By Stella KRASTEVA, EEB4 S5FRC
January 6, 2021 was a turning point in US history in multiple dimensions.
It was a symbolic end of the theory of the American “exceptionalism”[I]. A concept which is more than two centuries old, stating that the United States is intrinsically different from other nations as consequence of being a “new nation” born from the Revolution. Hence, America considered itself superior to those with less developed political systems. A country with a unique calling to change the world towards liberty and democracy.
The storm of the Capitol Hill by an angry mob on that day was a clear demonstration that America was much like many other developed nations, and mature democracies susceptible to populist rhetoric and demagogy[ii]. It was also the logical follow-up of four years of violent partisan rhetoric between the two major political parties in the USA which divided the nation and eroded the trust in the political system.
The speech former President Trump gave on January 6th[iii] had a longer official name which was quickly replaced with a much more memorable name, that reinvigorated the masses: “Save America”. The speech was given in front of his supporters lined up at the bottom of the Capitol Hill just a couple of hours before the attack. A quick analysis of the words, and metaphors used in the speech show how easy it is to summon the masses by using a populist narrativeii.
First, flattery- “a deep and enduring love for America in our hearts […] an overwhelming pride in this great country.”.
Second, the moral virtue of the crowd- “As this enormous crowd shows,” he says, “we have truth and justice on our side.”, “the amazing patriots here today”.
Third, victimisation– a demonstration of the innocence of the followers and their mentor. It is used to portray as morally justifiable all future actions even if in normal circumstances they might be deemed illegal. “When you catch someone in the act of fraud,” “you’re allowed to follow very different rules.”
Fourth, the enemy among us– principally the news media. They “suppress speech,” and even “thought”. They are the “enemy of the people” and “the biggest problem we have in this country”.
Fifth, existential threat, “Our country has been under siege.” “They also want to indoctrinate your children at school by teaching them things that aren’t so. It’s all part of the comprehensive assault on our democracy.” “If you don’t fight like hell,” “you won’t have a country anymore.” “The American people [are] finally standing up and saying, “No”.
Finally, a strong emotional bond between the speaker and the crowd- “We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you”.
We all saw the aftermath. Five people died, including police officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death by the mobii. At the end of the day the democratic institutions were able to restore order and to finalise the constitutional procedure. Late at night, the Congress reconvened to certify the electoral votes, formally recognising the victory of President-elect Joe Biden.
President Trump was criticized a lot due to remaining silent in the first hours of the riot. The critics claim that this was considered unspoken encouragement. He spoke only after called upon specifically by Biden who said that Trump as a president has the power to influence the events.
Since then, Trump’s public appearances have been moderate and with carefully considered language, probably advised by his lawyers, who wanted to defuse the arguments for a presidential impeachment procedure. Such a procedure was, so far, successful only in half – voted by the House of Representatives. The Senate took a decision not to reconvene while Trump was still president. Thus, avoiding a divisive and controversial debate and vote.
The eyes of people in America and all around the world are now focused on the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden. We’re waiting for him to deliver his promise to heal and unite the nation. An unsurmountable task which will take time and compromises from all sides[i].
The phenomenon of populism as a major threat to democracies is not in itself something new. In written form, it was first described by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle[ii] born nearly 2 400 years ago. However, after the hardships of the economic and financial crisis in the beginning of the 21st century it has risen to prominence in many countries around the world, including Europe[iii].
What has happened in America might seem distant to Secondary school students in Europe. But the reality is that in the next couple of years we will all be faced with a choice on how to participate in the democratic process, with our main goal being to cast our vote in elections. Either in national elections or for the European Parliament in 2024. Although we do not consider ourselves as important players in such events, political parties across the entire spectrum are preparing strategies on how to capitalise our votes; and the truth is that every single vote matters. Democracy works best in high electoral turnarounds as was the case with the US. We should be aware of the fake news and disinformation which surrounds us, including social media platforms. To guide us we need strong and functional democratic institutions, along with free, unbiased and professional news media. We are stronger together!
Sources: i American exceptionalism