Hope and horror

Screenshot, CNN coverage. Security detail inside the chamber holding off armed Trump supporters

I had begun an article on the confirmation of more hopeful signs for democracy in the USA coming from the run-off elections in Georgia…and not because Democrats won, but because the long hard effort to secure voter engagement right across the electorate had paid off. I will return to the subject, because there are important lessons for those of us concerned for the need for voter engagement and electoral reform here in the UK but, as you may imagine, my piece sits in drafts, ‘trumped’ by the scenes from Washington.

How many of us sat glued to CNN until the small hours, I wonder? How many us watched not in shock and horror but with a sinking sense that this was all playing out as we feared it would?

I think my only really visceral shock was at the ease with which the insurrectionists gained access and there is footage of the Capitol’s police seemingly waving the mob through. That was deeply disturbing. How fragile is the rule of law and the protection of the law which we have always assumed is a given? I also reflected that the unfolding scenes would have been very different if the domestic terrorists had been people of colour or women, even. Being white and male under Trump’s malignant eye truly has been a privilege in the USA.

Armed officers on standby at Black Lives Matter protest.
By contrast…

Even after this all-out assault on democracy, egged on by an increasingly- desperate tinpot despot, a handful of Republican senators saw fit to attempt to seize Trump’s Magaland legacy and continue their challenge to the election result. Not pretty. Naked ambition rarely is.

Republican Senator for Utah Mitt Romney’s rebuke to these cynical chancers was spot on. He warned them that their support for a president who incited insurrection would result in them being forever described as complicit. He made a powerful appeal to (any vestige of) their better nature:

“What is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?”

It is a question that could very well be asked of politicians here who are prepared to perpetuate or turn a blind eye to Brexit lies, PPE and test, track and trace scandals and, worst of all, continue to pretend that this government has done a good job of protecting the lives of its citizens in the Covid-19 crisis. How heavy is the burden of their conscience in the face of falsehoods, corruption and, perhaps, criminal negligence?

I will not be alone in feeling that Romney’s words would fall on equally deaf ears in our own parliament.

But his speech highlighted another area of global concern which might be summed up as ‘the post-truth world’ or ‘the world of alternative facts’. The world in which lies have been implanted systematically, forcefully and seemingly indelibly in the minds of those who follow Trump or the Brexiters or the QAnon cult or Putin or any of those other malevolent autocrats currently strutting the world stage, funded by dark forces intent on destroying democracy.

We have written many, many times about the threat to truth and the rule of law. We have written about the dangerous power of social media and its capacity for spreading lies faster and further than ever before. We have written about the poison drip-fed into citizens by the right wing press and, increasingly, by a broadcast media led by people who buy in to the right wing agenda. It does not augur well that the much-vaunted new TV channel, GB News, is being funded by Dubai-based investment group and Brexit-backing right wing think tank Legatum.

Why does New Zealand billionaire Christopher Chandler want to spend millions on a news channel in the UK? If any reader thinks that the news is the news is the news, they need to take a look at Fox. What happened in the Capitol yesterday is a result of deliberate misinformation spread by Fox News and others and, of course, by Trump himself. People are being radicalised in plain sight, turned into domestic terrorists by their own president.

Romney pleaded for honesty as a way out of the chaos.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth….the truth is that President-elect Biden won the election. President Trump lost…”

The contrast with Texas senator Ted Cruz’s (pre-incident) speech claiming that the 39% who believed that the election was rigged were entitled to have their beliefs honoured by an audit into an election (described by the judiciary as the cleanest in US history) could not have been more marked.

And, as I have written above, Romney’s words went unheeded by a small cabal. No matter. Vice President Pence did his duty and confirmed Biden as President-elect.

There are now calls for the 25th amendment to be invoked and for Trump to be removed from office. Trump has had his social media accounts (including Twitter at long last) suspended indefinitely. Of course, he does have access to Parler, funded by the far right and a cesspool of nasties banned from Twitter. He is, allegedly, acting ‘unhinged’, which is nothing new. But we have seen that he will stop at nothing and that democracy is fragile and under continual assault. We must hope that, once he has finally gone, trust can be rebuilt and truth allowed to prevail over lies, but I fear it will be quite some struggle. The dark forces are not going to dissipate. They’ll continue to seed and nurture division, ready for some Trump-lookalike – maybe Hawley or Cruz – to emerge and cultivate the MAGA cult for 2024.

Our own democracy is, if anything, in even worse shape. We have seen Johnson and his government’s focus on circumventing scrutiny. Brexiters may not have stormed Parliament, but they had no need to when Johnson was prepeared to prorogue and then to use the cover of Covid-19 and a dangerously all-powerful 80 seat majority, won on lies, to consign MPs to mere spectators. Worst of all, we have an electoral system which mitigates against true representation of the electorate.

There is hope, though. Biden’s election is genuinely hopeful. The election of Ossoff and Warnock in Georgia is genuinely hopeful. People understood enough, worried enough, cared enough to get out and vote to stop the rot.

We need that same fightback here. Before it is too late.

Postscript: reader Anthony Green wrote in to WCB with this letter:

The shocking scenes of the storming of the Capitol in Washington started me wondering how it was conceivable in a democracy for people to support a leader:

  • Whose private life and personality clearly made them unfit for high office.
  • Whose popular image depended on a fake persona created by media exposure.
  • Who lacks political principles, and is motivated entirely by personal gratification through power.
  • Who packed an old and honourable party with sycophants and opportunists.
  • Who won support by dividing people, appealing to nationalism, xenophobia and racism and making impossible promises.
  • Who was prepared to subvert democracy by suspending representative government and attacking judges and media.
  • Who has gravely weakened the international reputation of his nation for competence and honesty.

As you may have guessed, I had Boris Johnson in mind.” Anthony Green