Questions on American democracy

Manal Lotfy , Friday 19 Feb 2021

After former US president Donald Trump’s acquittal in a second impeachment trial this week, an independent commission is to examine the Capitol Hill riot in January

Questions on American democracy
Trump’s supporters after hearing the acquittal verdict (photo: AP)

After the expected, yet still shocking, US Senate verdict to acquit former US president Donald Trump of inciting the Capitol Hill insurrection in January this year, many people in the US and the rest of the world are asking questions about American democracy and whether Trump could make a political comeback in the 2024 presidential elections.

For many in Europe, this is not merely a question. It is also the darkest of possible scenarios.

While Trump was acquitted of the sole charge of incitement of insurrection, the Senate vote nevertheless saw easily the largest number of senators ever to vote to find a president of their own party guilty of an impeachment count of high crimes and misdemeanours.

The final vote of 57 to 43 meant the Senate vote fell short by 10 votes of finding Trump guilty. Seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting to convict Trump.

The tally was thus the most bipartisan in American history, but it still left Trump free to declare victory and to threaten a political revival while a bitterly divided Republican Party bickered over its direction and Trump’s place within it.

The fear in many quarters is that Trump’s autocracy was not simply a brutal interregnum and that new President Joe Biden’s administration will be but a brief interlude before America plunges once again into the kind of deep spiral that has marked the last four years.

Although UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that US democracy remains “strong” in spite of the impeachment “kerfuffle,” Biden himself has warned that US democracy is “fragile”.

While Biden and his team are eager to move past the impeachment trial, the bitterly partisan tone of the proceedings underscores the deep challenges ahead, as the president and his party try to push forward their agenda and address historic crises.

The Biden administration is doing its best to reassure the world that the American system can and will be made to work again. But this could be easier said than done.

As House Democrats were presenting horrifying images of the 6 January insurrection, Biden was on the phone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, warning that America would no longer ignore China’s human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, nor its military’s threats in the South China Sea and to Taiwan.

However, these warnings may not have the same weight as before. There is a lot at stake for America and the world, including Europe, and European commentators have wasted no time in expressing their dismay at the Senate verdict.

The UK Guardian newspaper said that “Trump’s acquittal marks a dark day for US democracy,” adding that the deepest problem affecting the progress and development of democracy was the crippling dominance of “party-first politics” in the US.

The majority of the Republican Party had decided to stand by Trump regardless of the overwhelming evidence regarding his role in the insurrection to overturn the US election result last November, the paper said.

The Senate vote “speaks to something increasingly problematic about the American political system’s ultimate ability to curtail presidential abuses of power: for many, the impeachment process no longer presents much of a threat or deterrent to bad, or even illegal, behaviour by the most powerful figure in the land,” the newspaper said.

Commentator Carl Gibson in the UK Independent newspaper said that “Trump’s acquittal proved if we want real democracy, we need to get rid of the Senate… Do the math and you see why the legislative body has become a tyranny of the minority.”

Commentators in Germany, France and much of Europe argued that though the acquittal was expected, it had highlighted that Trump’s influence over the Republican Party would likely endure, signalled that American politics would remain deeply divided, and shaken their faith in an already weakened US democracy.

“Donald Trump’s acquittal confirms the profound division of the Republican Party,” read a headline in Le Monde, the French daily newspaper.

Patrice de Beer, a former editor of Le Monde, said he believed the world’s view of America had only been reinforced by the chilling images displayed by House managers in the impeachment trial.

“I don’t think that this has changed our vision of the US as an unpredictable and violent country,” he told the US news channel CNN. “But we hope Biden has put a stop to this. For now.”

The uncertain future of the US political system was a recurring topic for international observers. The acquittal was “an unprecedented failure of American democracy” and “a triumph of madness,” said Roland Nelles, a Washington correspondent for the German magazine Der Spiegel, adding that Republican senators had left the door open for a comeback by Trump in 2024.

