Pandemic weary Americans entered 2021 with hope for better times but found those hopes dashed. On Jan. 6, as a mob of insurrectionists, incited by Trump, stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to halt the ceremonial counting of the electoral votes for president and vice president. After a six-hour siege, Congress resumed counting and formally certified Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president in the early morning hours of Jan. 7.
The images of the siege shocked the nation and, indeed the world, and left many worried about the health of democracy in the US. Given the strong image of the US as a beacon for democracy, a potential weakening of democratic traditions has broad implications for democracy around the world. Throughout its history, the US has struggled to live up to its democratic image, but that image has remained a powerful motivation for democracy movements at home and abroad.
To understand the precarious situation, we need to define what has just happened. The siege of the Capitol was the climax of a slow-moving coup on the part of President Donald Trump. In a recent article in “Politico,” Fiona Hill, a member the US National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, stated: “The storming of the Capitol building on Jan. 6 was the culmination of a series of actions and events taken or instigated by Trump so he could retain the presidency that together amount to an attempt at a self-coup. This was not a one-off or brief episode.”
From the beginning of his term, Trump has focused on bending institutions to fit his personal whims. Career public servants who contradicted his lies were removed while he worked steadily to nominate federal judges and, when given a chance, Supreme Court justices, that he thought would rule in his favor if necessary. At the end of 2019, he was impeached at the end of 2019 over a phone call in which he attempted to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the US in 2020, his electoral prospects faded, and he began to seed doubts about the fairness of the election. After his loss in November, he refused to concede and began an extended legal effort to challenge the election results. This effort culminated in pressure on members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results on Jan. 6.
The four years of Donald Trump can be seen a struggle between institutions and a narcissistic authoritarian president. Trump has his share of victories because he forced a number of talented civil servants out of their jobs and nominated many federal judges and three Supreme Court justices. Through his Twitter account, he defined the political debate and bullied people into submission.
Trump ran into trouble, however, when his efforts turned toward subverting the 2020 presidential election. While the president has power over the executive branch and the right to nominate judges, elections in the US are a state and local responsibility. At each pressure point, before and after the election, state and local officials, including many Republicans, stood up to Trump. Judges at all levels, Trump nominees included, rejected his cases citing lack of merit.
Trump’s failed self-coup leaves several lessons for the US and other democracies. The first is that a dispersion of power inside and between levels of government makes it harder for authoritarians to succeed. The second is that integrity of public officials counts. Scores of election and appointed officials, mostly at the local level, upheld their oath of office and resisted Trump’s pressure.
In most cases, public opinion, often voiced through sustained public protest, plays a key role in protecting democracy. The history of democracy movements in South Korea highlights the importance of public protest in checking leaders harmful to democracy. The candlelight vigils calling for Park Geun-hye’s removal pushed the National Assembly to impeach.
The lack of public protests against Trump’s coup raises questions. It could be that the public trusted officials to perform their duties faithfully and were reassured as Trump’s efforts failed. Or it could be that the public could not imagine that a US president would attempt a self-coup and could not easily process Trump’s actions.
Whatever the explanation, the public in the US and elsewhere needs to be extra vigilant of leaders, particularly fast-taking charismatic ones, who show little respect for the institutions they are sworn to uphold.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.