Protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results in Washington, D.C., January 2021
Jim Urquhart / TPX Images of the Day / Reuters

Yesterday’s assault on the United States Capitol by a right-wing extremist mob may have only modestly damaged the building, but it gravely injured the prestige of American democracy.  The United States’ authoritarian adversaries are gloating. China’s Communist Youth League, echoing U.S. reactions to the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, called the storming of the Capitol a “beautiful sight.” And America’s democratic allies, who well understand the importance of U.S. democratic leadership to the global cause of freedom, have been badly shaken by the images of ruffians rampaging through the world’s most powerful democratic assembly on the day of its most important deliberative task: certifying the results of the presidential election. In the wake of this calamity, American political and civic leaders now face an urgent imperative to repair the fabric of U.S. democracy.

The siege of the Capitol was a tragedy, but it was also a wake-up call. At this juncture, there is no evidence to suggest a carefully laid plot by organized or well-trained militias. One shudders to imagine what might have transpired had that been the case. If a ragtag band of the radically aggrieved and conspiracy minded could force members of the United States Congress to break off pieces of House furniture to defend themselves, and to evacuate their chambers in distress, what could a serious insurrection have done? The first imperative of any democracy is to physically secure and protect itself—its people, its public officials, and its institutions. Rudely reminded of that fact, the country could be spared a far worse tragedy in the future.

Yet it should not have taken an assault on the legislature to alert Americans to the dangers lurking just beneath the surface of their political discourse. Analysts have warned for years about the erosion of the United States’ democratic norms and about the growing readiness of its deeply polarized electorate to condone or embrace political violence. In a December 2019 survey, the Voter Study Group found that one in five Americans who identified as either Democrats or Republicans felt that violence would be at least “a little” justified if the candidate from the opposing party won the 2020 presidential election. Even more disturbing, about one in ten members of both parties said that there would be “a lot” or “a great deal” of justification for violence if the opposing party won.

While Democrats and Republicans appeared similarly open to post-election violence, there was one big difference between the two parties. The leader of the Republican Party—President Donald Trump—signaled that he would reject the outcome of the election if he lost. Repeatedly over the course of the 2020 campaign, Trump stoked doubts about the credibility of the election, dismissing unfavorable poll results as “fake” and hinting ominously of coming electoral fraud. Trump’s relentless assaults on the integrity of mail-in balloting and refusal to commit to accepting the election result augured a post-election crisis of legitimacy that many, including myself, warned of in advance. The present emergency is, to paraphrase the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s famous novel, the chronicle of a crisis foretold. 

The present emergency is, to paraphrase the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s famous novel, the chronicle of a crisis foretold.

For the last four years, Trump has been the arsonist in chief, lighting the populist flames of rumor and outrage. After a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, he insisted that “very fine people” were on both sides of the conflict. Later, he retweeted a threat of civil war if he were to be impeached. In the United States and around the world, democrats should ponder how, even after four years of constant abuse of democratic norms and a tragically incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump was able to secure more votes than any presidential candidate in American history save for Joe Biden. Part of the answer has to do with Trump’s craven enablers and hangers-on. Even the most charismatic demagogue cannot prevail on his own. He needs accomplices. It takes a party to subvert democracy. 

Trump may be detached from reality at this point, but his cunning loyalists and his accomplices in Congress and in his administration know full well the compromises they have made with truth and decency. They are guilty of the most common offense in the destruction of democracy, what the late political scientist Juan Linz called “semiloyalty”: “a willingness to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse, or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate … politics in a democracy.” Yesterday, many of these semiloyalists in Congress continued to support Trump’s outrageous effort to reverse the outcome of the election, even after the president goaded a rally of his extremist supporters into carrying their explosive rage to Capitol Hill—just as he had encouraged the protesters (some armed) who flooded into Michigan’s state capitol in late April.  

Since as far back as ancient Greece, political theorists have fretted about the potential for democracy to give way to populist tyranny. The genius—early and imperfect though it was—of American democracy was that it checked, balanced, and dispersed power so that a demagogue could not become a tyrant. But institutional checks are only as strong as the people willing to enforce them. The Roman poet Juvenal’s famous question persists: “Who will guard the guardians themselves?”

To a degree that surprised many of Trump’s critics, the courts have delivered a reassuring answer to that dilemma—never more so than in their rejection of dozens of baseless lawsuits challenging the election results. Yet the judiciary alone cannot check populist tyranny, and its rulings did not deter a majority of House Republicans, and over a dozen Republican senators, from backing Trump’s poisonous challenge to the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. It took the shocking tragedy of yesterday’s mob assault on the Capitol to persuade some of them (but only some) to back off. The health of American democracy now depends in part on whether Republican politicians will finally cease encouraging, excusing, and justifying the actions of this undemocratic leader who has given succor to democracy’s enemies at home and abroad.

If there is any good news to be gleaned from the United States’ protracted post-election crisis, it is that civil society has rallied to the defense of democracy. An impressively bipartisan group of more than 40 former elected officials, cabinet secretaries, and military officers joined other civic leaders on the National Council on Election Integrity, waging a multimillion-dollar advocacy effort to ensure that every vote would be counted and to preempt efforts to steal or derail the 2020 election. When this stressful chapter in American history is written, much credit will go to the tireless efforts of organizations such as Issue One, Fix the System, Leadership Now, Protect Democracy, and the Healthy Elections Project and to the timely and forthright analyses of elections experts, including Ben Ginsberg, Edward Foley, and Richard Pildes. If American democracy is to be stabilized and renewed, it will be on a foundation of principled and bipartisan civic engagement.  

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  • LARRY DIAMOND is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.
  • More By Larry Diamond