Oldest democracy on its last legs? – Muhammad Ziauddin

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M Ziauddin

WITH Americans, including the nation’s political leaders, deeply polarised, the Capitol insurrection on 06 January 2021 was the “physical manifestation” of political division that long preceded Trump and makes clear how fragile America’s democratic institutions and practices truly are as a result. Though the critical reaction to the uprising is likely to dominate for the near term, Americans are more likely to let their guard down after Biden takes office. A faction of white supremacists incited by President Trump shut down the body that makes the US laws. This is a grave attack on the separation of powers. It is in monarchies and Cromwellian autocracies, not democratic republics, that strongmen prorogue or stop the meetings of representative legislatures. The United States has, indeed, become a weak democracy unable to prevent violence and bloodshed from marring the transition of power from one leader to the next.

The Internet blinded policymakers in both government and the technology sector were unwilling to acknowledge the societal fissures, such as abiding racism, that fuel disinformation and extremism and tended to avoid making tough decisions. As a result, authorities in both public and private sectors ignored the spread of dangerous ideas on the Internet and the growing networks of radicalized Americans willing to subscribe to notions as far-fetched as QAnon—a conspiracy theory, whose adherents believe that President Trump is locked in a shadowy war with a cabal of Satanist paedophiles who secretly run the world. One post on an internet message board—read: “The Capitol is our goal.

Everything else is a distraction. Every corrupt member of Congress locked in one room and surrounded by real Americans is an opportunity that will never present itself again.” Below it, a chilling comment: “The final solution is the only solution.” Remember, Adolf Hitler’s seizure of total power started with the burning of the Reichstag in 1933. There is at least one controversial picture on social media of policemen taking “selfies” with Jan. 6 protesters.

Other pictures show officers literally opening the doors of the building for the pro-Trump protesters to enter. A welter of conspiracies converged across the U.S. information ecosystem by the end of 2020, with QAnon interwoven with other theories about the alleged danger of 5G wireless technology, the perils of the COVID-19 vaccine and the wearing of masks, the dealings in Ukraine of President-elect Joe Biden’s son, and, tellingly, the conviction that Biden had stolen the presidential election from Trump.

Trump frequently tweeted messages that violated Twitter’s terms of service to his nearly 90 million followers, including misleading statements about the safety and security of mail-in balloting in the lead-up to the November election. His many online lieutenants and allies magnified his messages even further. Trump’s refusal throughout his term to disavow white supremacists and to refute the QAnon theory further strengthened those movements, whose members, unsurprisingly, helped push the president’s false allegations of a “rigged election.”

Activists from across Trump’s base, all who bought into that disinformation narrative, arrived en masse at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 with the express goal of overturning the democratic process, causing mayhem, and shaking the country to its core.

For years, the same platforms attempted to rationalise their refusal to tackle influential accounts, such as that of the president, that was very clearly in violation of their policies. Using the First Amendment as a shield, platforms argued that even if Trump posted the content that transgressed their rules, it wasn’t their job to censor; rather, it was the job of voters to judge Trump harshly for his statements. Trump fomented violence, he has incited sedition, and in everything but the most technical terms, he has waged war against the government of the United States, and that’s the very definition of treason.

Some Americans have even started nursing the feeling that the only institution that retains the trust of the people at large is the military, a distinction that carries its own worrying implications.

In its Homeland Threat Assessment released in October 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concluded that white supremacist extremists will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the US. Most domestic terrorist attacks and plots between January 1 and August 31, 2020 were committed by white supremacists. They committed 67 percent of attacks and plots. As in previous years, they frequently targeted government, military, and police targets. A growing number of U.S. federal and state threat assessments have concluded that domestic terrorism could persist in the United States for the foreseeable future, including in 2021 and beyond.

Non-state entities whose goals may include racial supremacy and opposition to government authority and belief in certain conspiracy theories, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican businesswoman knew for espousing conspiratorial and bigoted views claimed that George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, had collaborated with Nazis. Greene further claimed on Facebook that “there is an Islamic invasion into our government offices right now” and urged adherents of Islam and Sharia law to “stay over there in the Middle East,”. She said that Black people “are held slaves to the Democratic Party,” while White males are “the most mistreated group of people in the United States today.”

She also posted on Facebook an image of herself holding a gun alongside images of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, encouraging “strong conservative Christians to go on the offence against these socialists who want to rip our country apart United States’ global image has taken a bad hit on the day Capitol was attacked, although the last four years under Donald Trump had done plenty of damage already. And it is certainly true that the political turmoil that has engulfed the country since November will make it harder for the United States to continue to spread democracy and human rights abroad or build an international coalition against China.

It will indeed take decades, if at all before American officials can talk to foreign countries about the importance of elections and peaceful transfer of power without the horror of Wednesday’s event being thrown back in their face.

— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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