Yesterday, the world looked on in disbelief as rioters, shrouded in white supremacist symbols and with Confederate flags draped over their shoulders, stormed through lines of police and briefly took control of the United States Capitol. It was an attack directed at the heart of US democracy and, if we are not careful, those scenes will undoubtedly be repeated here in the UK.
Online commentators were quick to point out that it was the first time since the War of 1812 that the Capitol building was breached and overrun so comprehensively. Back then, it was British troops who pillaged and set fire to the building that was still under construction. This time, the invaders were incited by the sitting President of the United States.
The scenes were shocking. Rioters breezed past security forces in stark contrast to the harsh punishment doled out to Black Lives Matter protestors who were shot at and maced in cities across the US this summer. But the events which unfolded were not particularly surprising or unexpected. This day had been coming from the moment Donald Trump descended from the escalators in Trump towers to announce his candidacy for President.
In the 1,448 days since, President Trump has peddled one dangerous lie after another, platformed ugly conspiracy theories and behaved as an unstable narcissist with one hand on Twitter and the other on the executive office of government. He has attacked his political enemies with mendacity and hatred, and engaged in a determined strategy of divide and rule.
Where his own competence has failed him, he has retreated into rallying his base with racism and bigotry. He has found success by dispensing with the dog whistles his predecessors hid behind and bulldozing through the niceties of politics. His approach was openly racist, right from the Muslim ban in the infant days of his presidency and continuing to his pardoning of war criminals and murderers of Iraqi civilians just in recent weeks.
Those who see yesterday merely as a fringe event, representing no-one significant and unlikely to impact American public life in the coming decade must come to terms with just how deep this sentiment runs: in a YouGov poll released today, 45% of Republicans endorsed the storming of the Capitol building.
For four years, Trump has been enabled by a cabal of cowards and hypocrites. Ted Cruz, who once described Trump as a man who “cannot tell the truth” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen,” has more recently been seen defending Trump’s nonsensical claims of election fraud. Nikki Haley once said “Donald Trump is everything I taught my kids not to do in kindergarten,” Lindsey Graham described the President as “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” Now they are among his closest allies.
In the UK we must see this as a warning of what is happening right here on our shores. Trump and Trumpism is not just an American problem. It is part of a wider trend of reactionary politics sweeping the globe – from Modi in India to Bolsonaro in Brazil and, yes, Boris Johnson’s government in Britain.
The kind of politics and racism that led to the Capitol insurrection has plagued our politics in Britain for years. Boris Johnson is, in fact, a very comparable political figure. He has previously called gay men “bumboys,” labeled Africans “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” and his comments about Muslim women looking like “letterboxes” were linked to a series of attacks. It’s not difficult to see why the US President described Boris as “Britain’s Trump.”
And it’s not as if we haven’t seen the consequences. In 2016, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street by a far-right terrorist invoking the slogan of ‘Britain First,’ an organised fascist grouping. The government has repeatedly been warned about the growing threat from fascists – and evidence last year showed that 30% of foiled terror plots in the UK were by far-right groups, a rate far in excess of anything you’d be given to believe by reading the mainstream media. And they are getting more prepared to take their violence to the streets, as last summer’s riot in London demonstrated.
It is only by addressing the deep inequalities in our societies and the poverty and anxiety of the most vulnerable amongst us that demagogues like Trump, or Boris Johnson, can be defeated. In the United States, this means fighting for Medicare for All, the $15 minimum wage, an end to exorbitant student debt and similar policies. In the UK, it is about scrapping Universal Credit, ending zero-hour contracts, expanding social security, creating free education from cradle to grave, ending landlordism and so much more.
We now know what is at stake. There are no more excuses. Trumpism has been exposed for the threat to democracy that it is. It must be defeated – in the US, the UK and across the world. And it can only be defeated by a new generation of political actors and activists winning a better future for everyone in our societies.