Franklin Roosevelt memorably called the day of Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, “a date that which will live in infamy”. That phrase has since then been used on several occasions but none that fits it now even better than January 6th 2020 when a sitting American President egged on and instigated a full frontal attack on the most cherished American institution, democracy. What happened on January 6th? What does January 6th portend for the future of American democracy?
2016 election was notable only for the acrimony and it being the second time in the new century that the electoral college winner had lost the popular vote. In 2016 Barack Obama made it point to show that the hallmark of democracy is an orderly presidential transition even if the guy who got elected was a rank racist who had alleged the current occupant as not a legitimate president. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, had swallowed a bitter pill and conceded without much ado.
Until 2020 happened it was the 2000 election that remained the most fraught presidential election with the candidates going all the way to the US supreme court and the fate of the presidency hung on dimpled chads and less than 1000 votes in difference.
Between November 7th, election day, and Dec 12th, the day US Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush Time magazine ran 5 covers, all ominously titled. Issue dated Nov 20th cover blared, “The wildest election in history”. On Nov 27th, the outcome still up in the air, the cover asked, “Unprecedented: Is this any way to run an election?”. On Dec 4th the cover showed what a nail biter it became, “537 votes: Bush’s new Margin”. On Dec 11th, awaiting US Supreme Court decision the cover said, “Supreme Showdown”. On Dec 18th, after the Supreme Court had ruled and the US had a president-elect, a sombre cover headline said, “Yes, we’ll survive”.
Walter Isaacson then editor of Time magazine, wrote in the aftermath of the 2000 Presidential election when the result was still unknown and headed to courts, “What was most amazing about that day, after people awoke to discover that our election had not produced a result, was that there were no tanks in the street, the dollar didn't collapse, mobs were not storming barricades, and people went off to work or to school a bit dazed and bemused, but not in fear.” All that was to change in 2020.
9/11, A Threat from Without
On a balmy Tuesday morning three hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade complex buildings and the Pentagon. A fourth jet was supposedly headed towards either the White House or the US Congress but, thanks to the bravery of a few passengers, was downed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As the fourth hijacked jet was in and the US President was going from one secure location to another the Vice President decided that if that jet approached the US Congress it’d be shot down. Remember, we are talking about many American Citizens who were on board. This decision was never questioned later and it was understood that to save the symbol of US democracy it’d be acceptable for the government to issue a kill order that’d incidentally kill US citizens.
As the tragedy unfolded in real time played across television screens the chyrons changed, after the second tower was hit, to say, “America under attack”. The words on everybody’s lips and minds were, “who’d dare do this to us?”. When the day ended with the towers now lying in a rubble every legislator who was present in the Congress that day gathered on the steps of the Capitol Hill to sing, “God Bless America” in a symbolic gesture to say, “we are still standing”.
In the aftermath the US passed the Patriot Act, fervently opposed by the far left and supported by nearly everyone else. The act gave sweeping powers to the government and reshaped US institutions to combat the new threat of “terrorism”. The country also went to war with two nations that were, again, largely supported by Americans.
In combating terrorism a new lexicon was created, black sites (interrogation sites for those captured outside US and located outside US to circumvent US laws), enemy combatants (a designation to loosely organized attackers who did not wear a formal military uniform and thus excluded, the government argued, from Geneva convention) and enhanced interrogation techniques (a euphemism for torture, notoriously included water boarding). When 9/11 master mind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was captured he was declared an enemy combatant, held in a black site and water boarded.
It is worth remembering the above when we contrast how the perpetrators of January 6th are characterized in the press and how they’re treated by law enforcement agencies.
An Election Night Unlike Any Other
In 2016 The Arizona Republic, a newspaper which had never endorsed a Democrat in 126 years, endorsed Hillary Clinton, on a positive endorsement and not just “don’t vote for Trump”. The Editorial board wrote, “Clinton knows how to compromise and to lead with intelligence, decorum and perspective. She has a record of public service as First Lady, senator and secretary of state.” Of Trump it said, “Trump’s inability to control himself or be controlled by others represents a real threat to our national security. His recent efforts to stay on script are not reassuring. They are phony.” They were prescient.
Arguing that GOP voters should reject Trump the former nominee Mitt Romney summed it up best, “his (Trump) imagination should not be married to power”. Alas, thanks to Comey and an enabling mainstream press Trump was elected and he proved his detractors were not alarmists but prophetic.
On November 3rd 2020 election night unfolded unlike any other in recent memory and making memories of 2000 seem like a picnic. Nearly 155 million Americans voted in 2020, up from 128 million in 2016. The election, conducted amidst a pandemic, had expanded mail in ballots to record levels and voter participation, motivated by the ease of participation and animated by the issues, rose sharply. The 2000 election showed that the US elections are a pathetic patch work of state and county laws and 2020 shows that nothing much had changed.
