Happy New Year – or is it Groundhog Day?
In England, we’ve entered our third Covid-19 lockdown. This week dozens of people have been arrested in Hong Kong for contravening the National Security Law and the news has been dominated by American politics. It could still be 2020…
Given the misery of the ongoing pandemic and the horrendous accounts of arrests and imprisonments around the world by repressive regimes, I’d really like to be writing something positive. About the hope that the election of the Reverend Raphael Warnock has inspired – the first black Senator for Georgia in history to be elected: the son of a cotton picker, a pastor who preaches from the same pulpit as Martin Luther King Jr, the man who officiated at John Lewis’ funeral last year. About the bravery of individuals in Hong Kong as the police systematically seek to arrest people. About the strength of Loujain al-Hathloul’s family as they continue to speak out while she is sentenced.
But instead, the words and actions of one man and his followers have overshadowed that hope, strengthand bravery, even in the face of a global public health emergency which has now killed over 1.88 million people.
Since Joe Biden was declared the winner of last November’s US presidential election we’ve seen for the first time in living memory a losing politician in a western democracy fail to accept the result and undermine faith in the very institutions that they seek to govern.
As an observer, some of Trump’s protestations have been so ludicrous that we’ve been able to laugh. But while Trump and his allies have been a source of amusement, he clearly had a plan and his actions and those of his loyalists were designed to test the strength of the US constitution and the USA’s commitment to democratic values.
On Wednesday, we saw the impact of the rhetoric, of the lies, of the hate and fear. Not only did President Trump succeed in inciting violence in the US Capitol to try and intimidate legislators to unilaterally change the outcome of the election. His words led to bloodshed within a building that for many has been a global symbol of stable democracy. His speeches inspired extremists to lay siege to the ‘People’s House’. His tweets directed the mob to target his political opponents, leaving five dead and countless others hurt and traumatised by this experience. It is no wonder that many social media platforms felt the need to suspend his accounts.
I strongly believe in the First Amendment, but no one has the right to incite violence and no one has the right to undermine the core democratic values that we all want to live by. Not even the President of the United States of America.
Our right to free speech is incredibly important, but there is a difference between free speech and incitement. Between free expression and outright lies. And those lines, while usually blurred, on this occasion are stark and people died because the President crossed them.
We have seen extraordinary journalism in the US over the last few days – highlighting the true value of a free press. And now, in the last days of the Trump presidency, much is being written about the impact on US democracy and the future of the Republican Party after its leader tried to lead what can only be considered an insurrection against the legislature.
But the real damage done this week wasn’t solely in America. Everybody looks for leadership, for inspiration, for security. Since the end of World War 2 the United States has been more than a superpower, more than a nation state, it has embodied a set of ideals for people who live under totalitarian regimes. It has been seen, rightly or not, as the epicentre of the Free World, the defender of democratic values and most importantly a beacon of hope for those that have none.
This has been undermined by Donald Trump’s leadership nearly every day since he took office four years ago. And this week the world witnessed him incite violence against his own politicians. He attacked the free media. He lied about free and fair elections in the US. He inspired an extremist militia to storm Congress and the Senate. And five people died. While the world watched.
Repressive regimes around the world have already and will continue to use these events to undermine the concept of America and American values in their own countries. The impact of 6 January will be deep and far reaching and people will suffer because of it.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have a huge amount of work to do to rebuild faith in the American dream – and not only in the USA. The world is watching.