An editorial in the Australian Sydney Morning Herald called the outcome a “demoralising blow to the ideals of democracy, justice and accountability” that “will stand for generations as an appalling instance of Republican Party cowardice.”

However, Trump, unrepentant, welcomed his second impeachment acquittal and said his movement “has only just begun.” He slammed the trial as “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.”

But if Trump is hoping that the Senate decision will close the insurgency case, he will be disappointed. In a potentially very consequential move, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Monday that Congress would establish an independent, September 11-style commission to look into the insurrection.

Pelosi said the commission would “investigate and report on the facts and causes relating to January 6, 2021, a domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex… and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power.”

In a letter to Democrat colleagues, Pelosi said the House would also put forward supplemental spending to boost security at the Capitol.

Investigations into the riot are already planned, with Senate hearings scheduled later this month in the Senate Rules Committee. Pelosi has asked retired general Russel Honoré to lead an immediate review of the Capitol’s security.

In her letter, Pelosi said that “it is clear from his findings and from the impeachment trial that we must get to the truth of how this happened.” She added that “as we prepare for the commission, it is also clear from general Honoré’s interim reporting that we must put forth a supplemental appropriation to provide for the safety of members and the security of the Capitol.”

According to the US news agency AP, bipartisan support appeared to be growing for an independent commission to examine the insurrection after the acquittal of Trump. Lawmakers from both parties signalled that more inquiries were likely.

“There should be a complete investigation into what happened,” said Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump. “What was known, who knew it, and when they knew, all that, because that builds the basis, so this never happens again.”

Cassidy said he was “attempting to hold president Trump accountable” and added that as Americans hear all the facts, “more folks will move to where I was.” He was censured by his state’s party after the vote.

An independent commission along the lines of the one that investigated the September 11 attacks would probably require legislation. That would elevate the investigation a step higher, offering a definitive government-backed accounting of events. But such a panel would pose risks of sharpening partisan divisions or overshadowing Biden’s legislative agenda.

“There’s still more evidence that the American people need and deserve to hear, and a 9/11 commission is a way to make sure that we secure the Capitol going forward,” said Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a Biden ally.

“And that we lay bare the record of just how responsible and how abjectly violating of his constitutional oath president Trump really was.”

House prosecutors who argued for Trump’s conviction on charges of inciting the riot said on Sunday that they had proved their case. They also railed against the Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and others who they said were “trying to have it both ways” in finding the former president not guilty but criticising him at the same time.

McConnell in a blistering speech after the vote said the president was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day” but that the Senate’s hands were tied in doing anything about it because Trump was out of office.

The Senate had earlier deemed the trial constitutional in a vote to start the impeachment process, so many saw a contradiction in McConnell’s statement.

A close Trump ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, also voted for acquittal but acknowledged that Trump had some culpability for the siege at the Capitol that killed five people, including a police officer, and disrupted lawmakers’ certification of Biden’s White House victory.

“His behaviour after the election was over the top,” Graham said. “We need a 9/11 commission to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again.” Nonetheless, Graham said he looked forward to campaigning with Trump in the 2022 elections when the Republicans hope to regain a congressional majority.

McConnell and Graham’s stand was criticised widely in Washington.

“It was powerful to hear the 57 guilties, and then it was puzzling to hear and see Mitch McConnell stand and say ‘not guilty’ and then, minutes later, stand again and say he was guilty of everything,” said representative Madeleine Dean. “History will remember that statement of speaking out of two sides of his mouth,” she said.

Dean also backed the idea of an impartial investigative commission “not guided by politics but filled with people who would stand up for the courage of their convictions.”

The events of the past few days have shown Trump’s strongholds in the Republican Party and US politics. The coming months will also test the resilience of American democracy and determine the future of Biden’s presidency.

US politics are still volatile, and if Biden fails to deliver on his promises, Trump may return as president, redefining America once again domestically and internationally.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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