Storming the Capitol — Trump’s exit won’t fix much

The scenes from the Capitol yesterday, where the process confirming Biden’s status as President-Elect was disrupted by protesters invading the Capitol, made for sad viewing. As do many of the responses to it, immediately as well as nearly a day later.

I say this not only for the obvious reasons, such as how predictable this sort of event was, or how bewildering it continues to be that a US President can encourage these events (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) without being removed from office, but also because I fear that far too many people believe that Trump’s departure from the White House will address the problems that led to his election in the first place.

Many books have, and will be, written about these past 4 years, and I can’t do the details justice. The main thing I want to highlight is that the “coup” or “coup attempt” is not what many think it is, and it didn’t fail — it has succeeded, and a lot of work will be necessary to undo it.

The US institutions still function(ed), albeit sometimes imperfectly or slowly. But the coup to worry about (currently) is not that, but rather the fact that it’s not only commitment to common political and moral values that has been eroded by Trump’s term (and its antecedent years), but also any widespread agreement on what reality is.

You can fix — or start fixing — practical problems like unemployment, racial and gender bias, police brutality and so forth with a different House, Senate and President. Or you can make them worse, not that this seems likely in this case.

But if people don’t trust each other, or talk to each other, those values, and that shared conception of reality, takes decades to fix — and isn’t usually fixed by party politics at all.

I’ll stick to two examples. First, one protester was shot, and then later died, during the invasion. Two police officers were hospitalised, with others injured. This happened without any concrete evidence of a planned (actual, or typical) coup — in other words, the people who invaded didn’t have any legitimate reason to disbelieve that ordinary law and order responses would apply, and presumably, they knew that their actions were illegal.

Yet, the rhetoric and bluster of Trump and his amplifiers overrode those motivational factors to the extent that people were willing to invade the “cathedral” of American democracy, and stand in opposition to armed police officers, risking death or at least prison sentences. That is astonishing, as is the fact that it no longer strikes some people as being so.

Second, we have Elizabeth, from Knoxville, Tennessee. Elizabeth is now being mocked on Twitter and elsewhere thanks to the clip below, which has been widely circulated. Two things on this: one, mocking her is part of the reason she developed into the person you see here.

I don’t mean “mocking” literally (though perhaps she has been mocked in the past, I don’t know), but rather, that perceived contempt or disregard for her views and her fears is part of why people can be inspired by a person like Trump to act in these ways, to do things extreme enough to get killed (as per the first example above).

Second, the disconnect from reality — or what was once commonly understood to be reality — is again utterly bewildering. Watch the clip — this woman is genuinely surprised to find that a possible consequence of trying to “storm the Capitol” in something she describes as a “revolution” is that one might get tear-gassed.

How surprised might she be if, for example, she was also shot, or if she were sentenced to 10 years in prison for rebellion or insurrection? How can one be surprised to find that those tasked with keeping lawmakers and government buildings safe actually act to protect those same things?

Some lawmakers in the House chamber thought they’d have to “fight” to get out, during the unfolding chaos. The entire thing reminded some of us UCT folk about our experiences in 2015–2017, where meetings were also invaded, art and furniture destroyed, and so forth.

I use the UCT example not to make any point about similarities or differences in anyone’s motivation or politics, but to make a more foundational point.

It’s now 5 years since that all started at UCT. I had imaginary guns waved in my face, accompanied by threatening words, and was trapped in a room more than once. Others experienced worse, and that includes students and all categories of staff.

I still care about UCT, and I still work hard to secure its long-term flourishing, as well as that of the people who work and learn there. But fewer people care than before, many care less than they used to, and many people who used to care have left.

Loyalty, relations that conduce to communication, and trust, take a long time to build up and a short time to destroy.

Trump will be gone in two weeks. But what got him elected remains, and he — and the people who will retool his approach into some more seductive package — will not stop leveraging partisan attitudes and emotions for personal and political gain.

And to re-iterate, the partisanship runs deeper than simply politics. It’s also about what counts as evidence, what counts as “my country”, and who counts as a traitor.

As I said to one of those UCT colleagues towards the end of the evening (still late afternoon at the Capitol), the bigger issue that those of us who try to be rational servants of institutions need to face up to is that as much as we might hope for rational argument to make a difference, the evidence keeps coming in that it … simply doesn’t.

(Disclosure: I was a member of the UCT Council during the time mentioned above, and continue to serve in that capacity. The comments above express a personal view, rather than a UCT or Council position.)

Jacques Rousseau lectures critical thinking & ethics (University of Cape Town), and co-authored “Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience” (Springer 2016).