‘He is who he is’

Jennifer Venis, IBA Multimedia JournalistFriday 29 January 2021

Global Insight examines how, even as the Bidens move into the White House and the Democrats take control of the Senate, the legacy of the Trump presidency remains strong.

Header pic: Trump supporters riot at the US Capitol, 6 January 2021. Shutterstock.com / Sebastian Portillo

At the end of President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial in February 2020, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff warned that the President would try to cheat the upcoming election again. ‘You cannot constrain him,’ he said. ‘He is who he is.’

President Trump was impeached following a leaked call in which he tried to convince the President of Ukraine to smear Joe Biden, his 2020 presidential election rival. The President was acquitted of abusing power and obstructing Congress, and remained in office.

But Schiff was right. Joe Biden won the November election, but Trump spent months before and after his loss trying to cheat it again.

A call leaked at the start of January revealed President Trump had pressured Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to ‘find’ him 11,780 votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the State. Although that ignited calls for impeachment, it was overshadowed within days.

On 6 January, Congress gathered to formally confirm Biden’s victory. Some Republicans loyal to Trump had begun challenging the confirmation of several states’ electoral college votes with claims of election fraud, which were ultimately found to be baseless. Mitch McConnell – then Senate Majority Leader – warned that ‘if this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the nation accept an election again’.

Capitol hill riot

An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of then US President Donald Trump gather in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, 6 January 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Within minutes, it became arguable that America was indeed entering a democratic death spiral, not just teetering on the edge. Trump supporters, whom the President had convinced to reject the election results and ‘stop the steal’, stormed the Capitol and unfurled the Confederate flag for the first time in the building’s 200-year history.

Many of the heavily armed rioters called for the capture and assassination of officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pipe bombs were later found at the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee headquarters. Rioters carried zip ties and weapons, and seemed to know the layout of the building well.

It is to some extent a result of sheer luck that no elected officials were harmed, although several – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush – report encounters in which they genuinely feared for their lives.

In stark contrast to the Black Lives Matter protests during 2020, when peaceful protesters were teargassed and beaten, these predominantly white rioters were met with seemingly little resistance from Capitol police officers, who stood without the backup of the National Guard. Questions remain as to why the Capitol was so unprotected when the violent intentions of the mob were clear days, and even weeks, beforehand.

‘Fight like hell’

The answer to the question of ultimate responsibility is clear for some. It is for his role in inciting this attempted insurrection that President Trump was impeached for the second time, days before his presidency ended. Although he has now left office, Trump still faces a Senate trial in the coming weeks. If convicted, Trump will be barred from running for President again.

In early January, Trump had held a rally near the Capitol building at which he promised his supporters he would ‘never concede’. He warned the crowd, ‘If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore,’ and encouraged them to head down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.

The world witnessed an unprecedented assault on the Capitol before the President made a public statement compelling the rioters – whom he said he loved and understood – to leave peacefully.

In a statement released ahead of the impeachment debate, Representative Liz Cheney, the House Republican Conference Chair, called for accountability. She wrote, ‘Much more will become clear in coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack’.

She concluded that everything that followed was his doing. ‘None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,’ she said.

This betrayal didn’t begin or end in one day. President Trump spent months undermining faith in the integrity of the election – before the vote in November and well after he had lost – through lies wrapped in incendiary language. He claimed his loss could only be the result of widespread election fraud, but still refused to concede when all his lawsuits alleging fraud were dismissed in courts of law. He has spent years rejecting truth for convenience and sowing the division that exploded at the Capitol.

Trump did not do it alone. As historian Timothy Snyder wrote in the essay The American Abyss, ‘the responsibility for Trump’s push to overturn an election must be shared by a very large number of Republican members of Congress. Rather than contradict Trump from the beginning, they allowed his election fiction to flourish’.

Once the Capitol was cleared of protestors, members of Congress returned to their posts to complete the formalisation of Biden’s victory. While a few dropped their challenges, other Trump loyalists persisted in trying to undermine the election, even in the face of the violence it had caused.

