January 6th, 2021 is a date that future students of American (and global) history will likely have to remember by heart. It is not “a day that will live in infamy”, at the standards of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but it certainly holds its historical significance as a representation and a microcosm of the days and years that America is living.
We do not yet have the vantage point of a future student, looking back on this event, so we can only guess at what the implications of this watershed event may be. However, by looking at the past few years, even beyond the Trump presidency which many have blamed for the further polarization of America’s policies, and at the immediate response following the storming of the US capitol, some conclusions that can be drawn. Out of the many, including the direct impact of the event on the lives of the five fatalities as well as the potential for a successful conviction of Trump on the grounds of incitement of insurrection, the most consequential implication is the impact it will have on the polarization of politics in the United States.
The story of polarization in America is a lengthy and complex one, which arguably began with the formation of the Tea Party Movement, in 2009, based on the idea of taking Republican ideas to the extreme. However, one thing that is important is that equal ‘blame’ is given to both sides of the aisle in reaching the current political situation – it would be naïve to say that Republicans alone are the cause of the extremizing of American politics. In fact, Democrats themselves have benefitted from a more polarized society by attracting more “on the fence” voters, especially among minorities, who are now forced to make an identity choice, more than a political choice when deciding who to vote for. It is also instrumental for the understanding of where America is heading next, to lay a fair share of the causal responsibility to the media. Once again, an argument can be made for Fox News being the first to radicalize public information. However, it is undeniable that other, more liberal news networks have largely benefitted from a more loyal market share that exclusively receives its news from the various CNN, MSNBC and ABC, to name a few.
To many this increased polarization is what brought Trump to win the White House in 2016 (this is beyond the scope of this discussion or this article would be more of a position paper). Jump forward four years and you reach the storming of the US Capitol; the climax of the Trump presidency; the immediate result of an inflammatory speech given at the “Save America Rally” in Washington D.C. a few moments prior to the fatal events of January 6th.
Before the consequences of the event, a few aspects of the causes must be cleared up. Trump did not win the 2020 election. His speech was if not blatantly filled with lies, dangerously ambiguous regarding what he claimed had actually happened during the election and what he wanted his supporters to do about it. His speech led to the storming of the US Capitol. These points are beyond doubt.
However, the immediate aftermath of the event is where the waters become murky, and media takes center stage. CNN was fast to denounce Trump as the main motivator of the attack. However, damage started to be made when CNN proceeded to implicitly blame all of Trump’s supporters, and the Republican party as a whole, for the events that took place. Many other ‘liberal’ news networks did the same, or similar. Fox News was on the other end of the spectrum, failing, or at least delaying, to denounce the rioters as posing a serious threat to democracy and being in the wrong. Both these responses were, objectively, completely wrong. The next step was taken by Twitter in deleting Trump’s account and banning him from the platform indefinitely – a move that was perhaps justified in the immediate reasoning of limiting his inflammatory rhetoric, but that creates a dangerous precedent for the monopoly of information that social media companies are able to hold.
These are just two examples to show that the events that followed the storming of the Capitol have, just like the events that led to it, only increased polarization in the country. Nothing is being done to heal the divide that has been created. Instead, finger pointing is running rampant on both sides of the political aisle – for Democrats this is particularly easy: point at Trump and hope that with his non-reelection and potential impeachment the problem will disappear. It is fairly easy to see that it won’t, if anything for the simple reason that over 74 million Americans voted for him.
In an article on fivethirtyeight.com, Maggie Koerth, a senior writer, claimed that Trump was certainly radicalizing the right more, but at the same time he was very much a symptom of feelings that were already there. For me, those same feelings will live long after he’s gone and the reason why is the very behavior that is being carried out now not only by the media, but by Democrats in general. Trump has been more of a torch that illuminates the darkness of a cave that was unexplored than a sorcerer that has conjured up evil warriors from thin air. The result of his presidency has simply been the coming to light of a large portion of American citizens that were always there, and it is dangerous, now, to write them off as being dependent on Trump to be a true political force.
Perhaps, the point of no return has already been crossed. The way the media makes money today is by radicalizing every political event. The way politics are played today is by forcing people to make a decision that has thousands of implications beyond just evaluating the policies offered by a politician. Social norms dictate that once you are on the other side, you are exiled forever. The result has been already fairly evident. There are fewer borderline voters and both sides believe they are morally, ethically, politically and socially in the right whereas the “others” are disgustingly and dangerously in the wrong. Blaming all of Trump’s supporters and the Republican party for the assault on the Capitol is just the continuation of this existing trend, just like blaming the Democrats for stealing the election. And perhaps the even more concerning aspect of those two things is that either side can find an easy justification for its own belief, and equally repudiate the other as being blatantly false and simply a spread of misinformation. For this reason, I find it difficult to see a clear path back to a time where politics were politics, and parties and politicians were chosen for their political ideas, and not for what their parties represent from an ethnic and deeply ideological point of view.
Having said that, losing sight of the positive impact that the storming of the US Capitol has brought is equally naïve. The most superficial impact can be seen in the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in the House of Representatives. That is ten more than the number of Republicans that voted for his impeachment in the first round. Needless to say, it is an important step towards returning to a place where constitutionalism and devotion to the country overtake the devotion to a political party. Perhaps more deeply, the impact has been felt in the conversations that took place during the siege of the US Capitol between Republican and Democrat Senators and Representatives. It was reported that a number of them expressed a wish to return to a time where politics were politics. Maybe this is the key and there certainly can be hope that these politicians will return to doing politics as it should be done. However, things may well change when they return on the campaign trial, because their base is still largely made up of those very same 74 million Republicans (and some independents) that voted for Trump in November 2020.
Perhaps, then, that is where America should focus its energies. Forget the useless political commentary brought forth by those on the Hill and in the media and instead concentrate on rebuilding bridges with their neighbors, friends and family members. It seems crazy to say, but most Americans should just come to terms with the idea that others see things differently from them, and that is what the United States is built upon. In fact, to continue building towards a better and stronger US, the best way is for its citizens to have the flexibility to vote upon the policy, and candidate, that best represents them, in order to always reach a position where the majority decision must be at least somewhat right, and not just passed because Democrats outnumber Republicans, or vice versa, in a certain area. Maybe, just maybe, the storming of the Capitol can be a reminder of the threat that America runs when it radicalizes and pushes people away from each other, and, as such, a motivator that pushes people back to open political discourse and understanding, and not just shaming and baseless disagreement.
Cover image by TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.