Written by Jack Zimakas
Cover image from CNN.com
Fraught and bitter to the very end, the last four years under President Donald J. Trump have worn American political discourse to a feeble nub. Polarization peaked in 2020 with a disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and later mass protests further emphasized the legacy of racism and white supremacy as well as the deep divisions which persist in American society and politics. Grappling with unfounded accusations of a stolen November election, the nation has seen a large swath of Trump voters affirm support for his baseless claims of electoral victory. The next four years of Joe Biden’s presidency will hopefully foster a number of national conversations, but these conversations will surely suffer when the simplistic arguments normalized during the Trump years are employed. In the wake of Trump’s presidency and the numerous incidents of political violence which took place during it, from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 to the riots at the Capitol earlier this month, America has much to unpack.
Now that Biden has been sworn in as President, general agreement is spreading among political observers that we must pick through the detritus of these last four years and strive to make sense of quandaries past and present, as well as the conditions and beliefs which allowed Trumpian politics to succeed in the first place. But the last major event of Trump’s term is fresh in our minds, and its meaning must be given due consideration. Many see the storming of the Capitol Building on January 6th as a grotesque amalgam of everything American political analysts remarked on over the past four years, summarized by one outrageous event: fueled by presidentially-stoked hatred of the mainstream media and a conviction that the “establishment” would never act in their interests, protesters donned the brash belief that they were ordained to reverse an election result for which there was virtually no credible evidence of fraud, created by a pandemic they continuously deny on even shakier foundations. And what’s more, the twisted victory they must have imagined would only be won by coercion. Proud democracy assured by the fist alone.
While protesters remained in the building all afternoon, many online conversations took a comparative turn: How would Capitol security and the National Guard have responded if Black Lives Matter protesters were doing the same thing? This summer’s protests against police violence and anti-Black racism were marred on numerous occasions by a police response many saw as disproportionate to the level of disorder in the protests themselves. The more infamous events such as the deliberate teargassing of protesters in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square—merely to make way for a presidential photo op, sending a “powerful message” from Trump against the protests—were often invoked by online commentators while pondering this question.
Joe Biden shared the grim sentiment that BLM protesters “would have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol". Representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement themselves did not mince words: “When Black people protest for our lives, we are met by National Guard troops or police equipped with assault rifles, tear gas and battle helmets. When white people attempt a coup, they are met by an underwhelming number of law enforcement personnel who act powerless to intervene”, their Twitter account posted on January 6th. “Make no mistake, if the protesters were Black, we would have been tear gassed, battered, and perhaps shot”, they Tweeted shortly after.
Major news outlets, CNN and The Guardian among them, wasted little time in contrasting the police response to pro-Trump rioters against their response to antiracism protests, juxtaposing images such as police roughly handling BLM protesters against images of pro-Trump rioters taking selfies with officers, for example, to make an implicit point about different treatment and the ways race factor into it. While comparing police response during a summer of mass protests to the actions of a relatively small number of officers on a single day is difficult, many nevertheless observed a clear double standard between the handling of many peaceful protests over the summer versus a violent storming of government property in an attempt to disrupt a fundamental democratic process.
Public distrust of the media among Trump’s supporters remains at a boiling point. His demonization of many news outlets has undoubtedly motivated much of his supporters’ antagonism on its own: video of the riots captured supporters destroying the gear of an AP reporting team at the scene, some apparently thinking it belonged to CNN. Added to the ongoing debate about whether Trump himself should be held responsible for inciting the riot, this represents a chasm between many left and right-wing commentators as to the impact of rhetoric on others’ actions.
Trump should be held responsible for the five lives lost that day; how could imploring his supporters to “fight like hell” for the results they wanted logically lead anywhere else? How can the harassment of numerous media professionals by Trump supporters be disregarded in light of frequent, casually-dropped statements such as “the press is the enemy of the people”? While many of Trump’s detractors believe that he is indeed responsible for this violence, many of his supporters hesitate to blame any connotative words for actually inciting their violence—according to their logic, if he did not explicitly say to do it, then he must be blameless.
So the riot was dispersed, Trump was impeached for a second time, and Joe Biden has now been inaugurated as President. National conversations will soon switch to the expectations and wishes many have for his first term: handling the pandemic, eradicating systemic barriers for marginalized peoples, and placing America at the forefront of climate change action. Elsewhere, however, divisions resulting from a distrust in science, the spread of conspiracy theories, and malignancies such as the embrace of white supremacy within politics--much of which was lurking in the fringe well before Trump’s presidency or rise in the political sphere--will take a long time to heal, and not without extensive work. As international observers we can only hope that such topics will soon follow, for the health of a powerful ally and the safety of its citizens above all.