President Donald Trump’s incitement of the mob that attacked and subsequently occupied the Capitol represents a deliberate assault on American democracy while eroding the country’s standing abroad.
January 6th’s seditious incursion into the US Capitol, incited by President Donald Trump and prosecuted by his supporters, represents a profound and urgent threat to American democracy. Further, the attempted procedural coup, manifested in the unfounded Electoral College certification objections brought forth by House and Senate Republicans, increases US domestic political instability. It irrevocably diminishes America’s global station among her democratic allies and emboldens illiberal governments and authoritarian leaders.
Electoral College Certification Objections
A considerable swath of Congressional and Senate Republicans facilitated a direct challenge to American democracy by stating publicly and persistently that they would challenge the certification of the Electoral College outcomes for specific swing states that Donald Trump lost in the general election. Despite the mob violence that breached the Capitol’s walls, 121 Republican House members and 6 Republican Senators maintained their objections to the certification of Arizona’s Electoral College results. 138 Republican House members and 7 Republican Senators continued to object to certifying Pennsylvania’s Electoral College results. Lawmakers’ consequences that offered unevidenced objections are unknown, but both chambers have disciplinary mechanisms available to address House and Senate Republicans’ seditious behaviour.
The objectors, led in the Senator by Josh Hawley (MO) and Ted Cruz (TX), and in the House by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA) and Steve Scalise (LA), have threatened, through cynical self-interest, America’s electoral process. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz propagated and legitimised the Electoral College objections in preparation for 2024 presidential bids. Their decision to engage in acts of sedition are, in part, informed by political calculation, more alarming is the number of House Republicans that joined Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise in the coup.
The House expresses the perceived positions of highly local constituencies. Regarding their Electoral College objections, most House Republicans concluded that pandering to their far-right, Trump-supporting base superseded upholding their oath to defend the Constitution. The decision to support the overturning of election results represents the pervasive, malignant dysfunction that defines America’s present political ecology in both local and national spheres.
The apparent, near-term electoral danger, particularly in congressional races, is that the insular quality of local constituencies’ news consumption, driven by increasingly polarized districts, will further remove voters from political and social realities. The highly partisan, often propagandized, Newsmax and One America News environments have the potential to pervert the electoral process by promoting unfounded conspiracy theories and limiting their viewers’ access to objective news coverage. One reasonable result of consistently misinformed voters coupled with the dearth of centrist nominees may be securing public office by ever more dogmatic and unqualified candidates.
The corollaries witnessed during the insurrection carried out on January 6th, of Senate and House Republicans legitimising and further propagating conspiracy theories regarding fraudulent election results, are mob violence and weakening democratic institutions. The inherent danger is that a broad swath of House Republicans is not only promoting false political realities, they, in turn, understand that to remain in power they must materially act on frivolous conspiracies.
Beyond domestic instability, America’s diplomatic position is fundamentally diminished by Republican sedition and the subsequent insurrection which delayed the certification of the electoral result. Allied democracies are sceptical of future US diplomatic constancy and foreign policy coherence. The broad concern shared by US allies is the foundational threat to global democracy posed by the events of January 6th. France’s president Emanual Macron defended both American and global democracy’s resiliency, understanding that an endogenous, anti-democratic insurgency within the US represents a broader threat to the guiding democratic principles that organise the rules-based international order.
Historically, America’s geopolitical position was of an elevated beacon of freedom, competence and strength. The US, acting in the aggressive defence and promotion of democracy, has, in the post-war international order, provided her allies and aspiring bilateral partners with an exemplar against which to build their unique iterations of democracy and guard the democratic structure against ruin. The Trump presidency has upended this tradition by abdicating America’s global leadership role. The recessional nature of US foreign policy, observed throughout Trump’s term, is expressed through international institutions’ withdrawal and various bilateral and multilateral treaties.
The consequences of contracting US diplomatic engagement are myriad and omnidirectional. First, the US’s capacity to project soft power has been irreparably damaged by Trump’s belligerence and the armed insurrection of January 6th. Should America’s domestic instability and inward-facing foreign policy persist, allies and non-aligned states alike are more likely to be drawn into the illiberal spheres of influence supported by China and Russia. Secondly, America’s unilateral decision-making, based entirely upon its politicians’ self-interest and future domestic electoral success, represents, to her allies, demonstrable policy inconsistencies that have the potential to shift with each successive administration. Such diplomatic volatility promotes, to a limited degree, the reorientation of US Western allies toward the East.
Specific, material corollaries of US foreign policy inconsistency and diplomatic contraction include the signing, in November, of the China-centric Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP agreement (composed of Asia-Pacific nations) does not include the US and represents the world’s largest free trade area and plurilateral trade agreement, covering 2.2 billion people and 1/3 of all economic activity on the planet. The EU also solidified a new investment agreement with China in late 2020 but it has yet to be ratified by the European Parliament.
