Three days after Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the United States Capitol, the sense of shock has not faded.
For more than two centuries, that vast white dome has been one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks, a symbol not merely of the promise of the American Dream, but of the integrity of Western democracy.
Here, on December 8, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied the American people after Pearl Harbor and pledged support for the Allied cause in World War II. Here, three weeks later, Winston Churchill delivered one of his most rousing speeches, vowing that together Britain and America would overthrow the dictators and lead the free world ‘in justice and in peace’.
But also here, on Wednesday evening, Jake Angeli, the self-styled ‘QAnon Shaman’, paraded in triumph. His tattooed chest bared, his face garishly painted beneath a furry horned head-dress, he was the walking embodiment of the madness that Donald Trump has unleashed.
Rioters clash with police using big ladder to try to enter Capitol building through the front doors. Rioters broke windows and breached the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election
At first glance Angeli might seem a risible figure. But there is nothing funny about the deaths of five people.
There is nothing amusing about the ‘cult’ of QAnon whose members, predominant among the mob at the Capitol, believe Trump is being toppled by a worldwide Satanic paedophile conspiracy.
And there is nothing funny about the spectacle of American democracy struggling for survival, besieged by an unholy alliance of criminals, cranks and conspiracy theorists.
For Joe Biden, poised to become President on January 20, Wednesday was ‘one of the darkest days in the history of our nation’, an ‘assault, literally, on the citadel of liberty’.
He was, of course, right.
Twenty years ago, when I was working on my doctorate on American political history, I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill, interviewing senators and congressmen. Gazing up at the soaring ceilings and gilded fittings, I could never quite hide my sense of awe.
Like the Houses of Parliament, the Capitol is a special place — a symbol of individual freedom, popular sovereignty and the promise of America itself. Puritan colonist John Winthrop, who fled Charles I’s England for religious freedom in Massachusetts in 1630, famously said America should be a shining ‘city on a hill’.
Ever since, visionary presidents from martyred Democrat John F. Kennedy to Republican hero Ronald Reagan have quoted his words.
In his farewell address in 1989, Reagan described his homeland as ‘a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace’.
An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of Trump gather in front of the Capitol Building in Washington
And although we Britons often smirk at such earnest idealism, that is what Capitol Hill represented — until now.
‘This was not America,’ many commentators said after Wednesday’s rioting. I hate to say it, but they were wrong.
The screaming mobs were only too American. They waved American flags, and chanted ‘USA! USA!’ This was America — at least as the world sees it. No wonder democracy’s enemies were cock-a-hoop.
‘America no longer charts the course and so has lost all right to set it,’ smirked Russian politician Konstantin Kosachev.
‘What we saw in the U.S.,’ agreed Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, ‘showed first how brittle and weak Western democracy is, and how weak its foundations are.’
Is that true? Is the American Dream broken forever? Have Roosevelt and Reagan really given way, in the world’s imagination, to the thugs, fanatics and neo-fascists who stormed Congress on Wednesday? I’d love to say no. But I would be deluding myself. In truth, the world’s leading democracy is deeply, perhaps even terminally, sick.
Of course President Donald Trump must carry most responsibility for what happened on Wednesday. Even before his defeat in November, he was fuelling baseless conspiracy theories that the election would be stolen
Of course America has endured dark days before — the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and of Martin Luther King; the trauma of Vietnam; the shame of Watergate; and most recently, the hideous scar of 9/11.
But this feels different. America has become a terrible warning of how quickly decency and democracy can come unglued.
‘I wish we could say we couldn’t see it coming,’ Mr Biden said the next day. ‘But that isn’t true. We could see it coming.’ Again he was right.
Of course President Donald Trump must carry most responsibility for what happened on Wednesday. Even before his defeat in November, he was fuelling baseless conspiracy theories that the election would be stolen.
He whipped up the mob. He incited them, promising to join them in marching on the Capitol. And even after they had sacked the halls of democracy, forcing his own Vice President to flee to safety, Mr Trump called them ‘great patriots’ and ‘very special people’.
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington
His apparent U-turn yesterday lacked conviction or contrition. Whatever comes of Democrat threats to impeach him, his legacy is assured. No matter how long the American republic lasts, Donald Trump will stand alone as its worst president.
But it is too easy, too comforting, to attribute all this to the monstrous narcissism of a single individual.
Trump, who we must remember won 74 million votes in November, is merely a symptom of a deeper disease. And although nobody who loves America should mourn his departure, the problems go much deeper.
In a brilliant essay in Rolling Stone magazine, Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis argues that the Trump presidency represents the end of an era in world history, bringing down the curtain on the American Dream.
For Exhibit A, he points to America’s response to the Covid pandemic — the least competent of any Western country, and a terrible contrast with the way it rose to the challenges of the world wars.
A protester sits in the Senate Chamber. More than a half a century ago, one of the greatest U.S. historians, Richard Hofstadter, published an essay on ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’
‘With another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease,’ Davis writes.
‘The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand.’
