The scenes from the US Capitol insurrection last January 6 are still vivid. Can they be repeated? Could the US be thrust into a civil war? Could democracy die in the country that is the leader of the western world? Such questions would have sounded absurd a few years ago. Not anymore. Leading intellectuals, historians and journalists are discussing them with mounting concern.
The year ahead is crucial. Elections for Congress will be indicative. If the Republicans manage to secure the House and Senate, the risk of an institutional deviation after an ambiguous presidential contest in 2024 will be significant. The Republican Party appears to be held hostage by former president Donald Trump and Trumpism. Republican politicians who voted in favor of his conviction in February last year have either evaporated politically or changed their minds since. Polls show that at least half of the party’s voters still believe the “system” stole the election from him.
At the same time, a huge effort is under way to remove the people and mechanisms that played a role in the last election. Officials in charge of counting the votes and resisting Trump’s appetites have suffered a relentless war. And several states – some of them crucial – have passed legislation making it harder for minorities to participate in the electoral process.
January 6, 2021, showed us that America’s institutions endured – but marginally. Trump’s “big lie” is still the big truth for an important part of society. The division is unprecedented. Serious polls show that there are underground currents in American society pushing developments to the extremes.
One university study on the identities of the 700 Americans arrested for the US Capitol insurrection also makes for interesting reading. It found that the overwhelming majority does not live in areas where Trump had a majority in 2016 or which were hit hard by the financial crisis. The key common denominator is that they live in areas where the white population has nosedived in recent years, causing anxiety and anger. This is a phenomenon with profound cultural characteristics that will deepen further and is certainly not reversible.
Historians are optimistic. They look back and see a country that endured a civil war, the 1929 crash and its aftermath and the violent and turbulent 1960s. But they are also worried. And when you hear presidential historian Michael Beschloss saying that “If we lose our democracy this year, we are unlikely to get it back during our lifetimes,” you certainly begin to worry too.