Back in 2018, I stood in a draughty aircraft hangar in Huntingdon, West Virginia, watching Donald Trump address his devoted supporters. It was the final week of the mid-term elections, and he was upbeat. His speech began as a standard brew of US new-dawn optimism, mixed with casual slaps at his Democratic opponents.
Then it turned. As I wrote at the time: ‘His tone, and the mood, changes. He begins regaling the crowd with a blood-curdling description of the migrants marching towards America’s border. They are violent offenders, sexual offenders, murderers, he warns. “Do we let them in?” he asks. “Build the wall!” the crowd chants in response.’
The violent mob that marched on the US Capitol last week did so for one reason. Their President told them to. And he’s been telling them to since day one of his presidency. ‘Lock her up!’ The ‘very fine’ Nazis of Charlottesville. ‘Stand by,’ Proud Boys. ‘Don’t show weakness, show strength’.
The violent mob that marched on the US Capitol (pictured) last week did so for one reason
It was only ever a matter of if, not when, America’s far-Right thugs – those Trump told after their onslaught that ‘we love you, you’re very special’ – would heed their commander-in-chief’s call to arms.
Over the past few days, those of us in the UK have been looking with complacent horror at the assault in the US capital. ‘Thank God he’s nearly gone,’ we have told ourselves. Followed swiftly by: ‘And thank God something like that couldn’t happen here.’
It could. First, people are completely misunderstanding the Trump phenomenon. He has always been the opportunistic appropriator – not instigator – of the vicious forces that have torn his nation asunder. America’s racial tensions. The culture war. The class war.
First, people are completely misunderstanding the Trump (pictured) phenomenon. He has always been the opportunistic appropriator – not instigator – of the vicious forces that have torn his nation asunder. America’s racial tensions. The culture war. The class war
‘What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?’ he asked black America in 2016. ‘You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 per cent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?’
Secondly, and more importantly, people are failing to recognise how those forces are global. And that unless we all stop and take a step back, the scenes we saw on Capitol Hill are destined to be repeated here just as surely as a night-time curfew follows day.
The insurrection launched by Trump and his allies against the 2020 US election had several components. But one of the most significant is one we’ve become all too familiar with. The withdrawal of ‘loser’s consent’, that basic principle that allows democracy to function.
Over the past few days, those of us in the UK have been looking with complacent horror at the assault in the US capital. Pictured: Police use tear gas guns to disperse pro-Trump protesters
Despite a decisive defeat, Trump told his fanatical followers the election had been ‘stolen’ from them. He claimed they were victims of malfeasance and deception. Of a conspiracy launched by foreign actors. He took to the courts to get the results overturned. He demanded the US legislature defy centuries of convention. And when all that failed, he urged people to take to the streets.
Liberal Britain does not want to hear it, but that is exactly what we’ve seen here in the four long years since the Brexit referendum. Court challenges. Wild conspiracies about Putin and Cambridge Analytica. The upending of settled parliamentary procedure by a partisan Speaker. Cabinet Ministers and their families being escorted from Brexit debates by a phalanx of police as protesters chanted ‘Nazi’, ‘traitor’ and ‘scum’. There is no moral or practical equivalence between those who have continued to oppose Brexit, and those who violently smashed their way into Congress.
But US democracy had been under sustained attack for two months before the Rotunda was stormed. And the idea that the democratic will of the majority can be defied, just so long as the cause of the minority is noble, has now been embedded in our own body politic.
Unless we all stop and take a step back, the scenes we saw on Capitol Hill are destined to be repeated here just as surely as a night-time curfew follows day. Pictured: Riot police push back a crowd after they stormed the US Capitol
It has also been interred at precisely the moment another democratic cornerstone is crumbling. Namely our current inability to rest our political discourse upon even the most basic foundation of truth and fact.
Trump attempted to cling to power by peddling one of the biggest lies in Western political history – the claim he was a victim of a stolen election at precisely the moment he was trying to steal one himself.
‘I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,’ he pleaded to Georgia election officials. But it was buttressed by a thousand smaller lies. Fraudulent voting machinery. Destroyed ballots. Fifty thousand Trump voters turned away from the polls. Not one of them was true. But again, we can see a similar attempt to eviscerate reality unfolding here in the UK – the idea the Covid crisis is some great hoax. Soaring infections are simply a result of more testing and false positives. Rising hospitalisation figures can be accounted for by asymptomatic people with broken legs. Deaths are simply the unfortunate annual by-product of any winter flu season.
It’s not true. As Boris told the Commons, ‘this mutation, spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public, has led to more cases than we have ever seen before’. He later ordered the Covid-sceptics to ‘grow up’. ‘You’ve heard about the pressure the NHS is under and we’ve all got to do our bit responsibly to protect it,’ he chided.
But as we saw in Washington, the debate is no longer being led by grown-ups. It’s being dominated by those who refuse – in the face of all evidence – to step beyond the warm embrace of their own tribe.
But as we saw in Washington, the debate is no longer being led by grown-ups. It’s being dominated by those who refuse – in the face of all evidence – to step beyond the warm embrace of their own tribe. Pictured: Protesters broke windows to access the US Capitol
On Thursday, former Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell condemned Trump’s supporters. ‘We have got to stand together on this one now because we can’t allow… proto-fascism to be developed anywhere,’ he intoned. This is the same John McDonnell who praised students for ‘kicking the s***’ out of Conservative HQ as ‘the best of our movement’.
Anyone who seriously thinks we are insulated through our signature British moderation from the anarchy we saw last week is deluding themselves. And they’re forgetting a key fact.
Trump’s assault on US democracy failed. But it failed because he was repulsed by a codified system of checks and balances constructed with the specific purpose of defying a demagogue like him. We have no such protection here in the UK. I still remember the increasingly fantastical stratagems being floated back in 2019, as people became ever more desperate to end our Brexit purgatory. Some Ministers were debating use of the Civil Contingencies Act to force it through, I was briefed. Other journalists were told Boris would defy any no-confidence vote and squat in Downing Street. Remainer MPs were spotted sneaking into John Bercow’s chambers to discuss their latest plot for seizing power from the Government of the day.
In the end, the sort of anarchy we have witnessed in Washington was avoided. But only just. Imagine for a second if Boris’s dramatic Election gamble had failed. If the result had not been a decisive majority for getting Brexit done, but a hung parliament and continued Brexit obstructionism. How much longer would it have taken for the toxic pressures that were building up to finally explode?
I fear it wouldn’t have taken long. My usual seat in the parliamentary press gallery sits facing the Opposition benches. On the wall is a plaque with the names of fallen members. One of them bears the name Jo Cox.
The 2021 Trump putsch was ultimately repulsed. But only after the US’s most sacred institutions were brutally defiled. It couldn’t happen here? Unless people on all sides of the political divide take time to reflect on what we witnessed last week, it’s again not a matter of if, but when.