A Response to Donald Trump’s Assault on Democracy

By Laurence D. Houlgate

“America is an idea. An idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant.” Joseph R. Biden

On January 6, 2021, my wife and I joined millions of people who turned on their television sets to witness what most thought would be a contentious but traditional event at the U.S. Capitol. This was the day when the entire Congress would assemble, count, and accept the electoral votes for President of the United States. The task of the presiding officer, Vice President Mike Pence, was to open the envelopes containing the votes and announce the results.

We knew beforehand that the electoral votes of some states won by Joseph Biden would be challenged by a minority of Republican representatives and senators on the grounds that the voting procedures in those states were “unconstitutional,” even though these complaints had been adjudicated in state and federal courts as “without merit.” We also knew that the real objective of the complainants was not to overturn the election of Joseph R. Biden as president of the United States. They did not have the floor votes that would make this happen. Rather, their objective was to curry favor with Donald Trump so that he would continue to support them in future elections.

At the same time, we knew that after many hours of tiresome debate, reality would prevail and the results of the electors would confirm Joseph R. Biden as our next president.

There was another group of people on that day who also wanted to overturn the election. At the behest of the president, about 10,000 of his supporters had assembled in the ellipse of the Mall, located within a short walk to the Capitol building. This group was not there to protest the election results. They were incited by the president to ignore the lawful procedures followed by Congress and use intimidation and other means to change the vote.

To our astonishment, horror and disbelief, as we were watching, the scene on our television set turned from a congressional debate to a riot taking place at the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s rally audience had gone en masse to the Capitol, breaching doors and windows, threatening the lives of members of Congress, fighting Capitol police, killing one officer, while destroying and looting Capitol property. It was if we were watching a coup taking place in a banana republic. This was not a protest. It was an insurrection, a violent domestic uprising against the government of the United States of America.

The aim of Trump and the insurrectionists was to intimidate Congress into rejecting the final results of the election. The ultimate goal of some was to destroy democracy itself and replace it with a dictatorial monarchy headed by Donald Trump. Some carried signs or wore shirts announcing their allegiance not to America but to the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan. Others carried the flag of the Confederacy, as if the Civil War was to be revived. Many of the insurrectionists carried and waved the American flag as a way of showing that their patriotic duty included breaching and looting the U.S. Capitol.

The latter group of insurrectionists did this because (some said) they wanted to force Congress to give Trump the electoral results that he (falsely) said he had won. This lack of trust in the electoral process was shaped by a year-long Twitter campaign from Trump that the November election would be “rigged” in favor of his opponent Joseph Biden. Trump convinced his followers, without giving evidence, that he, not Biden had won. Their conviction about this was not based on objective evidence of the election results but on what they were being told many times, on a daily basis by Donald Trump and his far-right media supporters.

When told that all of the governors had certified the election results in their state, Trump answered that the governors and election officials in the states that he had lost were corrupt or confused. When told that he had lost all 60 lawsuits in federal and state courts claiming election errors and fraud, Trump answered that the judges were either incompetent or co-conspirators in a dark scheme to swing the election to Biden.

As a result of this drumbeat of lies, Trump’s followers at his January 6 rally had already accepted his claims about the election results (“I won the election by a lot, by millions of votes”) instead of believing what they heard from mainstream news outlets. Why? Because Trump had told them multiple times that the official news they were hearing about him or about the election results was “fake” and news reporters were “enemies of the people.”

What brought them to accept these false beliefs? Why did the insurrectionists not trust the rules and procedures of our constitutional democracy? In his press conference of January 8, Joe Biden conjectured that the Capitol rioters are the victims of “The Big Lie,” referring to the tactic of the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels who infamously said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Goebbels also conjectured that for a dictatorship, truth was much more dangerous than a lie.

But even if it was true that some states had voting procedures that were arguably unconstitutional, why did Donald Trump and his gang of insurrectionists think that the patriotic solution was to invade the Capitol and force members of Congress to overturn the election in his favor? A true patriot would not confuse the rule of law with the rule of force. A patriot would know that democracy itself would be destroyed if elections were always decided by those who had the most power (physical ability) to determine winners and losers.