Election laws in many counties mandated that votes cast on election night be counted first and then the mail in ballots. So, on election night Trump led Biden by nearly 600,000 votes in Pennsylvania while mail in ballots, largely favored by Democrats, remained uncounted. Then agonizingly over the next 4 days the counting proceeded and Biden not only closed the gap but surpassed Trump by 80,555 votes (1.16%). Note, in 2016 when Trump happily won in PA he led Hillary by 44,292 (0.72%). However, now Trump, as sitting president, went on a blitzkrieg for 4 days until PA, and thereby the Presidency, was called for Biden by the networks on Saturday. Trump and his voters shrieked “networks don’t get to call the US presidency”. Of course no one had questioned such a call in 2016 and even in 2020 for the many Senate and Congressional seats that GOP won the very same ballot that Trump was on for the presidency.
A completely unhinged Donald Trump then went on a rampage, aided and abetted by Fox News and the large “basket of deplorables” that voted for him. For the next two months the worlds oldest surviving democracy and a super power that prized rule of law saw an unremitting assault on that most American of institutions, democracy.
Transition in Limbo
The 1963 Presidential Transition Act empowers a little known official of an equally little known agency to “certify” that the current president, if he lost the election or his term had ended, would transition to a president elect. This includes access to government offices and enables incumbent administration to share secrets to the incoming administration thus ensuring not just a smooth transition but a crucial aspect of security, a key concern after 9/11, is transitioned. In 2008 when Obama won in a landslide and networks had called the race by 11 PM EST within two hours the then Bush administration ensured the official transition began. Bush administration was clear that a crippling financial crises needed a smooth and prompt transition.
Trump, no Republican like Bush, was not merely refusing to concede but was promoting wild theories of voter fraud and launching recounts, perfectly within his right, in several states. The Transition Act is vague and placed a simple federal official smack in the midst of a president crises. The official, an employee of General Services Administration, cited the 2000 election when the transition was delayed until US Supreme Court had ruled as precedence. Of course, 2020 was not 2000 and the margins of Biden’s win in each contested state was unbridgeable. The official finally yielded on November 23rd when Michigan had certified the results and that certification itself was not without drama.
The President Wanted a Coup
America’s electoral system is a highly politicized format ripe for politicking and overturning results. That American elections have not been overturned to favor a losing candidate in over two centuries is less a testament to the strength of institutions than a testament that hitherto even die hard partisans considered some red lines to be sacrosanct. Trump changed that, like any autocrat of a tin pot dictatorship would. Let’s take a look at how Michigan certified the results.
In 2016 Trump blasted through Hillary’s blue wall by securing Michigan albeit with a margin of a paltry 10,000 (0.2% difference) of the nearly 2.5 millions votes cast. Then then certification of the winner, despite such razor thin margin, proceeded apace without any hitch. In 2020 Biden retook Michigan with a margin of 154,188 (3.35% difference). It was not even close and yet Trump unleashed the full power of the presidency to brazenly overturn the election.
Trump being Trump a whisper campaign was started that there was widespread fraud in the state’s largest county, Wayne county, that was also largely African-American. State election board comprising of representatives from both parties, called canvassers, have to certify the returns for a candidate to the secure the states 16 electoral votes. In other years this’d be a sleepy no nonsense affair. But Trump made it an extraordinary year. Aside from baseless lawsuits filed by literally clowns from the Trump campaign that were thrown out of courts Trump started pressuring the canvassers to refuse to certify results. The canvassers were invited to the White House to be pressured.
Wayne county certification itself ran into rough weather. Republican canvassing board members refused to certify the results and then, since the events were being broadcast on internet, after a public outcry backed down. Finally on November 23rd Michigan certified the election and awarded 16 votes to Biden.
Barrage of Clownish Lawsuits
A comic relief to what was clearly the most endangered moment of American democracy was the barrage of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign legal team led by Rudy Giuliani. It is one thing to claim voter fraud in a tweet and yet another to claim it in a court room. Any lawyer would think twenty times before lying intentionally in a courtroom lest he/she gets disbarred and their own firms draw scorn and lose reputation, let alone legal sanctions.
