On January 6, 2021, one of the greatest physical attacks on modern democracy occurred with the violent disruption of the 2020 presidential election certification at the U.S. Capitol. Trump supporters broke through Capitol police lines, endangered government leaders, and threatened the peaceful transfer of power in America. They were inspired after being fed the “Big Lie” that the election was fraudulent, and that Trump won in a landslide, despite there being no factual evidence that this occurred. The insurrection commenced after Trump’s “Save America” rally held in D.C. and was incited by Trump’s call to white supremacist groups and other radical groups to “save our democracy.” Below, I analyze Trump’s response to the Capitol attack along with the continued enabling of his anti-democratic behavior perpetuated by the Republican party since his election, and even after his incitement of an insurrection threatening American democracy. In order to understand this aspect, there also must be an investigation of what allowed him to be elected to office in the first place. If Republicans resisted Trump, the disruption of the peaceful power transfer on January 6th would not have occurred. Continued enabling of authoritarian practices by the Republican party combined with Trump’s incitement and response to the attack are key aspects of the ongoing erosion of U.S. democracy.
The “Save America” rally held before the attack assisted in riling up Trump’s supporters before the initiation of the insurrection. Trump ostensibly organized this rally in relation to his baseless claims of mass voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Before, during, and even after the rally, he had egged his supporters on, arguably inciting them to attack the Capitol. For instance, he told supporters at his January 6th rally “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” Also during this rally, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, made the incendiary statement “let’s have trial by combat.” Hours after the Capitol attack ensued, Trump tweeted “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from the great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love and in peace. Remember this day forever!” (New York Times, 2021, January 6 Committee, 2022).
With rare exceptions, such as Liz Cheney, Republican party leadership has continually enabled Trump’s anti-democratic behavior, even when they had the power to stop these obstructions of democracy, as “extremist figures have dotted the landscape of American politics, but our political parties themselves have been able to gatekeep democracy from them” (Levitsky, Ziblatt, 2017). The theory contributing to Trump’s initial election are these failures of tests of democracy. Most striking were Senate Leader McConnell and House Leader Kevin McCarthy’s reversal of position on the January 6th topic. After initially condemning the attack, they quickly resumed support for Trump and others claiming election fraud. They also sanctioned leader Cheney for her continued criticism of Trump’s Big Lie and the January 6th attack on democracy.
Even established democracies such as America are vulnerable to the emergence of demagogues, and “an essential test of this kind of vulnerability isn’t whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power” (Levitsky, Ziblatt, 2017). Throughout the presidential campaign for the 2016 election, it became apparent that no other major presidential candidate in modern U.S. history had demonstrated a weaker public commitment to constitutional rights and democratic norms than Donald Trump. Rather than continuing to support Trump as their candidate once he surpassed the primaries (that he did not win in a landslide either), Republican leaders could have “broken decisively with Trump, warning Americans that he posed a threat to democratic institutions, [and] he might never have won the presidency” (Levitsky, Ziblatt, 2017). Each political party has a duty to uphold democracy, which also means checking those who wish to represent the party as the presidential candidate. This is of utmost importance today, as swaying public opinion is more beneficial for winning an election, opposed to candidates from the past having to work their way up through a party to earn a presidential nomination after acquiring multitudes of political experience and expertise. During the election cycle for 2016 and 2020, even after four years of presidential turmoil, the Republican party continued to back Trump, and even helped spread the “Big Lie”. The largest failure of the Republican party was not checking Trump as he had no previous political experience and posed an obvious threat to democracy with his lack of regard for democratic norms and institutions. In other words, the Republican party failed this test of democracy as they did not gatekeep democracy itself from the demagogic Trump, despite having the institutional power to do so.
The continued Trump support after January 6th can be attributed to the appeal of populism which arguably stems from disinformation spread and cynical politicians putting self-interest ahead of democracy. Trump’s incitement of, and response to, the January 6th Capitol insurrection mirrored the populist rhetoric that he utilized throughout his presidential campaigns. The theory that can help explain the appeal of Trump and help understand the incitement and response to the Capitol attack, is the rise of populism.
