January 6: the beginning of the end to American democracy?

Almost a year since bloody insurrection left five dead, false claim of stolen election continues to fuel a movement

Supporters of US president Donald Trump riot in front of the Capitol building on January 6. Reuters
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More details behind the January 6 insurrection in which a mob of former president Donald Trump's supporters stormed the US Capitol, some armed with bear spray and carrying zip tie restraints, continue to spill out in court proceedings, leaked documents and on social media.

For months, the Congressional January 6 committee has been investigating what started out as a “Stop the Steal” rally and ended in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol police officer.

The panel has called hundreds of witnesses and summoned some of Mr Trump's closest allies.

The former president spoke at the rally right before the riot began on January 6 and was also taped threatening Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger with legal ramifications if he failed to “find” enough votes to deliver the state.

“What I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than [the 11,779-vote margin of defeat] we have, because we won the state,” Mr Trump can be heard saying to the official in a recording.

In his book Integrity Counts, Mr Raffensperger writes that contrary to the slogans the January 6 mob shouted, election fraud is not systemic, insisting: “Our elections are both fairer and more secure than they have been at any point in our history.”

Nearly a year later, federal prosecutors have charged more than 700 people from more than 40 states for their involvement in the insurrection, with more arrests and charges to come.

One of those arrested following the riot had a list of names scrawled on a piece of paper, including that of Ruby Freeman, a Georgia state election worker.

Most recently, police bodycam footage shows a publicist for Trump supporter Ye (formerly Kanye West) cajoling Ms Freeman to state that the Georgia election was rigged.

This claim of fraud was also supported by congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, in spite of accepting her own election victory that was certified by the same body.

Despite millions of dollars spent on election recounts in several other states, including Nevada and Arizona, no evidence has come to light proving election irregularities.

The fact that the day is viewed through polarising lenses reflects the nature of contemporary US politics.

“It's really the political meaning of it and how this symbolic meaning of an attack on the Capitol and even the verbiage that people might use. Was it an insurrection? Was it a riot? Was it an attack? Was it a demonstration?” said Thomas Balcerski, associate professor of early American history at Eastern Connecticut State University.

The event cast a pall over US politics and analysts wonder how long it will last.

Clifford Young, president of US Public Affairs at Ipsos, an international company specialising in market research and public opinion, believes it is here to stay.

“We are living in an era of hyper-polarisation,” Mr Young said.

“There's a widespread belief the system is broken, that partisan politicians no longer care about the average person and that the system is rigged.”

Mr Trump tapped into that sense of disenfranchisement among primarily white, working-class people across the country, using it to gain a devout following, pitting himself not only against his Democratic rivals but his Republican ones as well.

And more than a year since he lost the election, his presence continues to weigh heavily on the Republican Party and the country as a whole.

Eating their own

The events of January 6 have driven a wedge into the Republican Party that appears to only be widening as time goes on, with little room for moderates.

In May, the party ousted Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, from her House leadership position over her denunciation of Mr Trump’s repeated false claims of voter fraud.

“We see how traditional moderate Republicans are no longer traditional nor moderate,” Mr Young told The National. “They're taking very sort of populist positions on things.”

As the party prepares for the 2022 midterm elections, it is leaning towards those populist tendencies and embracing a more conservative base than ever before.

Mr Young said that is not necessarily a bad strategy.

“Looking into 2022, they're going to do pretty well. And so, there’s definitely a high likelihood of them taking the House and a good chance for them to take the Senate,” he explained.

That would make it next to impossible for Mr Biden to carry out his ambitious social and economic reform policies.

Driving through conservative stretches of the country, the former president's continued popularity is on full display, with Trump flags flying high above countless homes and his red “Make America Great Again” caps (made in China) still the standard uniform of loyalists.

Given that Mr Trump is widely believed to be making another run for the presidency in 2024, the politics that he championed and the sentiments that led to January 6 appear to be here for several years to come.

Updated: December 20, 2021, 10:45 PM
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