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Lessons for Europe from a surreal American Coup

By February 16, 2021No Comments

Somehow we all thought that when 2020 melted away into 2021, the world would wake up to a new reality, free of all the malaise, of Trump, Covid, lockdowns and distress. Alas, of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial and acquittal are yet another testament that this has not just been a bizarre bad dream, it really happened, and it’s still with us, and the bottom of the rabbit hole is indeed our new reality.

And so, in an effort to learn lessons from what we have lived through in these past years, Europe needs to pay attention to what happens across the pond, a point I’ve emphasised in previous columns here. Democracy follows similar patterns in different places, especially when authoritarians around the world are well coordinated and well resourced.  

So now, as Trump and the GOP get off Scott free, and Senators voted to absolve themselves from a coup they attempted and also got away from, here are a few lessons about the surreal reality we must come to terms with. Pro-democratic media outlets, liberals and progressives too often tell themselves the story they would prefer to hear, rather than confront uncomfortable and unpalatable conclusions. And yet.

 

  1.   Look at the trendlines, not the headlines. Face the bigger picture.

Everyone keeps talking about the Coup and insurrection in the US as if it was Trump’s doing, or a fringe segment of the Republican Party, or as if it happened on January 6. In fact, the US Coup was carefully planned and orchestrated by the GOP across the US, in Congress and in State governments and legislatures for months on end, if not years. Trump was simply too incompetent and sloppy in the execution of the act, and GOP leaders had to distance themselves just enough to divert attention away. The Coup and the 6 January attack on the Capitol does not belong to Trump or Ted Cruz, it belongs to Mitch McConnel.

The GOP spent months and years limiting the ability to cast mail ballots, or to vote at all, to limit capacity to count votes, or count them early. They happily went along with a total fiction that the election was rigged, and voter fraud (by mostly black voters of course) was a threat. They then packed the Supreme Court ahead of the elections, to be sure that any fabricated legal claim would land before a friendly bench. After the election all of the GOP, with almost no exceptions at all, went along with Trump’s bizarre claims in order to try to win Georgia. In the minutes before the Capitol attack, while white supremacists were breaking into the building, Mitch McConnel said that it was in fact Democrats who had undermined trust in elections, because they questioned the outcome in 2016.

The GOP set the stage carefully, and waited for Trump’s team to deliver a fabricated Bush v Gore victory. When that coup plan failed, the predictable violence that followed did not phase their support.

The world needs to urgently stop thanking Mike Pence for somehow “doing the right thing” in certifying the elections, he literally had no other possible recourse. Pence was part of the coup, Trump just decided to throw him under the bus. That makes Pence no less guilty.

Those who mistakenly go along with the narrative that Republicans are “afraid”, or somehow reluctantly acquiesce in Trumpism, or shift the blame to Trump, QAnon, or extremists, simply give them a free pass, and a chance to rehabilitate their reputations. All this has been a naked calculated power play from the GOP, a mercenary group that has no loyalties or ties to any set of values left. The Republicans who voted to acquit Trump are not cowards at all. On the contrary, they are bold-faced robber-barons with a calculated plans for authoritarian take over. They successfully drove away from the scene of the crime with their loot, and they’re ready for the next heist.

History shows us that when conservative forces abandon civic duty and embrace populist authoritarianism wholesale, then “the centre cannot hold.” Responsible liberals and conservatives alike must see this for what it is.

 

  1. They made it through

In recent years, we’ve seen over and over again that when far right nationalists make it to power, they are very difficult to vote out again. We’ve seen this with Turkey, Israel, Hungary, Poland, and the UK, to name a few. In the US, massive voter turnout and mobilisation, in spite of all the suppression, managed to get Trump out, and take back Congress. That is something for Europeans to rejoice in, learn from, and emulate.

  1. …. But only just

The entire Democratic strategy for the elections was to win big, so there was no way to dispute the election outcome. In fact, that didn’t happen. No matter how much Americans would like to feel better about Biden’s victory in the popular vote, that was not the strategy. In fact, the Democrats scraped it through by a hair in just about enough places, so that luckily the GOP could not find a way to force a legal battle, or enough momentum for a serious attempt by armed forces to get involved. Given the enormous increase in turn out for Trump, and the crisis situation of Covid and the economy, in an election without Covid, or had Trump handled the pandemic just slightly more reasonably, he would have likely been re-elected in a landslide.

Although Biden’s victory is fortunate, glossing over it as if it was a great success is an enormous disservice to democracy. There will need to be a lot of very hard thinking about how Trump almost won. Democrats must spend time and effort now in understanding why they did not win big under the circumstances if they want to prepare for the next round.

  1. The US Constitution and Institutions failed.

Trump is out of office, and despite of everything, a free and fair election took place, and so did a transition of power. It’s tempting to claim that the US Constitution held firm.

