Co-authored by William V. Dunlap, a law professor at Quinnipiac University
Just as the legacy of the Trump administration — a mismanaged COVID-19 pandemic and a bitterly divided nation — couldn’t have gotten any darker, the violence of the pro-Trump mob on January 6th has added yet another twist to the painful uncertainties facing the United States.
Today, Washington looks like a war-stricken city on the Potomac River. There are 25,000 National Guard troops scattered around the capital city to protect a place that before January 6th was famous for hosting peaceful and democratic protests and demonstrations.
Many questions remain, and new ones constantly arise, about why the U.S. Congress was left so perilously under-defended. Why the U.S. president was able to incite insurrection without any apparent fear of criminal or other legal accountability. And why white privilege was so conspicuously on display during the riots that desecrated an important branch of the national government.
The upshot has been a breakdown of trust that has infiltrated the consciousness of the members of the U.S. Congress so deeply that today they fear one another. The deepening political divisions that are preventing the peaceful transfer of power that from the beginning has been a hallmark of American democracy are unbecoming of a country that has for decades held itself out as a model to the world.
The widespread confusion and wrong-headed populist messages provoked by President Trump, his administration, and the MAGA Media, as Fox News and its newer competitors have become known, have created a toxic environment the likes of which we have rarely, arguably never, seen.
The presence of armed militias, led by a mob mentality and egged on by an unhinged president, has contributed to this deeply disturbing and embarrassing situation. The January 6th riots in the nation’s capital are likely to have far more devastating consequences than 9/11’s tragic attacks that rocked the country and killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
Here is why: While the 9/11 attacks were organized by foreign terrorists, the Jan. 6 riots were of domestic origin, provoked by the president of the United States as he incited an armed, pro-Trump mob to civil disorder and violence against the Capitol. The same groups are now announcing new protests at every state capitol on Inauguration Day. The United States now has 50 state targets to constantly worry about and defend—as well as Washington DC.
The 9/11 attacks brought the United States worldwide sympathy. The assault on the Capitol brought ridicule. As China, Russia, and the E.U. are reasserting themselves on the global scene, the United States is struggling to put its own house in order while it watches its soft power dramatically decline around the world.
Equally scary and unsettling is the fact that rioters were being driven not only by a white supremacist cause, led by right-wing extremists carrying a Confederate flag into the Capitol or wearing a T-Shirt with an egregious anti-Semitic slogan— 6MWNE, meaning “six million Jews were not enough.” More alarmingly, they included former firefighters, ex-police officers, military veterans, and even a former member of the US national swimming team.
Some say we should be hopeful. But hope is not a strategy. The Biden administration has inherited a giant mess, widespread unrest, and a raging pandemic that kills 4,000 American each passing day.
The good news is that while democracy appears to have collapsed, at least momentarily, the social contract has not. To be sure, the informal components of the social contract—such as social norms, conventions, expectations, and religious practices—have come under a barrage of attacks by white supremacists, including Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and QAnon conspiracy followers, as never before.
However, the formal portion of the social contract—such as the Constitution, laws, and regulations—appears unshaken. The question is whether civic virtue and forward-looking commitments to the current social contract remain robust.
The prevalence of post-truth politics and culture during Trump’s tenure in the White House has led to the dissipation of shared objective standards for truth. That has precipitated right-wing violence, posing a worrisome challenge to democracy. It is virtually impossible to have a functioning democracy without a broad-based consensus on standards for truth.
There may not be an immediate solution to America’s broken political system. Yet, there are reasons to be hopeful and optimistic about the future of the United States, given its strong democratic institutions and the primacy of the rule of law. In a national emergency like this, the foundations of the social contract are likely to prevail, but U.S. democratic institutions will survive only if the congressional leadership and the new administration prepare their constituencies for a pluralist and multi-racial society.