A New Day of Infamy

William Reinsch

This week I had planned to talk about the EU-US relationship, which I think will be a big issue in 2021, but last week’s attack on the Capitol compels me to say something about that. So, please bear with me.

My column after Thanksgiving suggested that the events of the past year, particularly the reaction to the election and Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, have exploded the myths of American exceptionalism and American competence. The events of last week reinforce that conclusion.

The idea of America may be exceptional, but it is increasingly clear that our people, or at least a lot of them, are not. I wrote that we are “tribal, violent, racist, and selfish,” and we proved that last week. On top of that, our police and security forces further demonstrated that American competence is a myth as well. One of the most protected buildings in the United States was easily breached by an unruly mob.

Heads have already started to roll at the Capitol, and more will no doubt follow, but that will not erase the stain of what happened. January 6, 2021 will go down in history as another “day of infamy,” along with December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001, and August 24, 1814, when the British burned the Capitol. The difference among those days, sadly, is that the other attacks came from the outside. Last week’s attack was from the inside—our own citizens doing their best to trash a symbol of democracy and disrupt a lawful process required by our Constitution, and apparently proud of it, even though they failed to stop the process. (Some of the unsung heroes of last week were the quick-witted members and staff who rescued the electoral college documents and carried them out of the chambers so the mob could not destroy them.) We have done this to ourselves and reached a profoundly dangerous point.

The essence of democracy is majority rule and accepting the outcome of decisions. If people believe it is okay to attack our institutions and those who defend them when they don’t like an outcome, then our democracy is compromised and our country imperiled. Our system of government did not arise spontaneously. It was the product of hard work, and over the years, thousands have died defending it. The attack on the Capitol was a sad reminder that that work is never over. Responsible Americans must defend our democracy every day if we are to keep it. Those who committed these outrageous acts may be brought to justice, but that by itself is not enough, because others will follow. We will need to do much soul-searching on how we got to this point and how to make sure we never return to it.

The fallout from this tragedy will reverberate for a long time, both here and abroad. The president is discredited and will either be forced out of office early or will leave in disgrace, defiant to the end. The good news is that his actions likely guarantee he will never win another election. The future is less clear for those who chose to support him. He has spent his life forcing people to choose between supporting him or supporting whatever the other side was at the moment, and then trying to destroy anyone who chose the latter. He has been remarkably successful at that and has maintained overwhelming support in his party, out of agreement on the part of some and simply fear in others. Last week, he put Republicans in the position of either supporting him or supporting rule of law and the Constitution, and many of them chose the former, no doubt thinking it was the best way to preserve their political careers. We will see how that works out for them—history suggests it usually ends badly.

Particularly interesting were the choices of four senators who are prospective presidential candidates in 2024: Josh Hawley (R-MO), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tom Cotton (R-AR). The first two supported the president; the latter two did not. The jockeying for position over the next four years will be intense, since, as in the movie Highlander , at the end “there can be only one.” (Although decapitation will, hopefully, not be the way of resolving the contest.) While Hawley and Cruz will immediately score points with the Republican pro-Trump base, Cotton and Rubio are smarter to play the long game and think past the nomination to the election, gambling that the die-hard base will shrink as Trump remains loud but becomes irrelevant, and the stain of supporting Trump last week will be impossible for Hawley and Cruz to wash off.

Meanwhile, our international reputation has also been irreparably damaged. One can argue that it was never as good as we think, but there is no question that it is now worse. It will be harder for us to preach rule of law and easier for authoritarian countries like China to argue that their system works better than ours. Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” has been revealed to have cracks in its foundation. President Trump has spent four years diminishing our global influence, and this is his biggest blow. It is going to take a long time to undo the damage, and it is clear we have to do a better job of explaining to the American people why doing so matters.

The good news of last week was the process, messy though it was, worked. The people—the majority of them, not the mob—prevailed, and we will have a new president on January 20. The bad news is that we achieved that in the worst possible way and have major challenges ahead to achieve reconciliation at home and restored respect abroad.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in Intern-ational Business at the CSIS in Washington, D.C.