Where everyone’s eyes are right now is understandable. After the US Capitol building was stormed on Wednesday the 6th of January 2021, general panic filled the media, rightfully so to a degree. Currently the focus is on how Trump provoked the violent protest, why the Capitol Police failed to prepare for what everyone expected, and the individual recounts of the events by Capitol staff, reporters and members of congress.
There are important questions to be asked about these issues, but we must see past them if we are to truly understand what is going on. Whilst Trump’s words did directly translate into violence, he is a symptom of a more deep-rooted illness. Democratic Representative Jim Himes from Connecticut hopes that this is the peak of the troubled phase of the American democracy, and that this is the worst it will become. But to think that the election of Joe Biden fixes anything is to be either naïve, or wilfully blind.
Twenty-first century politics in the West seems to be the story of populist narratives exploiting what appears to be a deeply insecure society.
In America the obvious place to start is the socio-economic conditions. Social mobility has decreased over time in the US (the lowest out of the industrialised nations), but perceptions of social mobility tend to be optimistic whilst the American Dream is held onto.
Income inequality has experienced a steady rise since the 1980s but attempts at addressing the blatant neo-liberal undermining of the social fabric are dismissed as a Marxist plot. The country’s symbolic dedication to the capitalistic land of the free, where the American Dream is possible for all, holds it back.
An aspect of American society which cannot be ignored are the racial tensions. Not long ago we all watched daily updates on violent clashes between police and Black Lives Matter protestors. The reports of Capitol Police removing barricades to allow protestors to pass and taking selfies with pro-Trump protestors paints a stark contrast between law enforcement’s responses to the two protests.
Trump does not exist in a vacuum and whilst he should be held responsible for violence his words caused, we should not pretend Trump entered a perfectly stable political environment and suddenly created division.
Political violence always has an underlying cause. People do not simply leave their homes and risk their lives and safety for no reason. Whilst it is easy to dismiss radicals as fanatics, the truth is something radicalised them, whether it be Trump supporters in the US, Brexit supporters in the UK, Orban supporters in Hungary or PiS supporters in Poland, they have turned to political extremities for a reason, typically anger; anger which has been hijacked for political purposes.
If we dismiss the storming of the Capitol building as a violent culmination to four years of absurdity, which can be locked away and forgotten because Joe Biden will save us from our perils, we fail to understand the historical trends which brought us here.
Populism works best when underlying trends in society have angered people, and if we fail to acknowledge the societal patterns which enabled the violence then we will see more of it in the future.