It seemed like something straight out of a dystopian movie. Incited by the outgoing president of the United States, insurrectionists waving Confederate and Trump flags broke through the barricades surrounding the U.S. Capitol, scaled the stairs, and stormed through the legislative branch complex, including the chamber where members had just been meeting to certify the presidential vote. The scenes at the heart of American democracy were hard to comprehend, and yet given the nature of Donald J. Trump’s presidency and its Republican enablers, few should have been surprised at the American carnage at the end of these four years.
Joe Biden will be inaugurated as president at noon on January 20, with the expressed hope of declaring that “America is back.” But the new president will face a world that has tremendous reservations about whether the country that has held the mantle of world leadership since World War II should continue to do so. While U.S. allies in NATO and in Asia will be relieved that a committed internationalist will once again lead the United States, the views we have expressed previously in these pages—that global leadership is not an American entitlement and Biden’s plan to host a global “Summit for Democracy” will create more problems than benefits—have been profoundly reinforced by this week’s Battle of Capitol Hill.
After 9/11, the United States received supportive messages from allies, with NATO invoking its Article 5 collective security provision for the first time. This week, allies expressed shock and dismay. Most pointedly, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that “the enemies of democracy will be happy to see these incredible pictures from #WashingtonDC.” No other Western democracy has witnessed anything close to this type of political violence in recent years.
On Wednesday, Biden declared, “Decency, respect, tolerance—that’s who we are, that’s who we’ve always been.” The country has certainly aspired to those values, and it will soon once again have a president who believes in them. But in fact Americans have not always been decent, respectful, and tolerant. Those who stormed the Capitol were not outsiders, like the British in 1814. They were Americans, egged on by a sitting president and supported by members of Congress, one of whom even raised his clenched fist in salute before the mob swarmed his workplace.
Americans have not always been decent, respectful, and tolerant.
Congress did reconvene and certify the electoral vote, but as Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said, “This will be a stain on our country not so easily washed away.” Indeed, it is hardly the only such stain of late. Earlier the same day, a former Ku Klux Klan member combed the Georgia State Capitol looking for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. In mid-December, the Proud Boys rampaged through Washington. The FBI broke up a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October.
For all the focus on Fox News, QAnon, and others on the “supply side,” the “demand side” is an even greater concern. As the journalist Charlie Warzel stresses, “Millions of Americans are actively courting conspiracies and violent, radical ideologies in order to make sense of a world they don’t trust.” Scholars of white nationalism and militias warn that Wednesday’s events were not sui generis; and as Seyward Darby, the author of a book on women in the white nationalist movement, warns, “Just because a coup attempt fails doesn’t mean the next one will.”
The Biden team should hold not an international summit for democracy but a domestic one that recommits the nation’s political leadership to the system’s institutions and to the effort to overcome injustice and inequality. Such an endeavor could bring together a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, governors, and mayors to pledge the renewal of American democracy. Among its priorities would be devising measures to ensure the implementation of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, increase police accountability, protect the freedom of the press, and combat disinformation. Such a summit would be not just a Washington event but a multifaceted problem-solving effort, true to U.S. federalism, drawing in state and local actors, in rural communities as well as cities, and engaging civil society as well.
Even with a Democratic majority now in both houses of Congress, Biden’s foreign policy agenda will likely depend on his administration’s ability to show U.S. allies and others that it can deliver the domestic support necessary for a robust internationalism. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both had Democratic Congresses their first two years yet were constrained in their foreign policies. Issues such as climate change and pandemic prevention will require Biden to muster support for major initiatives. Even if Democrats can keep their slim majorities together (as few as four in the House, none to spare in the Senate), the filibuster is still a potent tool that soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is more than willing to use.
Calls for strengthening the domestic foundations of foreign policy may sound hackneyed at this point. But there can no longer be any doubt that fixing American democracy at a level deeper even than the damage Trump has done must be the new administration’s most essential order of business.