So what has gone wrong?
All nations have their demons, and America is no exception.
More than a half a century ago, one of the greatest U.S. historians, Richard Hofstadter, published an essay on ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’.
Since the republic’s foundation, he argued, there had always been a paranoid streak in American life.
The earliest colonists saw themselves as God’s chosen people, fleeing the old, sinful world of England and Europe. They felt embattled, not just by their Indian neighbours, but by the corruption and vice of the world they left behind.
The American people, said the anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy in 1951, were threatened by a ‘great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man’
Conspiracy theories have always flourished on American soil. Successive generations have pointed the finger at the British and French, Catholics and Freemasons, Jews, Communists, Muslims and Mexicans.
The American people, said the anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy in 1951, were threatened by a ‘great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man’, run by ‘men high in this government’, in the heart of Washington.
McCarthy was a boorish, mendacious demagogue. Remind you of anyone?
But in the 1950s American politics was robust enough to withstand the challenge. The leader of McCarthy’s party, former World War II general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a man of deep decency.
So were most other American politicians. They aspired to match the Greek and Roman ideals embodied in the architecture of the U.S. Capitol.
Supporters of Trump enter the US Capitol as tear gas fills the corridor on January 6, 2021
For much of the past quarter-century, though, American politics has been a cross between a travelling circus and a grotesque auction.
Money rules: the cost of the 2016 election, when Mr Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, was a staggering $6.5 billion.
In last week’s Georgia Senate races, which ended with Democrat victories to hand Mr Biden both houses of Congress as well as the presidency, the four candidates spent $480 million on advertising alone.
So when some Americans claim democracy is a sham, and insist their representatives care only about their financial backers, who can say they’re wrong? The system’s dependence on rich lobbyists means it no longer delivers meaningful change.
The gun laws are perhaps the most flagrant example.
In the past ten years, there have been a staggering 426 high school shootings in America. In most years, the gun death rate is more than 50 times higher than Britain’s. Yet even after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, when a gunman killed 20 primary-school children aged six or seven, Congress blocked reform.
To most outsiders this seems demented. But like so many issues, such as America’s wretchedly unequal healthcare system, it seems it will never be fixed.
Pro-Trump protesters storm into the US Capitol during clashes with police, during a rally to contest the certification of the presidential election results
Perhaps even worse, though, is the wider political culture, so tribal, hysterical and violently partisan it makes Brexit look like a good-humoured disagreement at a vicarage tea party.
On the Right, conservatives insist Joe Biden, a moderate senator for decades, who steadfastly backed the Cold War and voted for the war in Iraq, is a dangerous subversive who wants to create a ‘Socialist States of America’.
On the Left, screaming mobs tear down statues of America’s greatest historical heroes, and roam campuses in search of students and professors who refuse to toe the latest radical line.
Measured, moderate voices — like those of former president Barack Obama and his old rival Mitt Romney — are drowned out amid the screams of hatred.
You have only to watch footage of the mobs who ran riot over the summer, or of the frenzied thugs who invaded the Capitol this week, to see how little room there is for polite, reasoned disagreement.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump enter the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC
Opposition is always treachery, disagreement is betrayal and defeat is an apocalyptic disaster.
And as Mr Trump’s partisans have shown, the central premise of democracy — that if you lose, you take it with good grace — has crumbled to oblivion.
Will the advent of Mr Biden change things? Perhaps. His tone in recent days, calm and considered, seems a throwback to a kinder, saner age.
But a YouGov poll after Wednesday’s chaos told a more disturbing story, as 21 per cent of Americans supported the storming of the Capitol. And that included 45 per cent of Republicans — with only 43 per cent opposed.
So the tribalism endures. Cocooned in social media bubbles, fed a diet of unrelenting paranoia, many of Trump’s supporters still refuse to accept he lost.
Optimists maintain that Wednesday’s violence is the end of something, the moment the Trump movement imploded.
But what if it isn’t? What if it is, in fact, the beginning of something — a warm-up for greater conflicts in the recession-scarred years ahead? To me, the mood feels worryingly like Germany in the 1920s, Spain in the 1930s or the USA itself in the 1850s, the storm clouds of civil war looming.
All the classic ingredients for violence are there. A culture of demagoguery and hyper-partisanship; a tribal refusal to recognise the good faith of opponents; a growing contempt for democracy; an increasing glorification of violence; and, most disturbingly, access to some 400 million privately-owned guns.
Too bleak? Maybe. But never in my lifetime has a genuine American conflict seemed such a realistic prospect.
And even if Mr Biden steers the ship away from the rocks, this week’s events — like those of the past four years — mark a terrible nadir in the fortunes of the West itself. All my life, the United States has stood for the virtues of democracy, capitalism and individual freedom. It has never been perfect, but at its best it has always shown the way. Nobody, surely, would say that now.
So whatever the future holds for America, there is no doubt about this week’s big winners. They were the strongmen of the East, the autocrats of Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, the enemies of democracy. How they must have laughed, to see what America has become.