The threat of political violence is looming large in the US and it's likely to get worse in the coming days as Trump supporters continue to believe in his Big Lie about a stolen election.
When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me ‘’American politics is not a bloodsport.’’
This was in the late 1990s, when partisanship was becoming more and more severe over irreconcilable differences like reproductive rights and the role of religion in public life. It was also around the same time of the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.
On Thursday, Americans woke up to the second impeachment in 13 months of their current president, Donald Trump, who’s due to leave office January 20 when Joe Biden becomes the 46th president. He’s the only president to ever be impeached twice, the equivalent of an indictment from the lower House set to be ruled on by the US Senate as a 100 member jury. It’s a legal process set up in the Constitution to avoid a violent confrontation over a ruler not fit for office.
As I’ve grown older, I realise now that my dad was talking less about a fact and more about an aspiration for American politics. Even if in his own life he had witnessed a succession of assassinations and political violence in the 1960s and 1970s, he hoped the future would be one where politicians did not have to fear for their lives while doing their jobs.
Out of 535 members of the House of Representatives, 232 voted for impeachment. All Democrats voted to impeach, joined by 10 Republicans.
Most Republicans have argued that impeachment unnecessarily increases the tension in the country. Democrats respond by saying that letting a president stir up such anger is an untenable precedent, and that failing to impeach the president would be bowing to intimidation by domestic terrorists.
Armed protests at state capitols across the US set for Saturday and Sunday are a American history manifesting itself as a ruthless gangster, uncompromising and unwilling to negotiate. Trump’s second impeachment happens not just as the clock ticks down on his administration, but as the resentments and rivalries of the past arrive to collect unpayable debts. As with any debts, however, the amount owed depends on time.
‘’Impeachment may trigger civil violence. However, the chances of doing so are less if it happens after Trump transfers power to Biden. Partly because of what Trump supporters will expect from the state security forces,’’ Vasabjit Banerjee, an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University studying elections and political violence, told TRT World.
In other words, Trump’s most violent supporters may be more intimidated by a Biden administration. In the near future, however, they could decide to carry out attacks on what Trump likes to call ‘’Democrat-run cities.’’
‘’The question is whether such violence by Trump supporters will be in the capital or at state capitals and other cities that are perceived as areas controlled by Biden supporters?’’ Banerjee added. ‘’If the latter occurs, then that may be the start of a long series of loosely connected, localised insurgencies.’’
The leader of the far-right nationalist group The Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, said as much on the group’s Telegram channel, the Washington Post reported. Tarrio has also been charged with destroying a Black Lives Matter sign at a Washington DC church and carrying illegal ammunition inside the city.
“We won’t sit on our hands for the next four years but we can pick and choose our battles moving forward,’’ Tarrio wrote, according to The Post.
The Proud Boys are a nationalist, pro-Trump gang founded in 2016 by a notorious Canadian-born “Western chauvinist’’ with a long history of Islamophobic statements. One member was recently arrested by federal authorities and found to be carrying more than 1,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, Univision reports.
Under the cloud of the potential for violent sedition, Trump’s impeachment trial will now likely take up the oxygen in congress during the first weeks of Biden’s presidency. And while rebuking a rogue executive, more concrete measures are necessary to reduce the threat of civil violence overall. Biden will have the advantage of his party being in control of the White House and the legislature, but his success remains a question mark.
‘’If Democrats give people lots of money and Biden uses the federal bureaucracy to do basic public health stuff, implement a halfway competent national vaccine rollout, I think the temperature will drop,’’ Alex Yablon, a journalist who covers the risk of political violence in the US.
But Yablon noted that the prospect of new gun control measures could backfire at such an intensely tense time, which looks like it won’t be a priority for the Biden administration. Biden on Thursday announced a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, including a $15 dollar minimum wage, subsidies to help women get back into the workforce.
That cash may help alleviate the suffering of the eight million Americans who’ve slid into poverty during the pandemic. It may do something to dent unfocused waves of rage that lead to mass shootings over the last twenty years. But those atrocities occurred even during periods of strong economic growth. The antibiotic regimen of economic stimulus will take a long time to complete.
And those tremors now appear now to be aligned and amplified with a political purpose, instead of pure alienation and misanthropy. And those twin phenomena working in tandem, have created a recipe for potential violence against lawmakers not seen since the 1960s and 1970s.
The relative lull in assassinations and assassination attempts may be ending, although beefed up security details have made those deadly bids harder to achieve, a more ruthless and paranoid political climate appears to have increased the potential energy of deadly violence. Even if all of these bids fail, it still makes it harder for any politicians to declare they’ve voted their conscience.
Evidence of the danger is in the measures taken to secure Biden’s inauguration, a transfer of power that has not seemed as fragile since 1877, in the aftermath of the civil war. There are 20,000 national guard soldiers stationed at and around the US Capitol building to secure the transition of power next week. They’ll be the main in-person audience to hear Lady Gaga singing the national anthem under such surreal circumstances.
That’s a higher number of armed troops than the US military maintains in Iraq or Afghanistan combined. When Trump promised to end endless US wars overseas, he did not mention that he was prepared to start an endless war at home. As a boxing promoter by vocation, Trump never knew how to end American militarism, he only knew how to move it from one place to another.
And now the talk of terrorist ‘’chatter’’ has become domestic and tied to the inauguration. In the years after September 11, the reports of increased ‘’chatter’’ were coming from overseas, raising the background noise of paranoia for travellers. Although the calls are coming from inside the country, what’s similar is how the threat appears to be indefinite. There’ll be no Appomattox Courthouse or liberation of Paris to mark some kind of end to the conflict.
