Lessons from the US carnage

Lessons from the US carnage
The US experiment in democracy. Graphic: James Durno

With what voice do we speak when the unspeakable happens? What language do we use? In today’s disrupted world of politics, words matter more than ever before

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

– TS Eliot, Little Gidding


On 6 January the world watched as an angry mob occupied the United States Capitol, the place then President-elect Joe Biden would later call “the citadel of liberty”.

For its many faults and failures, America remains a unique democratic experiment. Anyone committed to democracy and the rule of law felt deeply saddened by the events of 6 January.

Where was “the country of laws” as the mob occupied Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office? Where were the guardrails of the US constitution as the same angry mob overwhelmed Capitol police and placed a MAGA hat on the head of George Washington’s statue?

If it could happen in the US, it could happen anywhere. The world is still trying to find the language for the four years of the Trump presidency – for its venality, its constitutional vandalism and its naked racism. Words matter and the words of an American president matter even more. Donald Trump cosied up to dictators and gave every tyrant the license to follow his unaccountable lead.

His hollow presidency was repeatedly shown up for the great con it was always going to be. The reasons for Trump’s ascent to power are varied and complex, and will no doubt be studied for a long while yet, but every leader has his or her enablers; the Republican party and those like Mitch McConnell bear equal culpability for the assault on democracy.

What Trump has left behind is a Republican party captured by the cult of personality, a nation divided and the enemy deep within.

The point is whether, as has been asked, 6 January was a tragic, violent denouement or the beginning of something more sinister? It’s too early to tell but, as Trump was impeached for the second time, the National Guard occupied the Capitol because the safety of the elected representatives inside could not be guaranteed.

Indeed, Biden’s inauguration, meant to be a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power, was marked by unprecedented security, with Washington DC in lockdown. That alone tells us that this new stain on America’s democracy will not easily be erased. Trump predictably left the White House in graceless fashion, seething, small and deluded.

Time will deliver the inexorable verdict on this moment in history, but the further question is whether America stands at a place of historical rupture. What are the choices? A commitment to the rule of law and the founding documents and therefore truth, or a commitment to a Trumpian post-truth world in which facts are abandoned in favour of lies and fantasy?

For, at any moment, there seem to be two alternative narratives. The one is the truth, that which is immutable and fact-based. The other (contained in the lie that the election was “stolen”) is what Garry Kasparov calls “modern propaganda” or, in plain language, lies. Kasparov goes on to say: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

Long before 20 January, the world was exhausted by Trump and his minions’ annihilation of truth. In her fine book, Leadership in Turbulent Times: Lessons from the Presidents, American historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin writes that when Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency, he bore a “quiet sense of responsibility. His spoken and written words were … more measured, more cautious, centered, more determined…” Trump had no such restraint; his only impulse in office was the recklessness that goes along with the pathology of malignant narcissism.

Biden, preternaturally optimistic, has described himself and his presidency as a “bridge” to the future, with his “whole soul” put into reuniting America. Biden’s decency and empathy already distinguish him from Trump. His inauguration speech was purposeful and drew from his own deep well of experience and personal suffering. He is a fundamentally decent man.

Time will tell whether Biden’s presidency will be a bridge to a more dangerous moment in history or indeed to the “more perfect union” the US constitution speaks of. Wednesday was a good start and a cathartic moment for the US and indeed, the world.

Biden will need all the support he can get to save a divided US from itself. What is clear is that this moment calls for leadership of an extraordinary kind. With just the right echoes of history, Biden spoke of America’s often conflicted history: the struggle between light and dark, and its ability to move ever forward.

In his latest book, Lincoln on the Verge: 13 Days to Washington, Ted Widmer details the 13-day train trip Lincoln took from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington to be sworn in as president. It is a story that resonates in these times.

Then, Lincoln faced a country deeply divided on the issue of slavery. The train journey was used by Lincoln as a means to reach out to citizens. By the time he reached New Jersey, surviving two assassination attempts en route, he was increasingly emboldened.

Washington was on a knife’s edge as Lincoln arrived. Widmer writes that although Lincoln preferred reconciliation, he also said: “I fear we will have to put the foot down firmly.” Arriving in Philadelphia, he said that he would be “one of the happiest men in the world” if the country could be saved with its great idea intact. He would “rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it”.

That turned out to be prescient.

As we celebrate 25 years of the adoption of our Constitution this year, we would do well to remember what we intended when we became a constitutional democracy. That decision was deliberate, after all.

Later, Lincoln was warned of an armed mob waiting for him in Baltimore. He survived that phase of the journey too, and days later delivered his “better angels of our nature” inauguration speech. In it, Lincoln said: “A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.” Lincoln went on to mention the “peculiar difficulty” the country faced at the time.

On 6 January, history bore an eerie echo of the events described by Widmer, even as Biden was unable to travel by Amtrak from his home state of Delaware to Washington DC for the inauguration, given the security risks.

On 12 April 1861, soon after Lincoln’s “better angels” inauguration speech, the civil war began.

There are lessons to be learnt from that moment of rupture in American history.

These lessons from the US apply equally to democracies around the world, not least to our own in South Africa. We understand only too well the nature of violent rhetoric, the way in which language is weaponised to whip up popular sentiment. Julius Malema’s own brand of dangerous populism is ever-present, after all. In many ways we have strayed far away from Nelson Mandela’s appeal to the better angels of our nature in these parts.

Who can forget Mandela’s televised address when Chris Hani was assassinated in April 1993? Then, South Africa was at the brink of civil war. It was Mandela’s act of leadership that pulled us back from the brink.

And we remember too, Mandela’s statesmanlike speech to a 200,000-strong crowd in Durban at the height of the violent clashes between the ANC and Inkatha, when he said: “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. End this war now.” He urged peace at a time when we thought peace was impossible – let alone a free and fair election. Ye we delivered not only a free and fair election, but also our own unique democratic experiment.

Still, as our country becomes more divided by deep levels of socioeconomic inequality, adherence to constitutional norms and values will become even more complex. South Africa has lived through almost a decade of State Capture, with the Constitution and the judiciary often the only check on the power of an unaccountable and corrupt President Jacob Zuma.

The consequences of a near-decade of this are empty state coffers feeling the strain of a global pandemic and lacking the resources to fight it. All this represents a rich and fertile cocktail for violence and the undermining of the Constitution, and the rule of law.

For every democracy, as in the US right now, the question remains: “If the constitution is under threat, who will march in its defence?”

As we celebrate 25 years of the adoption of our Constitution this year, we would do well to remember what we intended when we became a constitutional democracy. That decision was deliberate, after all.

As Barack Obama said in his farewell address in January 2017: “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning.”

Those sentiments will be tested in the US in the next months and, indeed, elsewhere in the world where democracies are under pressure from deepening economic and health crises and the populists who would exploit grievance.

No democracy is immune to degradation. That much can be gleaned from the American carnage Trump wrought and which ended in bloody insurrection. DM168

Judith February is a lawyer and the author of  Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of South Africa’s Democracy (Pan Macmillan)

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bryan Shepstone says:

    Brilliant. Thanks Judith.

  • Robert Mckay says:

    Democracy is fragile

    . I try do 4 things. Vote, subscribe to a news source (DM and National Geographic), support a civic organisation and keep those friends and family who you disagree with, close.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Outstanding article. As time goes on it becomes ever more apparent how close the US came. It was saved by institutions (the so-called, much-maligned ‘deep state’) & faceless & named, courageous bureaucrats everywhere. Two institutions stand out: the judiciary & the free press. (Each had its ‘quislings’, but the power of fact & truth held.)

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