A USA Today article lists 62 lawsuits filed by Trump campaign in various courts and won a very insignificant victory, not even relating to fraud, in one lawsuit in Pennsylvania. Judges, from both parties, including those nominated by Trump, tossed the cases mercilessly. “At least eight judges appointed by Trump”, says a column in Washington Post, “have ruled against or declined to blister the pro trump effort pushing baseless allegation of massive voter fraud”. A Trump nominated judge was scathing, “A sitting president who did not prevail in his bid for reelection has asked for federal court help in setting aside the popular vote based on disputed issues of election administration, issues he plainly could have raised before the vote occurred.”
|Courtesy USA Today|
On November 14th the electoral college met and certified that Biden secured 306 electoral votes and thus the presidency. That day of counting votes across 50 states is not even a day that Americans normally recognized or were cognizant but then this is 2020. Vote counting in all 50 states were simulcast on TV and news web sites.
For all the indecency that Trump inflicted should’ve ended here and now with the electoral college voting. No, this is Trump we’re talking about. Trump’s moral abyss is a bottomless pit and he dragged America and the GOP right into a rapid downward spiral of immorality and chaos and tarnished a democracy for ages to come.
The electoral college votes thus counted and certified by states must now be ratified at the US congress. Trump fixated on that next and authored the darkest chapter of American democracy in recent memory.
Electoral Count Act and Mayhem
Enacted in 1887 to, ironically, ensure that Congress wouldn’t be deadlocked in certifying the electoral college vote as it happened in 1876 when competing slates of electors were sent to the Congress, the act became the lightning rod for Trump and his legion of mischief makers.
Trump argued, quite incorrectly but using the vagueness of the language in the act, that Mike Pence who, as Vice President, would be presiding in the Senate could choose to accept Trump friendly slate of electors or plainly not count votes from some states. Mike Pence had no such constitutional powers. Before departing to US Senate to perform his duty, as Al Gore did admirably in 2000, Pence informed Trump that he’d do no such thing. Trump tweeted that Pence lacked courage.
Even during 2000 when the Presidency was decided by just 500 odd votes no senator joined any mad scheme to question the legality of the winner. In 2004 Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer made an objection but it was less than symbolic and was brushed off. In both occasions the losing candidates did not even utter a word to encourage such an effort and in 2000 the losing candidate was Al Gore who had to actually certify his winner. In 2020 Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz decided, with an eye on 2024 primaries, decided to pamper Trump’s base if not Trump himself. In the House more than 100 US Congressmen from GOP were questioning the very sanctity of US elections. Putin must have been laughing at the shenanigans and thinking “they’ll destroy US democracy better than me”.
Leading up to January 6th until December 4th at least Mitch McConnell, US Senate Majority leader and other GOP Senators, including the so called moderates, refused to call Biden as President-Elect and all of the above stoked what is now called, appropriately, the Big Lie that the election was rigged.
In this backdrop Trump addressed his supporters on January 6th even as the Congress started counting the votes.
American Democracy Attacked by a President
Trump supporters had gathered in the Capitol Hill led to believe, by the President himself, that the results of a US Presidential election could be overturned that day; if only their Vice President did what they wanted.
At 12:00 PM, following incendiary speeches by others, notably Rudy Giuliani calling for “trial by combat, Trump delivers a rant egging on his supporters to march on the Capitol Hill. I was reminded of Mark Antony inflaming the mob and descending from the stage saying, “Mischief thou art afoot, take whatever course thou shalt”. Tens of thousands of Trump voters march towards the Capitol Hill. The crowd includes White Supremacist gang, The Proud Boys and White Christian evangelicals.
Mitch McConnell who played no small part in stoking the Big Lie now acted holy and delivers a stinging rebuke of attempting to overturn the election. The crowd surged towards Capitol Hill. A benumbed America watched on live TV hooligans and murderers attack the sanctum sanctorum of American democracy. Now recall how an American Vice-President had issued orders to shoot down a civilian airline to protect this same Capitol Hill to safeguard democracy.
Washington DC police and Capitol Hill security were completely taken aback by the murderous ferocity and the sheer number of Trump supporters storming the Capitol. Trump’s thugs then barged into Congress crying, “hang Mike Pence”. American Senators and Congressmen, many of whom had exactly encouraged this Big Lie and poured gasoline on the fire, now fled and scurried for cover. Frantic calls were made to White House literally pleading the President to call back the dogs of war he had unleashed.
For nearly three hours America’s President relished how his supporters were terrorizing US Congress and demolishing American democracy. Finally when he did appear on a video he told the thugs, “you are special, we love you”. Oh the shame of it. The Confederate Flag was paraded inside US Congress, the rioters, nay terrorists, tried to ransack the electoral college votes that they expected to find, but thanks to a fast thinking congressional staffer who saved it, could not. Imagine the shame if that desecration had been possible.