‘’I don't know what the threshold will be to know when the civil violence will end. It may take years, especially if Trump and his supporters in Republican Party leadership continue instigating violence,’’ Banerjee added. ‘’At present, it seems some in the Republican Party, who may not be Trump supporters but intent on co-opting his base for electoral gains, are using similar us-them, conflictual rhetoric. These politicians can increase the duration of civil violence.’’
Those soldiers sleeping on the capitol floor know their enemies are their fellow citizens, and that those citizens may attack them because they believe a Big Lie. The Big Lie is not just that Trump won the election, but that violence can overturn the results of that election by turning American politics into a more of a bloodsport.
Even if Trump is convicted by the Senate on charges of inciting insurrection, and barred from running in 2024, that ruling won’t diminish his enthusiasm for promoting the Big Lie that his election was stolen from him by shadowy forces, a claim for which he neither provides nor needs proof.
Timothy Snyder, a historian of fascism in Eastern Europe, writes in the New York Times that the Big Lie is a key element of fascist politics, and has been since the Nazis rose to power by declaring Jews and ethnic minorities the reason for Germany’s defeat in World War I.
“Trump is, for now, the martyr in chief, the high priest of the big lie...to tell the big lie is to be owned by it. Just because you have sold your soul does not mean that you have driven a hard bargain,’’ Snyder writes.
In that sense, Trump’s Big Lie about the election is a bit like a debt he has no intention of repaying. Others are having to pay it back for him, with bloodshed and broken bones. It’s that Big Lie that has turned American politics back into a bloodsport.
Trump’s video message on Wednesday saying that no supporter of his could be violent is hard to believe given his history of inciting violence at his rallies and celebrating it against his political opponents. And even his most delusional supporters have concluded the video was a fake. Even though the violence of the last week has hit Trump’s business interests hard, and he is desperate to stop the financial damage, Trump himself is no longer able to even pretend to put the brakes on it.
‘’The president has directly incited serious death threats against me,’’ Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and only one of two Muslim women in Congress, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday in support of impeachment. ‘’These are the tools demagogues use to keep us afraid. We cannot be fearful in fulfilling our oath of office. Courage is being scared to death, but remaining resolute. It’s important that we remove this tyrant.’’
If the putschists who sought to take hostages in congress had succeeded, there’s a good chance Omar would have come to harm first. And Omar has been the target of innumerable lies since she took office in 2018, Islamophobic slurs that treat her as a threat to American democracy for being a Muslim and Somali refugee. The death threats Republicans are facing death threats for not being sufficiently loyal to Trump are what Omar faces just for existing, and she herself helped draft the articles of impeachment against Trump’s Big Lie.
American politics has accumulated so many Big Lies over the last two hundred years, and its refugees and minorities are the ones saddled with the debt they bring. The first and longest-lasting one is the Big Lie that the Confederacy tried to overthrow the government for the rights of the downtrodden, and not for the right of the extremely wealthy to own people as slaves, the Lost Cause myth. Black people have been paying for that Big Lie for generations.
In the 21st century, American Muslims are still having to pay back the debt taken out in their name, a kind of historical identity theft, by Democrats and Republicans who backed the falsehoods justifying the invasion of Iraq.
We can’t separate the Big Lie that Trump’s won the election from the older Big Lie that invading Iraq would make Americans safer. We can’t even separate his presidency. Trump was able to take over the Republican Party by telling voters what they already knew: The Iraq War had been a disaster, and other Republicans were to blame. He maintained that only could redeem the party from their failure. He defeated more than a dozen other candidates to win the Republican nomination.
But Trump didn’t stop at other members of his party. He went on to say, frequently, that Muslims, especially refugees, deserved retribution for failing to be sufficiently grateful for the blood Americans shed. With his ban on Muslim refugees displaced by US warfare, Trump treated them like he would tenants overdue on fees they never agreed to pay, and locked them out in the cold.
The Proud Boys and other militia groups intent on attacking institutions of American government are history’s loan sharks, sent to collect on lie-debts taken out by generations of Americans long dead. But the present can’t pay back those lie-debts, and neither can the future. Frustrated with failing to collect, these goons have decided to vent their anger on society, as loan sharks do to debtors.
Impeachment will not remove Trump because Republican lawmakers are too afraid of reprisals from history’s loan sharks. Like unlucky people who’ve taken out loans with the mafia, they can only stutter more half-baked explanations about when they’ll pay it back.
Their explanations all depend on winning their next big bet, the next election and then the election after that. But these promises won’t keep the goons at bay forever. Trump’s lie, his debt, that he won the election is something they’ll keep chasing down for decades.
The biggest debtors are Trump’s defenders who still want the privilege of maintaining their respectability in politics. They have to sputter out more falsehoods, take out more lie-debts to pay back the ones they already owe. Whether they understand it or not, they are living at times when time has become a gangster.
Impeachment is an attempt to make a first payment on one of these lie-debts, but it’s hardly the only one the US owes. They have piled up over the centuries, and Americans should seriously consider wiping their balance sheet clean with a series of reforms to the constitution and electoral system and more direct democracy.
Confidence artists, elected or not, can’t fight corruption. Social programs that help people appreciate the humanity of their neighbours and the rule of law are another step to paying down these lie-debts.
A total restructuring, a kind of political bankruptcy agreement, is what’s necessary. Maybe then my dad’s hope can become a reality. Without such a deal, the goons threatening the lives of their fellow citizens will keep coming to collect.