A year after Capitol siege, US democracy still faces test

WASHINGTON • One year after supporters of Mr Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol and shut down Congress, Americans still await a reckoning on the unprecedented challenge to the country's democracy.

Was it a simple protest-turned-riot? An insurrection? A coup attempt plotted by Mr Trump?

Videos from Jan 6, 2021, bear witness to the violence wrought in the former president's name.

Attackers are seen beating security officers with iron bars and clubs. A policeman is crushed in a doorway, howling in pain.

Rioters clad in assault gear chant "Hang Mike Pence", while the former vice-president and Democratic and Republican lawmakers flee. A woman is fatally shot in a Capitol hallway.

Americans were stunned by the hours-long assault, and so was much of the world, accustomed to seeing the United States as a model of stable democracy.

One year later, the brazen bid to prevent Democrat Joe Biden from taking office after his victory in the November 2020 presidential election needs an accounting.

"Not even during the Civil War did insurrectionists breach our Capitol, the citadel of our democracy," Mr Biden said last July. "This was not dissent. It was disorder. It posed an existential crisis and a test of whether our democracy could survive."

A year later, more than 700 people involved in the Jan 6 attack have been charged, for assaulting law enforcement officers and breaking into and desecrating the halls of Congress.

Investigations have shown a concerted effort by Mr Trump and his allies to prevent Mr Pence from leading Congress in certifying Mr Biden as the lawfully elected president.

The looming question is: how are the attack and Mr Trump's effort linked?

A special committee of the House of Representatives is investigating, but the deeper they get, the more sensitive it becomes.

If they find evidence suggesting that Mr Trump knowingly incited the attack, or plotted to illegally keep power, should they risk more turmoil by seeking an unprecedented criminal prosecution of a former president?

For the first anniversary of the attack on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has ordered a "solemn observance" in Congress.

Mr Trump, who remains the most powerful figure in the Republican Party, is planning his own Jan 6 commemoration in Palm Beach, Florida, which he says will focus on the "rigged" presidential election of 2020.

Although he has shown no evidence that the election was fraudulent, polls show that around two-thirds of Republican voters believe him.

And Republican lawmakers, aware that Mr Trump can make or break them politically, have almost uniformly fallen in line.

Even Mr Pence will not speak against him. Instead, the party is seeking to regain power in the 2022 congressional elections and in 2024, when Mr Trump could run again for president.

The special committee, which has already interviewed around 300 people, needs to complete its work before the midterm elections this November, when Republicans could retake control of the House and snuff out the probe.

Experts say baring the truths about Jan 6 poses huge political risks for the Biden administration. But leaving them buried is also dangerous.

"Jan 6 was the harbinger of a clear and present danger," Mr William Galston, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, told Agence France-Presse.

"The effort to nullify the results of a democratic election failed," he said. "Will that be true three years from now? That's not so clear. Because the people who were determined to nullify the effects of the 2020 election have learned a lot."


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2022, with the headline A year after Capitol siege, US democracy still faces test. Subscribe