In some ways, the rigidity of the US electoral system, the set dates and procedures, the inert and immobile nature of its timings made a coup that much harder to execute. As a headline, yes that is where the Constitution stood its ground.  However, it takes a lot of wishful thinking to ignore the fact that no peaceful transition of power took place. There was a transition, but it was preceded by a violent insurrection.

For four long years, Trump was in breach of every possible rule and norm that could apply to a president. He was in violation of the Constitution from the very second he was sworn in as he was actively being bribed by foreign governments through his businesses. He committed treason publicly and grotesquely and flaunted it to the world with every enemy America could possibly ever have – the Nazis, the Confederates, Russia, Ukraine, China – like a comic book villain on steroids. He had a secret bank account in China and he employed his own children at the White House. He wanted to nuke a hurricane and inject people with bleach, he packed the Supreme Court, and fired the head of the FBI, the Attorney General and Defense Secretary whenever it suited his personal interests. All the while the GOP were trying to rig and steal an election by supressing votes and lying about voter fraud. What a laundry list.

And for all that, over 4 years, there were no checks or balances, no barriers, no brakes and no accountability, no justice – impeached twice, acquitted twice. What good are US institutions if they do not prevent this kind of outrage?

  1. US citizenship won

What did remove Trump from office was not the Constitutions, but people taking action and exercising their citizenship. Civil society organisations, movements, and organisers brought out voters inspite of all the risks and threat and won the elections. A resistance movement which started with the Women’s March in 2017 culminated in the victory in Georgia in 2021. These organisers, more than anyone else, deserve the credit for saving American democracy. This is why having active organised citizens matters. Stacey Abrams in Georgia proved that organising, mobilising and turning out can make the difference. An entire ecosystem of movements, nonprofits organisations, trade unions, businesses, and media outlets came together to prevent a coup and outbreak of violence. This experience has proven the indispensability of working together to defend democracy, a lesson that Europe urgently needs to learn.  

The reason that the US armed did not intervene on behalf of Trump in the elections, apart from his own lack of skill and competence at organising it, was their own commitment and civic duty. Whatever it says in the Constitution, at the end of the day, their identity as Americans, and the image Trump projected to them, did not allow them to get in a tank and roll in to support a strongman dictator. Had things panned out somewhat differently, they might have, but as it happened, they did not. Political culture matters here.

  1. It only works if you have resources

Large scale orgnaising and campaigning is expensive. Building up the kind of public sphere that enables the can of identity creation that brings about democratic participation takes resources and investment. Movements across the US could deploy hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve their goals.

Of course the amounts of money in American politics are obscene and are in themselves a danger to democracy, how it got to where it is. Of course the need to organise in the first place is a product of intentional political exclusion and a history of suppression. These are things Europeans can be very glad not to have to deal with. However, as a result, Americans put a value on civic engagement and invest in it. If these organisations had to follow long bureaucratic procedures for piecemeal microgrants, they would not have succeeded. A vibrant democracy requires resources, and the investment pays off when there is a need to push back authoritarians. Europe needs to learn the lessons and find the cash.

 

  1. You cannot replace education

Having said all that, with all of the organising that has been done in the US, it is clear election campaigns are not and cannot be a substitute for education. If they US had more inclusive and higher quality civic education programmes, it may well be that the Trump phenomenon would never have happened. If there were digital citizenship and media literacy education programmes for all ages that could provide training on disinformation and how to deal with it, that could have prevented the deluge of conspiracy theories and racist hate speech that has burgeoned. It would have saved the lives and well-being of the children in cages at the US-Mexican border, and the many thousands of people who were infected with Covid19 as a result of the infodemic.

Investment in education has never been so urgent, innovation in education has never been as necessary. This is something for governments, the European Union, civil society and the private sector to consider together. If we do not provide high quality digital civic education, what will our democracy look like? What will our workplaces look like? Our societal well-being and common prosperity are at stake.    

  1. There are no such things as “identity politics” or “political correctness”, end destructive debates.

The horrific gut-wrenching video of George Floyd’s murder brought to the digital world of the 21st century an American tradition none of us had seen in this medium before – a lynching. This was a murder for the sake of murder, one so many black American had suffered, and we thought had been consigned to history. Not so. In recent years, we have seen dozens of videos and cases of black men and women being shot by police. Philando Catille was shot seven times in his car next to his girlfriend and his daughter. Breona Taylor was shot eight times in her bed, and then left to die on her apartment floor with no medical assistance. Stephon Clarke was shot twenty times for holding a mobile phone. This list of killings for which there has been no justice goes on and on, and that is only a list of those we know about.