According to Cas Mudde, understanding populism requires the understanding of first, monism. Monism is the idea that all people are the same and have the same interests and values, which is why “the elite” are not called “the elites” (plural). Under populism, “the elite” are all identical and one corrupt body. Because of the idea of monism and the identical elite, “the main distinction for populism is moral” (Mudde, min. 4:30). The moral distinction is what allowed for Trump to be the voice of the people, since populism arises from “the people” being told that everyone is the same morally, so it does not matter if they have money or power. “Trump can pretend to be the voice of the people, because despite [his] wealth, [he] is actually one of them” (Mudde, min. 5). Trump appeals to morals, not simply interests, which is a defining characteristic of populism.
Even after the FBI labeled the Capitol attack as domestic terrorism, there still remained Republican office holders who proceeded to vote for “the lie that had forced them to flee their chambers” (Snyder, 2021). His populist rhetoric had a tendency to appeal to the masses from a psychological standpoint, as “populism thrives on people’s feeling of a lack of political power, a belief that the world is unfair and that they do not get what they deserve – and that the world is changing too quickly for them to retain control” (Arrizabalaga, 2016). This was especially felt as the certification of the election would mark the time that Trump and his empathizers in office would lose their power. Trump fed into the moral distinction that he and his supporters were being undermined by the very institutions that uphold democracy.
Trump’s statements on January 6th continually held populist rhetoric, with declarations stating, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol” and “We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one very, very basic and simple reason: to save our democracy.” He grouped all of the insurrectionists with himself under the umbrella term of “great patriots,” and even said he would march with them down to the Capitol; however, he did not end up doing this. Trump was pushing the idea that “the elite,” or those certifying the election results, were corrupt and undermining the will of “the people” which grouped Trump together with his radical followers, portraying them as the same body that was suffering.
An important insight from Mudde is that “populism has always been a part of the U.S. political culture” (Mudde, min. 26). When interpreting the Constitution, and more specifically the beginning phrase “We The People,” it has long been assumed that the Founders really trusted the people. In reality, the Founders distrusted the people and made it so “the people never had the last word” (Mudde, min 26). This is why institutions like the Electoral College exist. Trump came to power through winning the Electoral College vote despite losing the popular vote. The Electoral College is the sole determinant as to who becomes the Executive, essentially overriding the will of the people. The system was designed so “the people” did not make the wrong choice, and “the elite” had the final say, which was supposed to prevent the wrong, or potentially harmful, candidate from being elected president. This contributes to the irony of Trump’s victory on behalf of the Electoral College, as they chose a man whom the institution was designed to protect against. Populist rhetoric helped elect Trump, and populism ingrained in the founding of our nation, stemming from “We the people,” is responsible for the creation of these institutions which allowed him to hold office.
The events of January 6th were enabled by a lack of checks on Trump from the Republican party. They had the power to gatekeep democracy with the power vested in them by the Founders under the guise of populism, however they failed to do so, allowing a man to enter office who in turn exacerbated the democratic issues that already existed in our nation. The failures of the tests of democracy and the rise of populism have enabled anti-democratic behavior from our elected leaders. Democracy has already eroded into violence with the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and unless accountability becomes a regular practice of government work, there may be darker days ahead.
“A Timeline of What Donald Trump Said before the Capitol Riot.” Poynter. N.p., 11 Feb. 2021. Web. 9 June 2022.
Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol | Visual Investigations. New York Times, 2021. Film.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (Dec., 2017). “How a Democracy Dies.” The New Republic.
Lewandowsky, Stephan. “Why Is Populism Popular? A Psychologist Explains.” The Conversation. N.p., 2016. Web.
Snyder, Timothy. “The American Abyss.” The New York Times 9 Jan. 2021. NYTimes.com. Web. 9 June 2022.
The Rise of Populism: From Le Pen to Trump with Cas Mudde. N.p., 2017. Film.