Some had called for supporters to attend the rally, while it is alleged that some lawmakers helped facilitate the attack by giving tours of the building and sharing the locations of leaders, such as Speaker Pelosi, during the storming of the Capitol.

At the second impeachment debate, Representative Cori Bush called out what she views as the racist roots of the riot, compelling her colleagues to impeach the ‘white supremacist-in-chief […] who incited a white supremacist insurrection’.

She was booed. As Wade McMullen, Senior Vice President of Programs & Legal Strategy at Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, puts it: ‘elected leaders booing the condemnation of white supremacy is all you need to know. That is America today’.

Elected leaders booing the condemnation of white supremacy is all you need to know. That is America today

Wade McMullen
Senior Vice President of Programs & Legal Strategy, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights

Whether Donald Trump will be convicted remains to be seen, but most Republican officials have so far chosen not to hold Trump accountable. In the same breath that they called for unity and healing, they condemned the impeachment as an attempted coup, as if they had not just witnessed one. Party lines prevailed over principles.

Ending the era

Just as the insurrection was not made in a day, or by Trump alone, the Trump era did not end on Biden’s inauguration day. It could not have, because it is not characterised by him alone, but also by his enablers and what they represent: a willingness to dispense with democracy, rights, the rule of law and truth itself. To inflame and utilise division, white supremacist rhetoric and conspiracy for political gain.

Trump is who he is, but so are they. And they did not leave on inauguration day. The people who made Trumpism possible – who kept him in office after the first crisis, the first impeachment and defended him to the end – are still here, still willing to reap the rewards that division brings them.

Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State from 2018 until 20 January 2021, and architect of many of the policies enacted by the Trump administration that critics say have breached human rights, is rumoured to be considering a run for president in 2024.

The Trump era lives on because its roots are deep. McMullen argues that Trump’s extremism is ‘not an aberration. It’s the culmination of the disregard for human dignity and human rights in favour of trafficking in things like white supremacy to enact their own agendas’.

The Trump era lives on because its roots are deep

In McMullen’s mind, ‘the death spiral of American democracy has been ignited for several decades.’ Considerable degradation of everyday people’s democratic control over their lives has already been allowed to take place. Corporate powers, he says, have been allowed to control the whims of politicians and policies to enrich their bottom lines at the expense of the wellbeing and the economic social rights of everyday people.

That influence continues. ‘That’s where I think we have to keep our eye on the ball,’ he argues.

But, adds McMullen, part of the legacy of Trump’s administration is that ‘now more than ever, can we see with our own eyes how a party uses human rights violations like this to maintain their power.’ It has exposed and expanded the depths of the fissures in society and potential for harm that already existed, and it will take a clear-eyed Biden administration to bring the Trump era to an end and to heal the country.

President Joe Biden seems to believe he is up for the job.

A new day

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in on 20 January 2021, commencing what many hope will be four years of reengagement and reconciliation. On his first day, Biden signed a suite of executive orders rolling back President Trump’s most extreme policies, including one that will bring the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement.

In his inaugural speech, Biden spoke of the importance of unity to take the US forward through the pandemic and its accompanying economic crisis, to secure racial justice and ‘make America once again the leading force for good in the world.’

On his first day, Biden signed a suite of executive orders rolling back President Trump’s most extreme policies

‘Our history,’ he said, ‘has been a constant struggle between the American ideal, that we are all created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism and fear have torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never secure’.

Commencing the ceremony, Senator Amy Klobuchar addressed the work to be done. ‘It falls on all of us, not just the two leaders we are inaugurating today, to take up the torch of our democracy, not as a weapon of political arson, but as an instrument for good.’

She celebrated the new presidency, and the history made in Kamala Harris becoming the first African American, first Asian-American and first woman Vice President. ‘When she takes the oath of office, little girls and boys across the world will know that anything and everything is possible,’ said Klobuchar. ‘And in the end, that is America.’

Jennifer Venis is Multimedia Journalist at the IBA and can be contacted at jennifer.venis@int-bar.org