Yesterday should have been a day in the United States that should have been a pro-forma, ceremonial step towards the usual peaceful transition of power. Yesterday we should have been witness to a traditional quirk of the American democratic system, where the results of an election that we have known about for two months were confirmed. There are a lot of “shoulds” that we could list about what should have happened yesterday but never did. They never did.
Instead we saw a spectacle the likes of which we’ve never seen in the Capitol of the supposed leader of the Free World. We saw a hot mixture of conspiracy theorists, far right militia members, neo-Nazi groups and enablers of all of those groups, storm the seat of American democracy. They proceeded to defile the people’s houses of government, some armed, assaulting police and law enforcement officers. It was all in an attempt to stop that lawful and democratic transfer of power, to upend that ceremonial step by force, all in the name of conspiracy theories and lies with no base in fact or truth.
It was all triggered by President Donald Trump; in the long-term after four years of his lies, enticement and demagoguery and in the short, from his exhortations just an hour before to go up to the Capitol itself. When the full scale of what was happening was clear, multiple media reports have told us that Trump himself didn’t want to send in the National Guard to stop this. He was reveling in this anti-democratic madness. He later went on Twitter not to denounce these actions or to disassociate himself with them, but instead to say that he loved them and understood them.
Trump has been aided and enabled in this historic, anti-democratic behaviour by some of the most craven political minds that American history has ever seen. They have taken the historical benchmark of that trait set by Senator Joseph McCarthy and taken it lower than it’s ever been. It’s been people like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who just before Trump spoke said that America needed “a trial by combat”, which it seems that many in that mob took to heart and acted upon. It’s been senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who egged this crowds on, gave support, comfort and a voice to their conspiracy theories and lies about the last election. Cruz was even fundraising off of the effort while he was being evacuated from the Senate by law enforcement, to protect this sniveling coward. The Kansas City Star editorial today says that Hawley has blood on his hands, which is true as four of these insurrectionists died yesterday. And there were even minor characters like Republican West Virginia Delegate Derrick Evans, who not only was a part of the mob that stormed Capitol, but he recorded it on video and posted that on social media.
We saw many examples of that, with insurrectionists gleefully posting videos of their attacks on democracy, fueled by lies and conspiracy theories. We saw a lack of fear of prosecution or being stopped by the authorities. Maybe that’s because the police were outnumbered. Maybe it’s because instead of trying to stop them, some of the police took selfies with them instead. Maybe it’s because they knew from previous life experience that the law wouldn’t stop them. When you compare the armed response to this summers Black Lives Matters protests in Washington to what we saw yesterday, it’s impossible not to see how those who did what they did yesterday got that impression.
Many acted with shock and surprise at what they were seeing yesterday but for many of us, while we felt a great deal of shock and sadness at what we saw, surprise was not something that we could feel. While we all have hoped for the best and hoped that the United States would get through this perilous transition of power without incident, we were not ruling acts like yesterdays out. That’s because Trump has shown all the telltale signs of a narcissistic dictator ever since he came down that golden escalator in 2015. He’s never shown any ability or desire to moderate himself, grow into the job or change his ways. He’s continually forced others around him to bend to his will or be destroyed. He’s shown just how selfish and self-centered he truly is, with no empathy for others that doesn’t involve improvement for his own self-interest. He’s demands full and unrepentant loyalty from those around him and beyond, while offering none to them, the Constitution or to the very concept of representative democracy. After four years of that malignance in the White House, no one should be surprised that he would take things as far as they went yesterday because he’s proven time and again that he will push things as far as he can. He’s shown that he’ll continue to try to push things further and further, far beyond the democratic norms that have upheld the US over close to 250 years.
But as our American neighbours head into two weeks of perilous uncertainty, with a mad man with nothing left to lose and no legal recourses left with his finger on the nuclear triggers, we cannot be smug and self-satisfied here at home. Just as American music and movies influence our culture here at home, Donald Trump and his world view have influenced and infected many here in Canada. While things were unfolding in Washington yesterday, small pro-Trump rallies were happening all across Canada. Last night we saw Conservative MP Cathy McLeod tell everyone on Twitter that over the past few days that her “constituency office has been broken into and rifled through” and that it has been suggested she is “a nazi like collaborator” because she believes COVID is serious and support vaccines. We can’t forget that we’ve seen an armed QAnon-beliving gunman who tried to storm Rideau Cottage to get at the Prime Minister and that this summer we saw other far right activists trying to make “citizens arrests” of politicians just off the grounds of Parliament Hill. Those are all fruits of the same poisonous tree, and while their roots may extend beyond our own borders, the tree found nurturing soil here in Canada.
This is one moment where we need to wake up and have a serious conversation about the health of Democracy. An attack on democracy anywhere is an attack on it here at home, and if we try to convince ourselves that attacks on American democracy have no effect on us, we’re just being willfully blind. We have become complacent when it comes to this protection. We’re used to seeing the scenes that we saw play out yesterday in other places, where democracy is in much greater threat. We’re used to seeing people in those places fighting for the democracy and freedoms that we enjoy here, not “storming the Bastille” in defense of lies and far-flung conspiracy theories. The fact that the world saw that play out in Washington, along with some other state capitals around the United States, tells us that it’s now or never. If we aren’t willing to rouse ourselves from this stupor and defend our democracy in this moment, then we truly never will. We’ve let things go to far and we’re seeing in the United States how much worse they can get when they are allowed to go further. They are coming apart at the seams and in this moment, all of the worst possible outcomes are possible there. We will all be watching with bated breath here at home. But while we do, we need less smugness and more reflection. Yesterday was a stark warning about the state of democracy and a cold reminder that democracy is not a given. It must be protected and nourished, and we need to do a better job of nourishing it.