In one of the darkest days for the United States in recent political history, extremist supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump – a ragtag of anti-democratic malcontents – stormed the US Capitol in an astonishing assault on the heart of American democracy.
By playing a central role in a severely disruptive transfer of power in a major Western liberal democracy, Trump has strengthened anti-democratic regimes across the world. The departing president’s “Make America Great Again” project has ended with the US being ridiculed by the Chinese and Russian states on matters of political instability and social discord. Pledging to end the “American carnage” in his inauguration address, one of Trump’s final acts as president was to encourage the storming of the US Capitol, which resulted in dozens of arrests and the death of five people – including a police officer.
All of this highlights a desperate need for moderate America – consisting of civic-minded Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – to fashion an inclusive patriotism that is rooted in defending the rule of law, championing equality of opportunity, and respecting liberal-democratic processes. While the US is of course a country that finds its origins in revolutionary activity, the incoming administration headed by President-elect Joe Biden must emphasise the restoration of political stability and social order. Domestic extremism – whether it is hard-right ethno-nationalism or hard-left identitarianism – continues to undermine the US’s democratic structures and tear its social fabric.
Liberal democratic societies, including the US, must understand that democratic instability and social disunity will be exploited with relish by autocratic regimes across the world. Anti-West dictatorships, with advanced propaganda machines, are eager to seize on any opportunity to target existing social fault-lines and chip away at the credibility of conventional liberal democracy. The chaotic scenes at the US Capitol are likely to have been greeted with jubilation by the Kremlin, and most certainly by Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
There is no doubting that President Trump’s administration has talked tough on the CCP – over its suspect trading practices, appetite for technological espionage, fundamental lack of transparency over the Covid-19 outbreak, and human rights abuses against religious minorities. But in undermining public faith in the US’s democratic procedures and fostering the kind of social rage that resulted in the storming of the US Capitol, the Trump administration provided the CCP with the greatest gift of all. And it certainly came as no surprise that following the mayhem in Washington D.C., the CCP – through the Chinese Embassy in the US’s Twitter account – proceeded to disseminate the most appalling forms of propaganda over the treatment of Uighur Muslims.
Western liberal democracies must make it their central mission to create more resilient, high-trust, democratically stable societies. A failure to do so undermines the global reputation of liberal democracy as a desired model of governance – boosting opportunistic autocratic regimes that are only too happy to capitalise on social disharmony and institutional distrust in the West.
No leader in a Western liberal democracy – regardless of their party affiliation and activist base – should be willing to sacrifice social solidarity in the name of political self-interest. If they are open to taking such a path, they endanger their own societies – inevitably creating the kind of social fragmentation that will be exploited by both domestic extremists and hostile foreign states.
There are serious lessons to be learnt from the storming of the US Capitol. Not just for America, but for liberal democratic nation-states at large.
Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society
Donald Trump’s presidency has strengthened anti-democratic regimes across the world The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Telegraph.