Trump under fire after ‘assault on democracy’

Barbarians at the gate: yesterday’s mob echoed the sack of Rome by the Visigoths. © Getty

Is this how civilisation collapses? Top politicians are calling for Donald Trump’s removal amid fears he will incite more violence. Joe Biden called it one of the darkest days in US history.

A shirtless man in a fur hat with Viking-style bullhorns mounted the dais of the evacuated chamber. Flexing his biceps for the remaining spectators, he grinned in triumph. They had taken the Senate.

On the day the US Senate was due to certify the results of last November’s election, supporters of President Trump, convinced his defeat was fraudulent, stormed the Capitol, in what some have called an attempted coup.

One man put his feet up on the desk of Nancy Pelosi; another stole a podium. Others attempted to break down a door to confront armed police. Legislators from the world’s most powerful democracy fled before a tide of invaders.

In the chaos, four people died, including one woman who was shot by police. Eventually, the authorities were able to restore order, securing the Capitol. At last, the senate returned and voted to certify Joe Biden’s victory.

To some, however, his win seems diminished — overshadowed by the violence, polarisation, and loss of faith in institutions evident from Wednesday’s scenes.

Biden promises a return to America’s political norms, but he faces doubts about whether Trump’s supporters will ever let that happen. Some wonder if America, and even the wider liberal world order it supports, have declined irreparably.

To the declensionists, tattooed, fur-clad barbarians in the Capitol, may recall the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410AD, sometimes seen as marking the end of the Roman Empire.

Others might point to the much earlier attempt by the Roman Tribune, Tiberius Gracchus, to stand for re-election in 133BC, against the established norms of the Roman Republic. Some see this as the beginning of the Republic’s decline into dictatorship. That, too, led to violence in a Senate, though then the Senators were responsible; they themselves beat Gracchus to death.

The US, whose founders modelled it on the Roman Republic, can only support such comparisons up to a point, but it has its own precedents for violence on the Senate floor.

In 1856, a pro-slavery Democrat beat Senator Charles Sumner within an inch of his life after taking offence to Sumner’s speech attacking slavery.

The attack was proof of the violent split over slavery in the US, and only stoked it further. Following Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, the US fell into civil war when the Confederacy of southern states seceded.

One of the invaders was photographed waving a Confederate flag in front of the congressional portrait of Sumner.

Declensionists’ concerns are larger, however, than one man and his most fervid fans.

Hostility to liberal democracy is on the rise across the world. From growing inequality to climate change, to large-scale migration, to pandemics, a range of pressures is being placed on increasingly complex, interdependent societies. Many institutions appear to stand discredited in the present’s glare.

America, some suggest, may find itself overwhelmed, if not by barbarians, then by the forces that give birth to them.

Is this how civilisation collapses?

Decline and fall

This is the way the world ends, say some. The rise in hostility to mainstream institutions and the increase in political polarisation evident in America and elsewhere suggest that civilisation is not equipped to confront its current challenges. Those who study civilisational collapse suggest that many trends bode poorly for the survival of civilisation as we know it. As these trends worsen, people’s loyalties to society will decline, and mobs of the kind seen on Wednesday will grow larger.

Not so, say others. Biden not only won a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, but also control over it. The majority of the American population wants a return to normality, and Biden will be well placed to implement a programme to restore it. The current chaos is the last gasp of the defeated. Political violence was common in the USA in the 1960s and 70s, but it receded. The chorus of condemnation of both protestors and the president is proof that the centre can hold.

You Decide

  1. If you knew an election was stolen, would you take any action against the government?
  2. Is it possible for one bad ruler to ruin an entire political system?

Activities

  1. One famous traditional song about American political strife is ”The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. After listening to the song, try to write one or two verses about the storming of the Capitol that would fit the same tune.
  2. Trump’s social media accounts were temporarily suspended this week. Write a series of Tweets in the style of Donald Trump, describing your reaction to this ban.

Some People Say...

“What’s the point of senators making laws now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

CP Cavafy, (1863 - 1933) Greek Poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that the US Capitol building has seen a large number of violent incidents since its reconstruction, from the beating of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks in 1856, to the detonation of three bombs, one in 1915, one in 1971, and one in 1983, as well as two shootings. More people died in Wednesday’s riot than in any previous incident. Of the four who died, three died as the result of what the police termed “medical emergencies”, while one woman, Ashley Babbit, was shot by police.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is whether the violence on Wednesday represents the end of a certain kind of far-right politics in the USA, or merely the beginning. Some have been keen to make comparisons with the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. In 1923, 2,000 Nazis marched on the Munich city hall with absolutely no consequences. By 1933, however, the Nazis were able to form a government. The comparison between the Nazis in the 1920s and supporters of a sitting president, others argue, is far from apt.

Word Watch

Dais
A raised platform at the front of an auditorium or other room, from which speakers can address an audience.
Fraudulent
False.
Capitol
The building that houses both US legislative chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Coup
A revolution from within the government, usually by the military.
Nancy Pelosi
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, which means she leads the Democratic party in the lower chamber of Congress.
Declensionists
Somebody who believes that their civilisation is in decline. Many people have felt this way throughout history, but one key work of declinism (or declensionism) is Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.
Visigoths
An ancient Germanic tribe, and therefore a subset of the Gothic peoples. The Visigoths lived in the Roman Empire but emerged as a distinct people when, under their first leader, Alaric I, they sacked Rome.
Tribune
The role of tribune in the ancient Roman Empire was to act on behalf of the plebian (or lower class) population of Rome. Ten were elected every year to be a check on the upper class Senators, and were therefore often despised by them. Gracchus was especially unpopular because he proposed confiscating aristocratic land to give to the common people.
Seceded
Withdrew.
Fervid
Overly passionate.

Subjects

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