Learning from the abyss on Capitol Hill. What now?

Frederick Kempe

It must be said plainly: Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, incited the violence that unfolded today on Capitol Hill through his words and actions since his defeat in the November elections.

In politics, the reality is that the language and actions of our leaders alter the boundaries of what’s viewed as permissible in public behavior. Through nearly three decades as a Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, I’ve seen that in a positive sense during democratic changes in the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere in the world.

More troubling, we’ve witnessed that in a negative way through authoritarian resurgences in places like Russia and China, through the rise of an angry nationalism in weakening democracies around the world, and through a global recession of democratic rights over the past decade, as measured by Freedom House.

Never, however, did I imagine we would see elements of an angry American mob shatter windows and enter Capitol Hill, the bastion of our democracy, and threaten and ultimately disrupt today’s orderly process of certifying the outcome of the 2020 elections.

Worse still was that they were encouraged in their actions by Trump’s tweets and claims, debunked by courts and vote counters across the United States, that President-elect Joe Biden was fraudulently elected.

Vice President Mike Pence, witness himself to the horrors inside the Capitol, finally sounded the alarm: “The violence and destruction taking place at the US Capitol Must Stop and it Must Stop Now … Peaceful protest is the right of every American but this attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

So, what does all this mean for the Atlantic Council and our work, some sixty years after our birth in 1961?

What does this mean for our founding purpose of promoting constructive US leadership alongside democratic friends and allies to protect and promote the common values and interests that prompted our intervention in World War II to liberate Europe and stop the advance of fascism?

How should this influence our sustained international engagement through the Cold War and beyond to safeguard and advance those gains?

What does this mean for a non-partisan institution driven by common cause and not political ideology—by light and not heat?

It means three things:

First, we advance our work with even greater resolve.

Our mission will never be complete, and the dangers that confront our founding purpose will come in different forms at different times. We need to adapt our responses to emerging challenges.

The challenge will sometimes come in the shape of the worst pandemic in a century or a financial crisis. At other times it will come via the tedious but necessary work of constructing and defending the democratic rules, rights, and institutions that define us.

Second, it means that the job of principled international leadership begins at home. The United States has been a desired partner for others in the world because of the power of its democratic ideals, the resilience of its democratic institutions, the strength of its open markets, and its willingness to work in common cause for larger, shared interests. All of those positive qualities have been challenged. We must play whatever role we can in bolstering them.

Finally, the challenges of our times make action more urgent. We face the combined shock of a global health crisis that is growing worse, an economic downturn that continues, cultural and racial upheavals that are testing our decency, and one of the greatest tests US democracy has ever faced.

None of these tests can be met by a United States as divided as it appeared today or by an incoherent international community without a clearly agreed and defined common purpose. There is reason for hope. The good news is that more Americans than ever are engaged in our democracy. As a result of their votes, in two weeks the world will witness the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. Democratic institutions and processes will win the day. Biden’s response today was the model of what we expect from our presidents.

“The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are,” Biden asserted.

“The world’s watching,” he said. “Like so many other Americans, I am genuinely shocked and saddened that our nation, so long the beacon of light and hope for democracy, has come to such a dark moment. Through war and strife, America endured much and we will endure here and we will prevail again, and we will prevail now. The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, honor, respect [for] the rule of law… the renewal of politics.”

Today’s shock could be helpful in achieving all of that. Sometimes one has to look into the abyss in order to avoid it. Perhaps today’s experience will jolt our elected leaders into realizing they must set aside partisan differences to defend democracy’s hard-fought gains.

If the United States isn’t present as a reliable and principled partner, world leaders will seek other solutions with potentially far worse outcomes for Americans and others.

It’s not enough to simply condemn today’s dangerous, destructive, and illegal violence and the irresponsibility that triggered it. Today’s trauma should prompt us to redouble our efforts within the United States and among allies and partners to simultaneously strengthen our principles and our bonds. The horrid glimpse at the alternative today should be incentive enough to act swiftly and collaboratively. That’s the message signaled by the steely return to work of members of Congress this evening, as soon as the situation permitted, to complete their constitutional duties to certify the election of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

My German immigrant parents, who sacrificed much to embrace the ideals America represented to them and for their family, would have been alarmed at today’s violence. Yet they would have had faith that the country of their dreams would learn from it and improve. There is no better time than now to come together in common cause. This is how every member of the Atlantic Council’s global community can play a part.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.