“Irony is funny, historical irony is something even more profound” – I penned these words for The Quint this time last year as I struggled to fathom the cataclysmic events of 6 January 2021 in the United States, now codified as “the insurrection”.
For long, rather too long, Washington has been touted for American exceptionalism and has espoused an interventionist outlook in the geopolitical arena, extending its perception of a liberal democracy across different political systems around the globe. This it does in the hope of achieving acquiescence to America’s foreign policy goals and perhaps even seeking allyship.
A Zero-Sum Game
It’s a historical irony because the United States, which has publicly rebuked strongman autocracies and excoriated faux democracies, found itself in a quagmire when rule of law was disregarded and election results disobeyed.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump, convinced by their commander-in-chief’s unmerited insinuations of rigged elections and voter suppression, and even more ironically, the vociferous backers of “build that wall” (the one that Mexico would allegedly pay for), disregarded another wall in place.
Rioters on 6 January last year brazenly protested and violated both the literal edifice epitomising democracy in the Capitol Hill building and subsequently even tarnished the sacrosanctity of Washington’s stature as the bastion of a robust democracy.
America is at a crossroads now, perhaps it has been for a long time. But the last four years of the Trump administration witnessed unprecedented polarisation. There is now a new form of Manichean duopoly, a Dubya (Bush 43) zero-sum game version of “you’re either with us or against us”.
There now exist two ideological visions of America, divided not just by views on taxation, immigration, abortion rights and gun laws but fundamentally, at its core, a view where each side sees the other as an existential threat to its own holistic vision of what America is, what America means and what America will become should the other side be given the guardian keys.
This is further compounded by each side’s own obdurate belief that it’s only their own vision and ideals that will prevent a sense of the degradation of that “American exceptionalism”, so redolent of the star-spangled banner and the freedom of each of its fifty states.
America's Lofty Ideals
This is evinced by a Kurosawa sense of a Rashomon Effect, where the same incident is described in different versions with different perceptions of its causes and meanings. Supporters of ousted and impeached President Donald Trump still hold that conviction that the election was rigged and that there was voter-fraud committed (“stop the steal”, they continue to clamour); some see COVID-19 protocols of isolation, social distancing, and mail-in-ballots as fertile ground for this sense of “rigging”.
Opponents of President Trump, mostly Democrats and moderate Republicans, believe that Trump does bear moral responsibility for instigating mob madness. They believe we have arrived at an epochal time in American democratic history where democracy was so blatantly disrespected and stolen ironically by the same people who made allegations of theft and wanted to be the praetorian guard of American democracy.
As the Washington Post reports, “federal prosecutors have charged more than 725 individuals” with various crimes in connection with the deadly insurrection. A recent Newsweek analysis states that more than half of the 71 Capitol rioters sentenced in 2021 have avoided jail time.
The idea of American exceptionalism and soft power may exist, but its lofty ideals as the phalanx of all liberal democracies have certainly been eroded. In the years to come, 6 January will not be seen as a singular event or just an anomaly (which it very well could be) but will be reminisced as that seminal moment that shone a light on not just the vulnerability of an American building but the very perceived impervious nature of democratic institutions and the democratic process in the United States.
A Tainted History
The Capitol Hill building consumes you from all corners. Its mesmerising architecture boasts of 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall (two from each of the fifty states). The Rotunda makes you want to strain your neck longer than you would, marvelling at the fresco on the ceiling. Historical paintings are all around, highlighting the revolutionary period and the Declaration of Independence and past Presidents and former Speakers of the House.
There is history all around Capitol Hill and the Statue of Freedom, an allegorical female figure on top of the building, now weeps. Yes, there is history, but the events of the 6 January riot, too, are now part of the Capitol’s history.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two-time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)