Revolt and its ramifications
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
In my last column I conveyed the concerns among democracy experts about growing authoritarian tendencies in Seoul. In this column I have to reflect on a far worse episode that subsequently occurred in the United States — the incitement by President Trump of a riotous and violent mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election.
The Bad News
There is a lot to lament about what happened on in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. A lot. Ever since George Washington stepped down and passed his authority to John Adams in 1797 – an act of peaceful democratic transition the world had never before seen — every president has followed his example, even in cases where they thought they might have won. Donald Trump lost by over seven million votes and had all of his spurious claims of fraud thrown out in court, often by judges he appointed. Yet Trump continued perpetuating the lie that he had actually won the election and that his followers had to “be strong” and take back the country. Over one hundred Republican members of Congress and a handful of Republican Senators shamefully played along, fearing Trump’s fury and in some cases cynically hoping for political gain. The insurrectionist mob that attacked the Congress with Trump’s encouragement consisted of the dredges of society — neofascists, anti-semites, white supremacists and QAnon cult followers — some of whom it now appears were intent on murdering politicians they encountered. People did die, though no members of Congress. Congress is moving forward with impeachment proceedings, in large part to keep the pressure on Trump not to do anything else damaging before Biden takes power on Jan. 20. Trump’s own advisers, including his former chief of staff, are telling the press that he is dangerously unhinged and angry. He will no doubt go down as the worst president in American history. And there is no getting around the fact that the American people elected him.
America’s adversaries are gleeful. China is already claiming that the protests in Hong Kong were handled far more professionally and will no doubt use this sad episode to argue at home and abroad that democracy is chaotic and dangerous and that America is in decline. Vladmir Putin is quiet, but must be delighted that his intelligence services’ use of social media “bots” to foment white nationalism and extremist support for Trump paid off so handsomely.
U.S. allies are also disturbed. European allies have been more outspoken in their concern than Asian allies, but all America’s friends will be asking what this means. Will America turn inward? Some members of Congress have called this the beginning of the post-9-11 era in which the greatest terrorist threats to the United States are now domestic. Will this be a distraction from international security concerns like North Korea? Even if Trump is silenced by criminal cases and banned permanently from social media, could one of the cynical demagogues in Congress keep fueling the flames of distrust, misinformation and division? After all, the worst of them, like Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri are not backing down. Could there be another Trump someday? These are painful questions that American diplomats will face in the coming months if not years.
The Good News
For those who followed the events on Wednesday into the evening, there were also signs of the strength of American democracy despite the shocking images that dominated the coverage. Once the mob was cleared out of the Congress, the members completed their constitutional duties and confirmed Joe Biden’s election victory. Speeches by Republicans like Senator Mitt Romney and Congresswoman Liz Cheney showed that many leading conservatives are committed to a reckoning for what their party allowed Donald Trump to do to the Republic. With the possible exception of the Capitol Hill police, every institution of government held firm against enormous if incompetent pressure from Trump to overturn the election results. Judges rejected fallacious claims of fraud. Scores of state and local election officials — many of them Republican — all refused to be bullied by Trump and his mob into denying the election result. Every living former secretary of defense signed onto a letter calling on the Pentagon to stay out of the election, and the military did. Conservative newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post joined with liberal and moderate papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post in condemning Trump and calling on him to resign.
Internationally, there is no prospect that any alliances will falter because of what happened. Support for NATO is strong in Europe and U.S. alliances with Korea, Japan and Australia enjoy robust public and governmental backing. In multiple surveys the American public stands by these alliances by the highest margins ever. Biden ran on a popular promise to renew American alliances.
In short, this is not the time for the United States or its allies to retreat from our core democratic values or waver in building a more just and stable international order. What happened in Washington shows how fragile all democracies can be and how ethno-nationalism and demagoguery plaguing other countries can penetrate the very engine of post-war democratization. Biden must — and likely will — redouble the commitment to striving for a “more perfect union” at home while taking ambitious measures to help democracies remain resilient abroad. This is a perennial in American strategic culture that will not change easily. But the Biden administration will have to approach this effort with humility and with partners. Korea can be one of the most important partners if Seoul and Washington are both clear-eyed about the remaining work we each have to do at home and the contributions we can make to other countries struggling to build representative democracy in a time of changing technology, geopolitics and leadership.