On 6 January 2021, months of tensions came to a head as a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol Building. But how did America get to this point? What might lie ahead for the most powerful country in the world?
Striking at the Heart of American Democracy
In some of the most incredible scenes in the modern history of the United States, an armed mob, supportive of President Donald Trump, stormed the US Capitol Building on Wednesday 6 January. Amid chants of “USA” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!”, protesters stormed both chambers of Congress and multiple offices.
Hundreds of Congressmen and women and Senators were either forced to evacuate or barricade themselves deep inside the building as the police found themselves completely overwhelmed by the mob. As the District of Columbia went into lockdown, National Guard troops from Virginia and Maryland arrived to end the siege, along with backup from the nearby Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the President called his supporters “very special” and said that “we love you”. Trump also repeated the lie that the November election has somehow been “taken away from all of us – from me, from you, from all of us”. First Daughter Ivanka Trump took to Twitter to call the mob “American patriots” in a now-deleted tweet.
By the time the US Capitol Building had been secured, four people were dead.
From NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg, to the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara, to British TV chef Nigella Lawson, the world watched on agog as events unfolded in Washington DC.
But the events of 6 January had been brewing for months. But the runoff election in Georgia ensured that this was the day when the spark finally reached the touchpaper.
An Electoral Performance Piece
Even before the general election took place back in November, Trump was spreading baseless accusations that he would only lose the election were it to be “stolen”. Since the election was called for President-Elect Joe Biden, Trump has only stepped this rhetoric up – even taking his groundless accusations on the road at rallies across the country.
Trump and his team have launched legal challenges in multiple states – none have been successful. Simultaneously, Trump has whipped crowds into angry frenzies at rally after rally. Although the White House transition is now well underway, Trump does appear to have focused his attention on Georgia – more specifically, Georgia’s sixteen electoral votes.
On 3 January, a recording of a phone call was leaked. The previous day, the President had called Brad Raffensperger, the Republican Secretary of State for Georgia. In one of the most remarkable utterances by a sitting president in recent times, Trump ordered Raffensperger to “find [him] more votes”. In short, the President asked an elected official to dispose of enough votes for Biden so that he could win – even if only by a single vote.
From Atlanta to DC
In November, the Democrats won the White House and retained control of the House of Representatives. But the Senate remained in play, with neither party controlling the chamber – until 5 January.
On 5 January, voters in Georgia were presented with an unusually light ballot paper: two names in two runoff races. For the Republicans, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. For the Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
Throughout the runoff campaign, Loeffler, in particular, made incendiary statements in which she argued that her opponent Warnock was a “communist”, a “Marxist” and “part of the radical left” as he is supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. Given that Warnock himself is black – in fact, he is now the first black Senator from the Peach State – his support is hardly surprising.
It was not so much Loeffler’s rhetoric that threw a spanner in the proverbial works so much as it was the image it created. As a state senator, Loeffler was one of the more moderate Republicans. Yet no sooner had she been sworn in on Capitol Hill than her voting patterns swung rightwards to largely align with Trump’s views. In short, voters who had roundly backed Loeffler at the state level suddenly found her to be a female version of Trump. It might well be the case that Loeffler’s words ended up spilling over into the Perdue-Ossoff race.
There are probably very few voters who did not back either the Republicans or Democrats as a pair. It is very much possible that voters who were put off by Loeffler ultimately decided not to back Perdue either.
On the morning of Wednesday 6 January, as Congress prepared to formally certify Biden’s win, the two Georgian seats were called. The Democrats had won both races. By the narrowest margin possible, the Democrats had clawed back control of the Senate. Capitol Hill had gone entirely blue.
Not long after the races were called, Trump held a rally – the Save America rally – near the White House. Trump is now an outgoing, one-term president, but you could be forgiven for thinking that he was very much still fighting for a second term.
He brought the crowd to a fever pitch by once again saying that the election had been stolen from him, that Biden himself was complicit and that “if [Vice-President Pence] does the right thing, we win the election”. Then Rudy Giuliani – Trump ally and former Mayor of New York City – said to the crowd, “Let’s have trial by combat”.
It is nothing short of a miracle that that “trial by combat” did not result in the deaths or serious injury of any elected officials inside the US Capitol Building.
The Message and the Messenger
Trump lost the election, but, just as happened in 2016, he once again hugely outperformed his polls. For example, the Rust Belt state of Wisconsin flipped blue – just. Final pre-election polling had Biden on course for an 8.5% win in the Badger State. In the end, he carried it by just 0.6%.
This over-performance has helped Trump to hammer home his rhetoric – and it has been extremely effective. According to a December poll conducted by Fox News, 77% of Trump voters believe that the election was stolen. Bizarrely, 10% of Biden voters believe this as well. Trump has spent months not only amplifying these baseless claims, but actively encouraging them.
This leads to a simple, uncomfortable truth: in this election, the messenger lost, but the message won. Trump has set the precedent of seeking to overturn an American election. He has now also stirred up a mob to the point of violence.
The messenger lost, but the message won. Quite what this will mean for the United States, its body politic and its social relations cannot yet be known. The 2022 Midterms will be the first insight into what this new America – one in which Trumpian politics have become normalised – looks like and how it operates.
In the interim, Biden now faces an uphill battle on a new front: he needs to urgently turn down the temperature in the United States.
When the sun rose over Washington DC and the US Capitol Building on 7 January, the DC lockdown came to an end. But this was only the dawn on day one of an America that has now been profoundly tarnished – perhaps irreparably.