Remembering extremism and assault on US democracy -- one year on

Muhammad Zamir | Sunday, 16 January 2022

United States Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking ahead of President Biden at the US Capitol, Washington, DC, USA on  January 6 this year, compared January 6, 2021 to September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda hijackers flew airliners into the World Trade Centre towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. Harris commented that "the extremists who roamed these halls targeted the lives of elected leaders". She added that they also "sought to degrade and assault the values, the ideals that generations of Americans have marched, picketed, and shed blood to establish and defend."

United States President Biden's address which followed that of Kamala Harris also carefully recalled the insurgent and militant attack on the US Capitol Hill on that date last year. His nuanced, blunt and frank address was meant for the USA. However, the rest of the world -- both political leaders as well as analysts -- followed it with great care through the electronic media, the print media and the social media.

During the course of his significant speech Biden returned to the fundamentals on which he had built his successful presidential campaign in 2020 -- that he had dedicated himself towards leading a battle for the "soul" of the nation. "We must decide: What kind of nation are we going to be?" Biden said, beseeching his compatriots to fight for their democracy as a "great nation" should. "Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm? Are we going to be a nation where we allow partisan election officials to overturn the legally expressed will of the people? Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth, but in the shadow of lies?" "We cannot allow ourselves to be that kind of nation. The way forward is to recognise the truth and to live by it," the President said.

It may be recalled that in 2020, Trump had refused to accept the outcome of the presidential election that Biden won by a decisive margin of seven million popular votes and 306 to 232 margin in the US's Electoral College.

Biden's speech of this year has been hailed by some analysts as important as the Gettysburg Address delivered by the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln when he urged his nation in 1863 to rededicate itself, at a time when democracy was under existential threat, to the "unfinished work" of preserving the government "of the people, for the people, by the people."

At the beginning of 2022, Biden noted that he was speaking from the National Statuary Hall, where Lincoln sat at desk 191 when that space hosted the House of Representatives. He similarly defined that same national quest as Abraham Lincoln pertaining to saving "the right to vote, the right to govern ourselves, the right to determine our own destiny."

Biden's speech also presented a strategic shift of tone. Earlier, after assumption of his Presidency, Biden had tried to deprive former President Trump of a feature that Trump craved the most-- attention. However, one year later,  senior Democrats have noticed that Trump may now have a tighter grip on the Republican Party than ever before. Trump, according to Stephen Collinson, is now making the 2022 midterm elections a platform for his dangerous lies that his second term was stolen. He, according to some civil society leaders, is also trying to build the infrastructure of a 2024 campaign for a return to the White House that would likely make his aberrant previous term seem a paragon of legality.

Biden did not mention Trump by name but went hard at his rival. Exhibiting anger that has been absent from his leadership in recent months, he identified areas where through connotations and nuances he could hurt the Republican efforts.  He reminded his predecessor that he was a loser who had lost the last national elections by more than 7 million votes. In this context he reminded Trump to focus more on truth, his country's interest, democracy and the US Constitution rather than only on self-obsession.

Biden also alleged that the Republican followers of Trump, who had attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2020 had not shown patriotism for American values but only rage in support of one person--Trump.  In this context, one year later, Biden reminded the rest of the world that "This is not a land of kings or dictators or autocrats. We're a nation of laws; of order, not chaos; of peace, not violence."

Biden and Harris's speeches were among several ceremonial remembrances organised and attended by mainly Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol. Almost every Republican was absent, a mark of the division between the two parties over the meaning of the riot that happened a year ago.

Political scientists are now pointing out that Biden will have to do more in meaningfully arranging the passing of two bills that has been held up in the Senate for some time-- the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. There are some roadblocks that have been apparently holding back this dynamic. That includes his social spending plan associated with voting reform. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who oppose reforming the Senate filibuster that allows Republicans to block the bills in the 50-50 Senate are crucial players in this regard. It is expected that the President will now increase pressure on those two Senators. One has to wait and see what happens.

However, it needs to be noted that Biden's speech has not been accepted or endorsed by certain important Republican political figures that last year had differed in their opinions with Trump. This includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who had earlier labeled the attackers as "criminals" and laid total responsibility for the attack at Trump's feet.  Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham, who last year, had denounced Trump on Jan 6 and declared that he'd had "enough" of the then President's antics, is now in total subservience to Trump. He, instead of support, has termed this year's speech of Biden as "brazen politicisation of January 6." There has been also silence from Republicans like Missouri Senator Roy Blunt and Representative Ann Wagner of Ballwin.

Social media and the electronic media have for quite some time, over the last year, been following with anxiety and concern the growing evolving scenario in the United States relating to the US far-right threat.

Chris Arsenault in this context has noted that as a follow-up of what happened in the Capitol Hill attack on January 6 last year, there is apprehension that far-right groups who side with the Republican Party might become responsible for more domestic 'terror attacks'. This might intensify as political polarisation grows with the up-coming US midterm elections.

The insurrection in 2021 on January 6, which led to five deaths and more than 700 persons being charged with violent crime has forced security services to take the threat of the far-right more seriously, according to Jason Blazakis, a former US Department of State counterterrorism official now with the Soufan Group, a New York-based research centre. He has suggested that security officials now consider that a lone-wolf style attack might happen that could have an osmotic effect. This is because hundreds of thousands of individuals across the USA subscribe to a far-right ideology. Reference in this context has been made to the 2019 massacre of Latinos at a Texas Walmart and the killing of 11 persons at a Synagogue in 2018 by a gunman who had expressed anti-Semitic views.

Arie Perliger, a criminology professor at the University of Massachusetts with expertise in far-right extremism has expressed a different view. Perliger thinks that the relevant security authorities should be more concerned about militia cells or loose-knit networks of conspiracy theorists working underground within the USA. It has also been acknowledged by the criminologist that it is "harder to identify them and thwart their plans".

It is understood that this assuring of security in the United States has also become slightly difficult because some of the security services have been infiltrated because they contain personnel with far-right sympathies. CSIS research in this context, as revealed by the electronic media, has indicated that the prevalence of attacks on US soil linked to active-duty and reserve personnel rose in 2020 to 6.4 per cent, up from 1.5 per cent in 2019 and zero in 2018. It may also be mentioned that according to the National Public Radio database of the people charged over the January 6 insurgency in 2021, at least 13 per cent had ties to the military or law enforcement.

Biden in his speech has very carefully and correctly underlined this. Harrowing violence, mobs attacking police, forcing themselves past police barricades, hunting the Speaker of the House, smashing windows and doors and marauding through the hallways, threatening to hang senior political figures are not features that can be accepted by any country.

Such a trend is demeaning for the USA which is held in high esteem for its support for democratic norms, transparency, accountability, right to information and freedom of speech.

One needs to conclude after referring to an interesting reference made by media analyst Anthony Zurcher regarding potential involvement of the White House itself in organising the January 6 rallies last year. Apparently, Bennie Thompson, the Chair of the congressional investigation, recently set out some of what his Committee is trying to learn about the Washington DC rallies that served as a precursor to the attack on the Capitol. This search is focusing on "who organised, planned, paid for and received funds related to those events, as well as what communications organisers had with officials in the White House and Congress". One of those organisers, far-right conservative activist Ali Alexander, has already testified to the Committee and said that he was in touch with the White House and Republican members of Congress ahead of time.

The exact nature of these contacts has however not yet been publicly revealed. President Biden, will hopefully, pursue this more proactively after his unforgettable speech.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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