The EU’s willingness to overlook China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, its flagrant suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, and its continued belligerence in the South China Sea represent a deliberate realist shift by Germany and France toward European strategic autonomy, a cause championed by France’s Emanuel Macron. Trump’s threats to withdraw the US from NATO and America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal framework support Macron’s position that Europe cannot survive without an independent security apparatus. The EU’s pursuit of independent trade agreements with China and strategic autonomy on the Continent will likely cause diplomatic friction between America’s strongest European allies and the newly inaugurated Biden administration.
The insurgency of January 6th again demonstrates the inconstancy of current US foreign policy. European lawmakers are likely to continue advancing independent European security and trade against the unpredictable, often unstable nature of US foreign policy. Biden’s promise of restoring America’s global leadership position and reentering international institutions, arms treaties, and trade agreements may temper the speed with which the EU pursues both trade and security autonomy, but the diplomatic carnage of the Trump presidency cannot be utterly undone.
US Insurrection May Support Global Illiberalism
Following the attempted coup and armed insurrection of January 6th, American democratic evangelism abroad is further constrained. The sedition of House and Senate Republicans coupled with the armed insurgency incited by the United States president emboldens autocratic leaders across borders. Over the last decade, creeping illiberalism has threatened Western democratic institutions and democracy itself.
America’s anti-democratic devolution supports populist-nationalist ideology’s international expansion and provides authoritarian dictators with significant social leverage to wield domestically and diplomatically. Whatever political capital the US retained with global stakeholders prior to January 6th has now been flagrantly expended.
The consequences of sedition and insurrection within the American Capitol halls extend beyond the abstract theoretical questions regarding a novel illiberal hegemony. The global corollaries are material and significant. The administrative attack on American democratic institutions could represent an oblique validation of Victor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” project in Hungary. Poland’s Law and Justice party may also tacitly applaud US senatorsand Congressmen’s procedural sedition as Poland and Hungary’s far-right parties seek to disrupt the EU’s liberal institutions with anti-democratic obstruction.
Further to the east, images of the US capitol being invaded are a boon for Russian propaganda and provide Vladimir Putin with validation that the American democratic system is corrupt and failing. Validated by US politicians’ seditious acts, Putin can employ this knowledge through his propaganda apparatus to further draw Eastern European nations into Russia’s sphere of influence. China can employ the events of January 6th in defence of its suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and the recent implementation of a new national security law through which mainland authorities arrested 53 opposition figures in early 2021. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro can utilize the Capitol’s insurrection to sway public opinion against a democratic transition in Venezuela and further consolidate his dictatorial power.
Finally, there were thirteen presidential elections in African countries in 2020. Many of these elections were marred by fraudulent results and irregularities. The incumbents sought to alter their constitutions to ensure that their terms would continue indefinitely. African autocrats may reference the events of January 6th to discredit American election observers and publicly challenge the pursuit of democracy itself.
Practically, the seditious insurgency of January 6th may briefly weaken international democratic institutions’ legitimacy while providing political fodder for far-right populist nationalists and autocrats. In Europe, Marine Le Pen, Macron’s challenger in France’s coming presidential election, will likely benefit politically from the US insurrection, but the final result may be that Macron is forced to move further to the right on immigration issues and in defence of French secularism (Laïcité). The broader, more concerning question regarding global democracy’s resiliency while America, wounded, restores herself through a new democratic administration. The restoration of US democratic institutions is essential, but such construction should be pursued with an outward-facing stance.
House and Senate Republicans’ objections to the general election’s electoral results demonstrate their adherence to a venal, particularly American species of neofascism that has yet to be sufficiently confronted by the Democratic Party. It is unclear how the seditious lawmakers and the president to which they pledge fealty will be disciplined. It is more likely that impeachment proceedings will quickly advance, and lawmakers will, perhaps, be censured. Swift and firm disciplinary action is required to ensure the legitimacy of American democracy both domestically and diplomatically.
The Biden administration should address the surfeit of misinformation that provides the ideological framework that is then expressed through legislative sedition and violent acts of insurgency. The competing realities present within America must be synthesized through the deliberate protection of US news outlets and journalists and the strict administration of internet propaganda and misinformation. Failure to contain the rancorous blather of conspiracy theorists will result in further acts of domestic terrorism.
Though the need to mitigate domestic dysfunction is paramount, Biden should seek active, deliberate reengagement with US allies on day one of his presidency. He must work to restore American foreign policy by strengthening the trans-Atlantic partnership and rejoining international institutions, trade agreements, and arms treaties.
The subversion of democracy, witnessed on January 6th, though appalling in its viciousness and sedition, provides the US with an opportunity to reorder its domestic politics and reclaim its global leadership position. President Biden must exhibit to the waiting world his administration’s renewed commitment to American democracy and the defence of democratic institutions abroad.