Looking to the future, here is the most important question. Assuming that Americans want the U.S. Capitol and other government buildings to be protected from further assault, what can be done to prevent attacks like the one we witnessed on January 6?

One obvious answer is to bolster the physical protection of government buildings, government events (like the inauguration of the president), the people who serve the government, and those who attend political events. At this writing, I understand that this is already taking place. We cannot risk another assault on our democracy.

Second, we must practice deterrence by making sure that all of those found guilty of crimes committed during the breach of the Capitol on January 6 are punished to the fullest extent of the law. These punishments must be advertised loudly and far, so that those who would attempt to repeat these assaults on democracy will know that their behavior will be met with severe fines and lengthy imprisonment. Again, steps are now being taken to punish the instigators and it will continue for several months.

Third, and perhaps of most importance, we must find a way to restore faith in democracy. This cannot be accomplished by force. Might makes fright but it does not make faith. We can frighten a Trumpian rioter to say the words “I support the Constitution,” but we cannot force him or her to believe in it and our other democratic institutions.

The rejection of force as a cure for restoring faith in democracy leaves us with two voluntary paths we might take: the restoration of community in our society and the revival of civic education in our public schools.

When people see themselves as members of a community, they treat one another in the way that they would treat members of their family, their friends or their neighbors. In a community, the relation people have to one another does not arise from a contract. It arises from the very nature of the communal relationship. If my cousin, friend or neighbor needs my help, then I attempt to provide this help, not because I have made a promise or signed a contract to provide help. I help them because they are a cousin, friend or neighbor. Political and religious differences are irrelevant. If my Trump-supporting neighbor needs help, I would go to her aid as quickly as I would go to the aid of my Biden-supporting neighbor.

Now try to imagine a large society in which each member conceives themselves as a member of the same community. Let’s call this society “the American community.” As members of the American community we would go to the help of one another in times of need and we would expect such help from others members when we are in need. We would see one another as friends not as political enemies. When we argue with one another about law and policy differences we would treat one another with respect.

Americans have a history of protecting one another when the community is in danger of serious harm. We saw the universal desire to protect when we feared invasion by foreign countries during World Wars I and II, and when the twin towers were attacked by foreign actors on September 11, 2001. During these wars and attacks, Americans set aside their political differences as they rushed to help the fallen and take up arms to protect their country.

The second component of the path toward restoring faith in democracy is to revive civic education in public schools. “Civics” was once a permanent component of public-school education because the Founders insisted that all children should be prepared to be active participants in the democracy when they reached the legal age to vote. But it has steadily dropped off the curriculum in the last 50 years.
Civics courses do not teach “blind devotion to the state or its leaders.” And it is not enough to teach a child how to cast a vote, to memorize the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights. Our young people must understand the content of what they are reading and saying. They must understand the significance of these great documents. They must be shown how to think critically about various forms of government, including not only constitutional democracy but how the Founders came to reject monarchy and oligarchy through argument and discussion.

Can we do this? Can we protect our democracy by restoring the soul of America, understood here as a community of citizens, devoted to democracy, who will help and protect one another? Can we re-establish a system of civic education of our young people who are prepared to think critically about candidates and issues before they cast their first vote?

The American idea of which Biden speaks in the epigraph is the idea of democracy, an idea that is “stronger, bigger and more powerful” than the insurrectionist mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6. This daring idea, enshrined in the Constitution, survived the burning of the Capitol by the British in 1814 and the constant threat of the Confederate Army to destroy the Capitol building during the Civil War.

The good news is that the idea of American democracy, an idea that reveals the soul of America, will long survive Donald Trump and the traitors who he incited to breach and loot the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Our democracy has survived several damaging foreign attacks on our soil. It can surely survive this act of domestic terrorism. We shall always overcome.