A Day of Infamy a Year Later

A year ago I put trade aside to deal with what happened on January 6. This week, nearly a year later, I want to repeat some of my thoughts then and provide some updates.

My column after the 2020 election suggested that the events of that year, particularly the reaction to the election and Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, exploded the myths of American exceptionalism and American competence. The events of January 6 reinforced that conclusion.

The idea of America may be exceptional, but it is increasingly clear that our people, or at least a lot of them, are not. I wrote that we are “tribal, violent, racist, and selfish,” and we proved that a year ago. It remains true today. For nearly 250 years, the strength of America has been its resilience—its ability to adapt to change—but every generation has been plagued by a minority who resist change, cling to the past, and fear the “other”—foreigners or those of a different race or ethnicity. Those fears are resurgent today, and as our forebears did, our duty is to combat them and put them back in the closet where they belong.

January 6, 2021, will go down in history as another “day of infamy,” along with December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001, and August 24, 1814, when the British burned the Capitol. The difference is that the other attacks came from the outside. Last year’s was from the inside—our own citizens doing their best to trash a symbol of democracy and disrupt a lawful process required by our Constitution, and apparently proud of it. We have done this to ourselves and reached a profoundly dangerous point from which we have yet to recover.

The essence of democracy is majority rule and accepting the outcome of decisions. If people believe it is okay to attack our institutions and those who defend them when they don’t like an outcome, then our democracy is compromised and our country imperiled. Our system of government did not arise spontaneously. It was the product of hard work, and over the years, thousands have died defending it. The attack on the Capitol was a sad reminder that that work is never over. Responsible Americans must defend our democracy every day if we are to keep it. Those who committed these outrageous acts are being brought to justice, but that is not enough, because the threat remains. We still need to do much soul-searching on how we got to this point and how to ensure we never return to it. 

The fallout from this tragedy will reverberate for a long time, both here and abroad. The president left office disgraced and discredited but unrepentant. He continues to try to destroy anyone in the party who disagrees with his version of events. He still maintains significant support, out of agreement on the part of some and simply fear on the part of others, but I see faint signs that this is fading and that he will eventually end up like the proverbial crazy uncle—someone Republicans pander to but ignore when it comes to making actual decisions. That may mean the end of Trump, but not of what he advocated. Populism, aversion to foreign involvement, protectionism, and dog-whistle racism and bigotry will haunt his party for years to come, but gradually public focus will turn away from him and toward who will succeed him.

There is no shortage of contenders, particularly in the Senate, where nearly every member has considered running for president. Four of the most prominent have chosen different paths. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) supported the president in his effort to overturn the election result, and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) did not. The jockeying for position over the next four years will be intense, since, as in the movie Highlander, at the end “there can be only one.” (Although decapitation will, hopefully, not be the way of resolving the contest.) While Hawley and Cruz will score points with the pro-Trump base, Cotton and Rubio may be smarter to play the long game, gambling that the die-hard base will shrink as Trump remains loud but becomes irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the United States’ international reputation has been irreparably damaged. It will be harder for us to preach rule of law and easier for authoritarian countries like China to argue that their system works better than ours. Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” has been revealed to have cracks in its foundation. Trump spent four years diminishing our global influence, and it is going to take a long time to undo the damage. It is also clear we have to do a better job of explaining to the American people why that matters.

The good news of last January was that the process, messy though it was, worked. The people—the majority of them, not the mob—prevailed. The bad news a year later is that the divisions in our country remain, and we have hard work ahead to achieve reconciliation at home and restored respect abroad. 

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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