Capitol riots: More than just an “attack”

Jan. 6 events will have severe consequences on U.S. power and influence

It’s easy to say that American government stood strong against rioters on Jan. 6 and that the country resisted an “attack on democracy.” That argument, though widely repeated by prominent figures, misses the point.

Sure, the riots were an embarrassment. A country that touts itself as the leader of the free world and the bearer of democracy couldn’t protect one of its most important buildings from disorganized swarms of people. The United States let hypocrisy take center stage for the entire world to see, much to the amusement of its enemies.

And of course, the riots were ultimately a president’s attempt to maintain power and undermine the rigid democratic system that kept him in check. However, everyday people storming the Capitol couldn’t have done much anyways, since they lacked a clear plan and didn’t have any true means to completely stifle a federal election process.

If Jan. 6 is deemed an “attack on democracy,” it would have to be a slow-brewing one. The Trump administration proved that populist tactics were powerful enough to earn a candidate an official position and potentially override governmental processes. It proved that the country’s executive branch can warp its checks and balances through public manipulation, all within the confines of the Bill of Rights and Constitution. And it proved that even the strictest of democracies cannot be safe from elements of autocracy.

After World War II, the West has largely avoided the rise of future dictators by relying on strong cultural reverence of the democratic process and maintaining a strict set of rules for politicians. Various leaders have undermined them through charisma and emotional appeal, and the U.S. has experienced it multiple times since the 1940s.

But where movements like McCarthyism failed, President Trump’s influence continued to expand. His control over press organizations and politicians and ability to alter his own image established an expansive base of die-hard supporters. It is a dangerous precedent which gives future leaders a success story to base their abuses of power on.

Perhaps worse, the Capitol riots deeply damaged America’s global image. It’s not just an embarrassment; it sends a worrying and plausible message to the world that democracy is not sustainable. The country that upholds the integrity of democratic governments demonstrated the failures of its own government system, which has always been the international ideal. It stoked fears of democracy’s ability to prevent totalitarianism and authoritarianism—if the most powerful country in the world couldn’t keep the executive branch from undermining the system, there’s little hope for anyone else.

The ordeal also deteriorated trust among certain constituents. Left-leaning Americans noted a difference in the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters and those who broke into the Capitol building, though the legitimacy of such an observation is largely based on individual perception. For many of these people, photos of police taking selfies with rioters and the lack of a militarized defense presence speaks to a larger institutional failure to ensure equality of governance. Having so many people without faith in their government is a bad look for American democracy.

The inadequacy of the Capitol police to protect the building also sends a stark message about America’s resources and management. The U.S. spends more on defense than any other country, but somehow securing Congress during a publicly planned demonstration was not deemed important by D.C. politicians and the federal government. America’s failure to get a pandemic under control and resuscitate its economy decayed the country’s international legitimacy, and the Capitol riots made it much worse.

Economists and other experts have been warning of a decline in American power, a day when resource-rich, populous China and India would take over the world stage. That won’t happen for years, but the riot in the Capitol building on Jan. 6 accelerated that outcome by tarnishing America’s international image. China has been cashing in on this deterioration for years, investing heavily in third world nations and pulling them into their sphere of influence. Now, more countries on the edge will turn to America’s enemies; in a sense, the Capitol riots have fueled the decline, which seems to have already begun.

The riots on Jan. 6 may have been a largely domestic issue, but the United States’ power and influence magnified its implications to a global scale. There’s no telling what the future may hold, but one thing is certain—this event has caused irreparable damage, and it extends much farther than a first glance suggests.