Wall Street rallied to record highs after the storming of the Capitol Building. Rattled but not paralysed by the riot, Congress went ahead and ratified Joe Biden’s election as President. With the Democrats in control of the White House, the Senate and the House, the markets expect a torrent of stimulus spending to offset the pain of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But after sweeping up the broken glass and recovering the looted furniture, politics are not going to return to normal in Washington.
Some of the winners
Hillary Clinton. In the eyes of many voters, Mrs Clinton has surely been vindicated. The “deplorables” really were deplorable. The thugs and goons who wandered aimlessly around the Capitol Building included neo-Nazis, QAnon supporters, and men waving Confederate flags. Arizona resident Jake Angeli was featured around the world with a coon-skin hat, horns, face paint, a heavily tattooed chest and an American flag on a spear. A lot of people will be thinking that Nancy Pelosi won the beauty contest hands down.
Joe Biden. Speaking from Delaware, the President-elect looked and sounded solidly presidential as he called for order, calm and unity. “The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy — of decency, honor, respect, the rule of law, just plain, simple decency. The renewal of the politics that’s about solving problems, looking out for one another, not stoking the flames of hate and chaos.” Biden ran on a platform of “decency” and in his first crisis, he displayed it.
China. China’s official English-language newspaper, the Global Times, made a plausible argument that the rioting was evidence of America’s double standards. “In Hong Kong, violent actions are described as a ‘beautiful sight’ [by Nancy Pelosi]; in the US, people involved in this chaos are called ‘mobs’.” We can expect that China will be contrasting its orderly, efficient authoritarianism with America’s ramshackle, violent democracy.
Russia. After these chaotic scenes, how can the US project itself as the “light on the hill” to developing nations? Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house said: “I say this without a shadow of gloating. America no longer charts a course and therefore has lost all rights to set it — and even more so, to impose it on others.” Will the US ever dare again to preen itself as a paradigm of human rights and democratic process?
Some of the losers
Donald Trump. Much as President Trump hates being called a loser, he is one. There were solid achievements in his four years. He promoted a pro-life agenda; he made progress in peace in the Middle East; he stood up to China and North Korea; he presided over a vigorous economy – and he blew all of this away on Wednesday. His political enemies will occupy the White House and will dominate both the Senate and the House. In an insanely provocative speech on Wednesday he egged his supporters on to riot and mayhem. “We fight like Hell and if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” At least in spirit, these seditious sentiments violated his oath of office. He leaves the White House with a stained legacy.
The Republican Party. Trump’s consistent strategy was to defeat and demean his opponents. He leaves DC with the Republican Party defeated and demeaned. Over the next four years it’s likely that he will continue to undermine the GOP. If he tries to win the nomination again in 2024, he will split the Party. If he runs as an independent, he will ruin the chances of the Party’s nominee.
The media. The invasion of the Capitol Building was an unprecedented disgrace, a violation of the temple of democracy. But the news was all about the chaos, with nothing about the demands of the protesters, incoherent as they might have been. Trump’s rally at the Ellipse attracted tens of thousands (he claimed hundreds of thousands) but was barely reported. The New York Times didn’t even mention the crowd in its report. CNN skipped it entirely.
It is also a disgrace that the death of Ashli Babbitt was barely a footnote in most of the coverage. As the New York Times described it: “two men hoist her up to the rim of a broken window. As she sticks her head through the frame, a Capitol Police officer in plain clothes fires a shot, and she falls back into the crowd.” Is that fundamentally different from the tragic and senseless death of George Floyd? Sure, she was poor, troubled, and a conspiracy theorist, but so are millions of other Americans.
Make no mistake about it: the mob invasion of the Capitol building was criminal behaviour. But “cancelling” the grievances of the thousands at the rally and overlooking the deaths of four participants rubs salt in their wounds. The followers of QAnon probably revere Ms Babbitt as their first martyr. The Fourth Estate has been diminished, along with America’s political institutions.
The pro-life movement. With all of his failings, President Trump was a gift to the pro-life movement. He appointed three judges to the Supreme Court who appear to be opposed to abortion. He reined in Planned Parenthood. He curbed embryo experimentation. He reinstated the Mexico City policy. The Biden Administration was never going to support a pro-life agenda anyway, but now pro-life causes will have the added handicap of a distant (and unfair) association with the anarchy of the Capitol Hill mob.
Civility. Most consequential of all may be the permanent loss of the presumption of civility in public life. American politics has not always revolved around humdrum social policies like health care and climate change. Indeed, Americans fought a bloody civil war over the constitutional issues of slavery and states’ rights. In the first Federalist Paper, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton argued that a Federal Constitution was a remedy for the “torrent of angry and malignant passions” in national debates. Bitter conflict and irreconcilable interests were regarded as the natural state of politics back in the early days of the Republic.
What surprises does the populist genie unleashed by Donald Trump have in store for America? Is the Capitol Hill invasion just a ugly aberration, or does it portend a constitutional crisis? It’s perilous to allow a significant minority to feel cancelled and disenfranchised — which, rightly or wrongly, is the way many Americans feel.