David Brooks. In the last few months the world has watched the United States with a growing horror and disillusionment. The nation that had always been the example and model of democracy, the shining light, has descended into anarchic chaos, ending with the insurrectionist assault on the Capitol on January 6, which seemed more like something that would be found in a place where there are frequent coups d’etat. It came very close to that. The goal expressed by the Trump supporters was to isolate the members of Congress, hang the leaders and change the results of the presidential election. It was the President himself who incited them. Perhaps it would be useful to reflect on how we got to this point. The roots go deep.
I do not suppose to sum up the whole history of the contemporary US. It is sufficient to say that the fundamental problem , which also exists in the majority of countries in the world, is economic inequality. The US always has boasted that it was the beacon of liberty and equality, where everyone could rise up and create a good life if they worked to earn it. The truth is that this promise never became reality. At the beginning, those who suffered most were the immigrants and people of color; beginning with the technological revolution of the last century, those at the bottom have been those with less education who saw their jobs flee to foreign countries. Of course, they blamed the immigrants and people of color who had adapted to the changed circumstances. It was precisely this disaffected group which Donald Trump attracted, a majority of whom were white with little education. They applauded Trump when he promised to raise them up, throwing out all those who were not true Americans, when he lied to them by saying he would return their jobs which had disappeared, and when he made fun of politicians. What happened was that they and Trump himself believed in the deceptions and the lies became reality. Other members of his party thought that the only way that they would be able to stay in power was to follow the Trump road. Those who did not do what he demanded of them were fired, usually on Twitter. There was created in the White House and Congress an atmosphere of fear.
For almost three years everything seemed to be going well. The economy was good and Trump seemed to be invincible. There were some scandals but even his critics accepted the fact that it would not be possible to remove him from power until the next election. And then COVID arrived and the whole scenario changed completely. From the beginning it was obvious that for Donald Trump to admit the existence of the virus and to take the necessary steps to protect citizens was something personal, a failure that he was unwilling to accept. His egotism was such that to admit the truth about the sickness was a reflection on himself, that he would then seem to be weak. So he continued to lie. He never wore a mask and he demanded the same thing from his followers. The economy was more important than the health of the people and so he fought against the restrictions and he insisted that public places remain open. And why? A good economy was the key to keep himself in power. Nevertheless, it was going in the opposite direction, from bad to worse. Millions of workers became unemployed. In June, additionally the protests and marches against racism and violence on the part of the police against people of color. Again, the president denied its existence, blamed the “anarchists”, and used the National Guard to control the violence. When he was supposed to cure the racial divisions, he fomented them. Instead of unifying, he divided. He never denounced the racists and white supremacists that formed the backbone of his “movement”.
Coming to the election, the chasm that had been created between the two halves of the country was worse than ever, impossible to overcome. It was then that Trump gave birth to what is now called “the big lie”. He announced that the only way that he was goingto lose the election was if it was stolen from him by the anarcho-socialists of the Democratic Party. The United States experienced the largest vote in its history – some 160 million votes. Trump lost by more than 7 million. He immediately started to accuse the Democrats of fraud, of counting the votes of dead people or of people who had not registered to vote. He attacked especially the states where many people of color had voted. He took more than 60 cases to court in various states and lost them all. Up until today Trump has not conceded the victory to Joe Biden nor have his most fanatic followers. They have invented a series of plots and conspiracies to explain the loss.
And so we come to January 6. That day Congress had come together to fulfill one of the most arcane requirements of our Constitution. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes according to the number of seats it has in the Congress; its votes are given to the candidate who wins the majority of the popular vote in the state. The only function of Congress is to count the electoral votes and declare the winner. Donald Trump was convinced that it was an opportunity to change the results of the election and he called together his followers to assault the Capitol and take over the Congress. It was really an attempted coup d’etat. Declaring that they had done it at the direction of the President, the mob overwhelmed the police, broke down windows and doors, destroyed furniture, invaded the chambers and forced the members of Congress, including the Vice-President, to go into hiding. In the end the police were able to control the situation and threw them out. Five people died in the attack. The only other time that the Capitol was sacked was in 1814 when it was burned by an English army.
I have written this article in part to explain to a non-American audience the events of the last few months so that they can better understand the madness that has grabbed us. But on the other hand I wanted to call attention to the danger of ignoring the inequality in our societies and the importance of the consequences of doing so. During the pandemic, inequality has grown. Those who could telework continued to earn money, the Stock Market reached highs never before seen, and those on top bettered their state of luxury, while those on the bottom found themselves without work, forced to leave their housing, and could not even send their children to school. The “essential workers” had to continue doing their jobs and fell victims to the pandemic, along with blacks, latinos and indigenous people. Governments did not know how to react quickly and the steps that were finally taken alleviated some needs but left a lot of others without resolution.
It should not surprise us, then, that the disadvantaged protested or felt that they had no voice. The surprising thing is that a person like Donald Trump, who, of course, is not one of them, could propose himself as their savior. He discovered the way to express in public the rudest, most vile feelings of the crowd which they themselves only expressed in private. He gave them a voice. The bad thing is that he turned their loyalty to his own advantage in order to maintain himself in power. He never learned how to empathize or sympathize with those who were suffering, he blamed people of color for all the bad things and he looked down on women in particular. And in the end, like all those who hope to be dictators, he did not want to leave the presidency.
Be careful! The example that the United States is giving is that democracy is fragile, very fragile. If we are bit careful, if we don’t take seriously the desires and needs of the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the minorities, we put ourselves in peril of losing our democracy to the politics of extremism, left or right, which might find a leader, a chieftain, a caudillo.