transition of power between presidents.
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Pro-Trump Mob Breaches Capitol, Pence Evacuated, Election Certification Paused
After the U.S. president riled up crowds with baseless claims of voter fraud, mobs broke into the Capitol and interrupted Biden’s official certification.
A mob of protesters supporting outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump breached security perimeters at the Capitol on Wednesday after skirmishes with police, forcing an unprecedented lockdown during a joint session of Congress and prompting the evacuation of Vice President Mike Pence, who was slated to oversee the final certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
Following violent clashes with police, rioters tore down barriers at the Capitol steps, and some swept past police to enter the Capitol building. Capitol police swiftly began locking down the complex, informing lawmakers and staffers of an “external security threat” and forcing both chambers into recess. Lawmakers were told to lie on the floor and unwrap their gas masks as police battled the assailants.
The president’s supporters made their way into the House and Senate chambers in an extraordinary breach of security. Other protesters climbed scaffolding on Senate office buildings to the second floor, near where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office is located.
“This violence is unacceptable and needs to be met with the full force of the law,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted. “God bless the Capitol Police who are keeping us safe.”
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger said simply: “This is a coup attempt.”
Several congressional aides told Foreign Policy they were initially instructed to shelter in place, and they described an atmosphere of fear and shock. Just before 3 p.m., reports emerged from Capitol Hill that members of Congress, staff, and journalists working in the House and Senate chambers were being evacuated.
The clashes came immediately after Trump addressed crowds of supporters outside the White House to reiterate baseless claims of election fraud. “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” the president told his supporters.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday afternoon that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had requested National Guard troops to clear and secure the Capitol, following a request from Capitol Police. The D.C. National Guard did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.
Trump later tweeted that Capitol Police and law enforcement “are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” But the president did not explicitly condemn the violence or breach of Congress by his supporters. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former acting chief of staff, called the president’s words “not enough” and urged him to tell the violent protesters to go home.
As the scene unfolded on Capitol Hill, with scores of rioters passing freely through the statuary hall that divides the House and Senate chambers, Trump roundly tweeted condemnations of Pence, who acknowledged that he did not have the authority to challenge the Electoral College result on Wednesday.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” Trump tweeted, continuing to make baseless allegations of election fraud. “USA demands the truth!”
In a midday letter that coincided with Trump’s speech, Pence noted that the notion a vice president could overturn election results was antithetical to the Constitution. “It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence wrote in a letter to Congress.
Just minutes before the security breach, McConnell denounced efforts by some of his Republican counterparts to protest the results.
“The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them it would damage our republic forever,” McConnell said. “The United States Senate has a higher calling than an endless spiral of partisan vengeance.”
In response to the violent protests, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a citywide curfew from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Thursday.
On Tuesday evening, Trump supporters clashed with each other and police at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House. At least six people were arrested on charges including assaulting a police officer and weapons violations.