The real story on January 6th was the culmination of Trump’s efforts since being a candidate to stoke White Supremacists and Evangelical Christians to serve his dictatorial impulses. His candidacy had torn into the innards of the country and now the monsters he had unleashed were once more at his beckoning.
During a Presidential debate asked if he disavowed the White Supremacist gang, Proud Boys, Trump had ominously said “stand by”.
Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic, called January 6th “A Christian Insurrection”. “The mob carried signs and flag declaring ‘Jesus Saves!’ And ‘God, guns and guts made America. Let’s keep all three”. “Some were participants in the Jericho March, a gathering of Christians to “pray, march, fast, and rally for election integrity.” “The Jericho March is evidence that Donald Trump has bent elements of American Christianity to his will, and that many Christians have obligingly remade their faith in his image”.
|Courtesy The Atlantic|
Michael Boorstin’s column in Washington Post identified a key aspect of Christian fundamentalists who took part in the Jan 6th insurrection. Most such Christian fanatics did not belong to traditional denominations but to independent churches that have become the norm these days. “Yale University sociologist Phil Gorski”, says such freelance church memberships a religious “melee, a free for all”. “Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who studies political violence”, said that akin to “other extremist movement: Where religion plays a role, it’s not due to deep indoctrination or education”. “More than 100 pastors, ministry and seminary leaders”, an NPR column points out, signed an open letter expressing “concern about the growing radicalization they’re seeing, particularly among white evangelicals”.
In the aftermath of the riots even Wall Street Journal called for Trump to resign and when he did not resign and Democrats moved articles of impeachment the same Editorial Board did not support it and nor did Mitch McConnell who delivered, again, a stinging speech and then voted against the impeachment for Trump.
Two Events and Two Responses
Imagine, for a moment, that instead of White Americans and White Christian evangelists African-Americans had not just attacked the Capitol Hill but moved, in tens of thousands, menacingly towards it how would America’s police have reacted? Then imagine, for a moment, what if the crowd was bearded males with turbans?
On the same day of 9/11 the attack was called terrorism and the perpetrators were called hijackers or terrorists. Their accomplices were hunted, imprisoned and tortured. The nation that sheltered them was bombed. Every year Americans make a bipartisan show of mourning the dead and recalling the day of horror.
After the smoke settled down on January 6th the day was called an “insurrection” and the worst the perpetrators were called was “rioters”, not terrorists. The perpetrators have the full protection of US due process. The GOP is not even cooperating for a full bipartisan commission, akin to the 9/11 commission, to unearth who knew what and when and what was the US President, the Commander in Chief, doing amidst all this.
Future of American Democracy
The future of American democracy does not look encouraging. The GOP and its base is enslaved to a megalomaniac tyrant and to them elections are fair only if they win and any means to secure a win is acceptable and that includes terrorizing election officials who are involved in the electoral process, especially counting and certifying. A vast majority of Republicans actually believe that the election their own attorney general certified as not tampered with was rigged.
Instead of encouraging voter participation the Republican Party sees increased voter participation as antithetical to their prospects and GOP led state legislatures have gone berserk trying to restrict mail in ballots and other voter friendly steps.
In the long arc of American history the nation has seen moments of grave danger including a Civil War, the effects of which still ricochets in the politics. More often than not American democracy always faced its gravest threats only from within and not from without. While the present looks bleak can one draw comfort in the naive hope that this too shall pass? No. Nothing ever merely passes without transforming us, for better or worse and for now we can only say that that the transformation is maiming American democracy.
On 9/11 George Bush addressed a shell shocked nation saying, "Today, our fellow citizens our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts". What Bush said of 9/11 could've been said of January 6th except that shamefully it was not foreigners who architected the attack but an American President. Back in 2001 Bush vowed that "a great people has been moved to defend a great nation". Today we call the terrorists of January 6th patriots and the nation, let alone from moving to defend, is stuck is spiteful partisan quagmire.
Trump actually faced an uphill task in overturning the election. He needed to flip the results in nearly 3-4 states and in each state the margins where, though small, in the thousands. The real danger that Trump's megalomaniacal efforts showed were that in a repeat of 2000 where the Presidency came down to just one state and just a few hundred votes if instead of an Al Gore we had a Trump we're looking at real mayhem. Electoral reform is the urgent need and as WSJ editorial today says, for once quite commonsense, fix the damn Electoral Vote Count Act and the Democrats might even find a few GOP Senators to play ball.
As we look to 2022 and 2024 citizens like me only ask “what kind of beast is slouching towards Bethlehem”. As for me I’ve avowed that I’ll vote Democrat until the GOP exorcises itself of the Trump, in the least I’ll never vote for a candidate who does not disavow Trump and the January 6th terror attack on US democracy.