155 years may have passed since the end of the American Civil War, yet shockingly 2021 became the year that the Confederate flag was to be flown in the halls of the US Capitol. Less shocking, perhaps, given the seemingly endless disorientation of the past year, is that the flag was to be held in the hands of a far right Trump supporter marching in lockstep with a shirtless man dressed as a Viking.
On the 6th of January a pro-Trump mob gathered outside of the Capitol in Washington DC, protesting a joint session of the US congress whereby the electoral college was to officially declare Joe Biden as the winner of the general election.
As the proceedings were getting underway the protest soon turned to a violent riot, with the mob eventually penetrating a shockingly lax security detail and making their way inside of the building itself. As a result, five people were killed.
Once the dust settled in Washington, the political gears quickly churned. On Wednesday 13th, the House of Representatives passed an article of impeachment against President Trump upon the single charge of “incitement to insurrection,” premised on how he “willfully made statements that, in context, encouraged – and foreseeably resulted in – lawless action at the Capitol.” This move makes Donald Trump the first president in US history to face impeachment twice.
The specific statements pointed to as the source of his complicity were made during a speech given during a Washington rally the morning before the attack took place. During this he called for a march on the Capitol, and repeatedly invoked references to “fighting” to overturn the vote. In spite of his later calls for peaceful protest, many feel that this was too little too late.
The attack bookends a presidency mired with repeated concessions to the far right and overt fabrication of facts. For instance, Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the 2020 Black Lives Matter civil rights movement was quick to cast protesters as violent “antifa” mobs.
This shifted broader media discourse to selectively focus on rare instances of property damage to the detriment of the real political demands being voiced by the overwhelming majority. Since the Capitol attack, Trump has continued to invoke the limp “antifa” punching bag as in some way responsible for the violence. This simultaneously shifts blame from himself and his supporters onto his political opponents, whilst erroneously casting a loose political ideal as a militant organisation.
And that was not the first time a tactic of rhetorical ambivalence has been used by Trump, as in response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, during 2017 he infamously declared that there were “very fine people on both sides.” This was the same gathering in which counter protester Heather Heyer was murdered when a white supremacist drove his car into a packed crowd.
To the Democrat controlled House of Representatives, there was nothing ambivalent about the events of the 6th of January. For Trump to be convicted in his ensuing impeachment trials a senate supermajority vote of two-thirds is required.
Although some Republicans have indicated that they intend to vote in favour of conviction, many more have remained steadfast in their loyalty to the president. This is in spite of a Quinnipiac University poll indicating that a “slight majority, 52-45%” of the American public believe that Trump should be stripped of his office due to the attack.
If Trump is to be convicted by the senate, it would result in his disqualification from running in the 2024 election. But there is more behind the attack than simply Trump’s words. Evidence has since emerged that much of the organising of the attack took place on the app Parler, a social media platform co-founded and funded by Rebekah Mercer, director of the influential Mercer Family Foundation and a prominent Republican donor.
Since its inception the platform has predominantly been associated with the American right, positioning itself as a conservative alternative to Twitter whilst espousing an ethic of radical “free speech.” But Parler’s lack of content moderation has resulted in it becoming a safe space for discredited conspiracy theories like Qanon, as well as far-right figures ostracised from other platforms.
The Capitol attack thus raises concerns regarding how partisan interests behind the scenes of media spaces can have dangerous consequences in the real world. Parler, as well as other right-wing affiliated platforms, have since felt the repercussions of their inaction, with Amazon, Google, and Apple all removing the app from their respective stores.
Trump himself wasn’t let off the hook either, with Twitter and many other big tech corporations banning or suspending his accounts in the days following the attack. Some see these moves by big tech corporations as responsible moderation of dangerous content, whilst others, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have concerns about the precedent that this sets. Large tech corporations undoubtedly have an outsized influence on contemporary political discourse.
This is something highlighted in the current cultural context where privately owned social media platforms are increasingly the stage in which important public debates and discussions play out. Corporations inevitably answer to shareholders first and foremost, not to the general public. It therefore remains to be seen whether or not this precedent will be used to justify increased intervention by private entities into spaces which ostensibly have come to function as public platforms.
With Trump’s time in office diminishing, the problems highlighted during his presidency are as stark as ever. Off-duty police officers from across the US, including the Capitol itself are coming under investigation for their involvement in the attack.
This brings to light the concerns voiced by civil rights activists for years over the kinds of people that police departments allow to wield the badge of law. Furthermore, FBI reports suggest that more organised far-right activity is to be expected across the country in the coming weeks.
This all points to something clear: that even with a conviction, Trump’s influence on polarising and exciting an already bitterly divided political climate will likely far outlast his time in office. His most fervent supporters, for one thing, certainly show no signs of going anywhere soon.
Image: David Maiolo via Wikimedia Commons