international analysis and commentary

From the legacy of the Trump presidency to the Midterms and beyond

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The assault on Capitol Hill of January 6, 2021 will remain a pivotal event in American political history. The Capitol was placed under lockdown and policymakers were evacuated while pro-Trump rioters occupied and vandalized the building. Five people died and more than 200 were injured. More than a million of dollars of damage was reported. Before, during, and after the counting of votes, then President Donald Trump and other Republicans attempted to overturn the election, claiming widespread voter fraud in five swing states that Joe Biden won: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

 

As of June 30, 2022, 810 individuals have been arrested with charges related to the Capitol Hill event. Their profiles show a very heterogeneous group of people, with vastly different stories and backgrounds. Pape and Ruby, in their pioneering work on political extremism, highlighted some intriguing findings: 94% were white and 84% male; 84% were employed (11% business owners, 30% white collars), 9% unemployed, 3% students and 4% retired. The vast majority have no connection to existing far right militias or groups. The age breakdown also shows a well-distributed picture: 9% 18-24, 23% 25-34, 31% 35-44, 25% 45-54, 12% over 55. The insurrectionists came from 47 states, with Florida and Texas with the most representation. Interestingly, many of these people do not fit into conventional narratives around Trump’s political success. His most staunch supporters may be incredibly angry but are not necessarily poor, nor “forgotten” or coming exclusively from post-industrial areas. There was no Lumpenproletariat on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Above all, most of the insurrectionists were unlikely to have come together without Trump, and many say they were following Trump’s call to action. Even Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, during the vote on the second impeachment, said it is no doubt that Trump is practically and morally responsible for inciting the events at the Capitol.

For his involvement in the events, the former President was impeached by the Congress for a second time. At the conclusion of the trial, the Senate voted 57–43 to convict Trump of inciting insurrection, falling 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority required, and Trump was thus acquitted.

A few months later, in May 2021, the Senate decided not to establish an independent commission to investigate the attacks that would have been modeled on the 9/11 Commission. The House instead voted to form a committee which aims to lay out the results of months of investigative work into the involvement of Trump and his political allies in the 2021 insurrection. Both Democrats and Republicans ordinarily serve on select committees, each appointed by their respective party leaders. However, in an unprecedented move, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed two of Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s picks, Trumpist policymakers Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, arguing that their participation would jeopardize the “integrity of the investigation”. McCarthy responded by refusing to appoint any Republicans to the panel but in the end, two Republicans, Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, agreed to serve as Pelosi appointees on the nine-member committee guaranteeing bipartisanship. Crucially, both Cheney and Kinzinger are considered among the few staunch anti-Trump policymakers remaining in the party.

On June 9, 2022 the House Select Committee held the first of several public hearings. The committee’s public hearings are revealing new information about the insurrection and intriguing details on Trump’s fury to the American public and it may end up recommending criminal charges. Surely, these hearings are bringing Capitol Hill’s January 6th events again to the center of media attention.

The big question is whether these hearings will convince anybody of anything. The US is more polarized today than at any point since 1860, when a dramatic cleavage in social and political preferences was about to send the nation into the Civil War. Half of the country believes that Trump and his supporters came very close to a coup d’etat, the other half think of the events as the actions of patriots who were trying to restore democracy after an election fraud. The people in between, who are holding moderate, more distant views, are a very tiny minority.

Moreover, it is not just Trump, his fanatic electoral base, the Capitol Hill events and the narrative of the “stolen election”. The contemporary US seems to have entered an era in which all longstanding political divides are coming to a showdown.

 

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After years of public debate on minorities and sexuality which separated the public opinion on who spoke of “woke culture” versus others who describe the same thing as “cancel culture”, recent mass murders have rekindled the issue on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Finally, the Supreme Court struck down the right to abortion and millions of people manifested against a decision that is going to have huge consequences at mass and political level.

These moral and social issues are way different from each other, however, they represent some of the major lines of division which affect society and politics. Nested in a vicious circle of social demands and political responses, the two main parties have grown further apart on what the nation’s top priorities should be. In the last few decades, the US experienced a greater surge in ideological polarization (differences in policy goals and political ideals) and affective polarization (a dislike and distrust of political out-groups) than other comparable Western democracies.

Republicans and Democrats have long held differing views about policy solutions, but throughout most of the recent past there was some kind of partisan agreement about the set of issues that were the top priorities. Today, there is virtually no common ground in the topics that rise to the top of the lists for Democrats and Republicans. The partisan gap is particularly evident for a handful of issues. For instance, two-thirds of Democrats identify global climate change as a top priority, while just 21% of Republicans say the same. The right to abortion is now back as a top priority for Democrats, while the majority of the Republicans seems to appreciate the recent Supreme Court’s decision.

These sharp divisions may also affect the November midterm elections, making several races more “national” than they actually are. Trump is particularly active in endorsing candidates, and the legacy of the Capitol Hill riots will also be directly on the ballot. US voters will have to choose among people such as Doug Mastriano, who is the Republican candidate for the Governor of Pennsylvania and who spent January 6, 2021 in front of Capitol Hill protesting against the “stolen election” (but he has repeatedly sworn that he did not enter the building). In Ohio, another Capitol Hill insurrectionist, J.R. Majewski, is one of the GOP candidates for Congress. While in Michigan, Ryan Kelley, one of the top candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primaries, also stated several times that he protested against the ratification of Biden’s victory but never broke into Capitol Hill. However, the FBI had a different opinion and placed him under arrest at the beginning of June.

November’s results are not only going to determine the legislative fate of the remaining two years of the Biden administration, but they will also be a response to the other current major conflicts and political debates.

 

Read also: The abortion debate in the US: a split country

 

In addition, they will obviously be interpreted in light of the 2024 election, that could be a re-match of the 2020 presidential race – although neither the current president nor the former one have made official their intention to run again. The point is that Trump is a champion in surfing over conflicts, in benefiting from the divides within the society. Two presidential campaigns and four years of administration witnessed how he masterminded a radicalized environment, pointing out the enemies and strengthening his supporters.

The rioters’ characteristics should make us also reflect on the future of Trumpism: the heterogeneity of this hardcore base is certainly a plus for the future political ambitions of the 45th President. But the current “Twitter ban” makes it exceedingly difficult for Trump to engage in his favorite rhetorical strategy of “divide and conquer”.