This context is what makes the 6 January insurrection that much more horrifying as a display of white supremacy.  As a violent mob carrying confederate flags broke their way into the Capitol, police officers at first opened gates and took selfies, they did not discharge a single weapon. A shot was fired only when rioters breached the Senate doors, and the woman who was hit was immediately rushed out for medical aid. Even as the rioters attacked and beat police, when lives were at risk, when a terrorist attack was clearly ongoing, Capitol police chose not to discharge their weapons and took a beating rather than escalate the violence. The heroic police officer Eugene Goodman, who diverted the mob from the Senate and saved Mitt Romney’s life chose to do so while running, rather than shooting. The same unspeakable force of white supremacy that put bullets into the bodies of black people who had done nothing wrong at all, protected these white people while they were carrying out a terrorist attack. This is not to say that US police force should shoot more people – on the contrary, it shows they can shoot less people if they want to.

There have been raging and outrageously silly debates in recent years about “identity politics” and “political correctness”. The latter is often treated as the greatest threat to human liberty, the former is treated as the ultimate obstacle to any attempt at serious policy making. If there is anything the Trump presidency has taught us is how futile these debates are.

Trump drew a repulsively clear connecting line between calling an ethnic group “criminals and rapists” and then putting them in cages. He showed that men who talk about “grabbing women” often talk that way because they feel legitimised to act that way. He showed that prevalent talk of Jewish space-lasers is also accompanied with murdering swastika carrying mobs on the street. So called “political correctness” is not about being offensive or not, it isn’t about being offended. It is about not inciting violence, and not getting anyone killed. It is about protecting society from violent extremists who want to do harm. It should not be called “correctness” at all, it should be called “preventing harm”.    

There is no distinction between “identity” politics and any other kind of politics. If a person’s skin colour, and the historical and social circumstances that come with it, have any link whatsoever with the likelihood of being shot, that “identity” is not a matter of choice, but a matter of life and death. If a person’s gender determines their prospects in life, including, say, their wages and career prospects, then it’s entirely intermingled with how much tax they pay, or what their wage is. There is no distinction between a serious politics about taxes and spending, and a frivolous politics about identity – they are part of the same package, where different people from different walks of life require different policy solutions to address their needs and interests.

  1. Wield power, not empty words. When you wield words, control the narrative.

The GOP have given the world a lesson in the shameless naked use of power, entirely stripped of any pretence, or fig leaves. They achieved the tax cuts they so desired, packed the Supreme Court, and cashed in their chips. All the while Trump entirely controlled the public debate with every tweet, news conference and rally.

Although they have become ever more detached from reality, the Republicans and Trump are always unified and on message. Whether the “Russia investigation was a witch-hunt” or there are “millions who believe that the elections were rigged” or “impeaching a former president would be unconstitutional”, they all parrot their lines to millions of Americans. Be in QAnon, or the Deep State or immigrant-criminal-gangs, whatever the lie, the story is loud and clear, and no one ever thinks twice about what “Making America Great Again” really means. The GOP have their story figured out, and they use it to manipulate their audience to shamelessly deploy power.

The Democrats on the other hand are never sure of what they are saying, or how they will use their power. They demand “Unity”, but half of the Democratic Party seem to believe that “Unity” means holding insurrectionists accountable, while the other half somehow still talk about “reaching across the aisle” to work with those who tried to burn down the House. In his speech immediately following the Capitol sacking, Chuck Schumer in one breath accused Trump of inciting violence and thanked the GOP leadership in the Senate for their cooperation and Vice President Pence for his gracious acquiescence in not trying to overthrow the Constitution. It was painfully clear that while GOP leaders used the cover of quaint Senate protocol as cover for total amorality, the Democrats used the out of touch decorum to delude themselves that somehow things were still ok, still normal.

While GOP Senators are terrified of their Trump-base booting them out, and they’re scared because they don’t control the narrative. Democratic Senators are holding America hostage to the filibuster or negotiations with the GOP. One or two democratic Senators hold the entire country hostage for fear of being outvoted from the right, and preventing the Democratic Caucus from exercising its power. The farce could not be a more painful mirror image.    

 

  1. Unity requires an agenda, and a compelling vision.

The call for unity and healing in the wake of crisis is admirable. However, Unity does not appear magically out of thin air. There has to be a successful unifying agenda  that is delivered successfully. It requires a narrative and a vision about it is that has to be achieved and why. After 5 years of chasing after Trump, it’s time to change things up and set a new narrative. “Unity” begs a question that the Biden administration has not yet answered.

Millions of people across the US organised and mobilised in the face of a grotesque attempt at a coup. Civil society, businesses, artists, trade unions, civic tech innovators, all came together around a common cause of a more democratic United States, to protect rights that were violated and demand a more prosperous future. They are the ones to look to and learn from. Europeans must do the same – organise across society and forge and vision and an agenda for a future together. 

Piece written by Omri Preiss, Managing Director at Alliance4Europe