The writer holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington
The horrific attacks on the US Capitol that hordes of President Trump’s ardent supporters launched on Wednesday afternoon, and the shambolic response of the Capitol Hill police, has been a source of much glee to dictators across the world. Leaders in America’s principal adversaries, Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), are, in all likelihood, chortling with delight at the sight of American legislators squirming under their desks as a bunch of jack-booted and in some cases, armed thugs stormed the citadel of American democracy.
Their glee, however, may well prove to be quite short-lived. In the immediate term, they may well have staved off political protest through a range of legal and extra-legal measures. Consequently, their polities may appear to be islands of calm as compared to the messy, disorganised and turbulent features that sometimes grip democratic states.
The US, if one draws on a bit of historical perspective, has been through far, far worse. As most readers are no doubt well aware, it went through a vicious, sanguinary civil war between 1861 to 1865 which cost as many as 620,000 deaths. In the end, Union forces soundly beat the secessionist Confederacy and the unity of the country was maintained.
About a hundred years later, major US cities again exploded during the civil rights movement. While the bulk of the protestors used non-violent tactics that Martin Luther King and his associates, drawing on Gandhi, exemplified, a small segment of the movement resorted to violence. Beyond this fringe that engaged in violence, US cities also witnessed riots as marginalised black Americans subjected to widespread discrimination and abject living conditions in ghettoes, resorted to violence to express their discontent.
Scenes of looting, arson and burning ranged across television screens in American living rooms at dinnertime. In their wake, President Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967 which Otto Kerner Jr, a governor of the state of Illinois, chaired. Its report, published in 1968, was stark in its conclusions. It bluntly identified the sources of civil discord and attributed them to poverty and institutional racism. Its central message was equally stark as it stated that, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
Since then the US has taken ameliorative, if not sweeping steps, to address structural racial inequities. In 2008, the country elected a black president and returned him to office a second time in 2012. Unfortunately, his two terms in office proved threatening to a segment of America’s lower-middle class white population which feared, quite correctly, that their in-built racial privileges were now threatened. In considerable part, this resentment propelled Donald Trump to power in 2016.
During his four years in office, much of the institutional and societal progress that had been made in past decades on race relations has been forced to take a back seat. Jeff Sessions, a Senator from Alabama who could not previously be confirmed as a federal judge because of his avowedly racist views, was his first Attorney-General. Not surprisingly, Sessions did little or nothing to ensure vigorous enforcement of civil rights. He had once joked about the Ku Klux Klan, the vicious racist organisation, that they were “okay, until he learned they smoked marijuana.”
His successor William Barr didn’t have similar personal baggage, but was hardly known for his crusading zeal in enforcing civil rights laws. Worse still, Trump displayed no leadership on the issue whatsoever. Early in his term when neo-Nazis marched in the town of Charlottesville and killed a counter-protestor, Trump claimed “there were very fine people on both sides.” When last summer, in the wake of multiple police shootings of black men and women under questionable circumstances, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement took to the streets to protest, Trump referred to it as a “symbol of hate.”
Given his Justice Department’s scant interest in implementing existing legislation to address racial bias and his intemperate and hostile statements on race relations, it’s hardly surprising that racial cleavages in the country steadily widened. More to the point, it gave leave to various white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys to flex their muscles with considerable impunity.
All these forces, aided and abetted from the highest quarter of the land, culminated in the dastardly attack on the Capitol on the very day when Congress had to meet to certify presidential election results. With at least half a dozen Senators and over a hundred members of the House of Representatives ready to question the election results on utterly specious grounds, Trump’s thuggish supporters felt sufficiently buoyed to attack the Capitol grounds.
This appalling attack notwithstanding, the bulk of the country has recoiled in horror. Well-known conservative political commentators, especially Bret Stephens of The New York Times, have called for Trump’s impeachment. Others in the House of Representatives, including the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, have expressed a willingness to consider such a strategy even though Trump has less than two weeks in office.
President-elect Biden has unequivocally condemned what transpired on January 6. These reactions are indicative that despite the racial divisions that haunt American society all is not lost. America’s democratic institutions, norms and leadership are capable of meeting the furies that Trump and his acolytes unleashed. Those gloating over the events of January 6 may soon see their unbridled joy evaporate.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.