Like everyone else this evening, I’m struggling to keep up with the news. What’s striking about the latest crisis in the United States is that, even at the very heart of American power, there remains so much confusion about what’s happening on the ground in Washington. Despite the ocean of tweets, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what tonight will hold once the curfew is enforced. Yet, even as reporters struggle to keep up with events, commentators on social media, including historians, are debating the merits of democracy. Although many social media commentators differ from Joe Biden, they generally share his view that the attack on the US Capitol is an attack on democracy.
Given the circumstances, I thought that Biden gave a good speech. He tried to strike the right tone of appealing for calm while calling on Trump to step up and condemn the violence that he himself incited hours earlier. “The world’s watching,” Biden stated. “Like so many other Americans, I am genuinely shocked and saddened that our nation — so long the beacon of light and hope for democracy — has come to such a dark moment.” Biden is right: the world is indeed watching. I will leave to others to debate whether anything that happened today is genuinely shocking, but it’s important to note a distinction that Biden made and which academic commentators, including historians, would do well to recognize. After affirming the ideals of America, Biden returned to the practice of democracy: “The certification, the Electoral College vote, it’s supposed to be a sacred ritual to reaffirm… the purpose is to affirm the majesty of American democracy.”
Those are my italics. I don’t know how much that emphasis reflects Biden’s intention, but, as a Canadian historian, they mark a crucial distinction as we debate the origins and future of this crisis. What we’re seeing on TV and Twitter is a violent attack on the people, institutions, laws, and norms that support democracy. Whatever you call it – attempted coup, putsch, mob attack, anarchy, right-wing insurrection – it is shocking to see and read about violence that has, at last count, claimed at least one life today. Whether you saw it coming or were at least stunned (as I was) by the images of rioters invading the Capitol, it’s bound to generate further debate over the history and future of democracy.
As events in Washington unfold, and as historians participate in the coming debate, we should keep in mind that this is an American crisis. I am not in any way denying the systemic racism, genocide, and violence of colonialism in Canada. We share many of the same problems that the United States is facing. But there are also differences. Depending on one’s perspective, those differences may be minor but, as I said the day after Trump was elected, those differences don’t feel very minor today. While it’s important to research and recognize patterns and problems that transcend national borders and identities, it’s equally important to avoid seeing Canada through the lens of the United States. American democracy is distinct from Canadian democracy in ways that have fueled Trumpism and spread violent extremism in the United States. Just to take one example: imagine if Trump were not simultaneously the head of state and of government. If there were a separate head of state in the United States, as there is in Canada and many other democracies, then I think that today’s events would have unfolded differently. Even with a head of state from the same party, Trump as head of government would have a far harder time contesting the election and undermining democratic institutions. Trump’s presidency is a reminder of the terrible weight that words and symbols carry in electoral politics, and a head of state even with only limited powers could still serve as a check against attempts to subvert democracy.
National differences matter. Forms of democracy matter. Whether one sees Trumpism as an aberration, as Biden does, or as the culmination of trends that stretch back generations, it is a distinctly American form of bigotry. Trumpism shares a lineage with racist movements elsewhere, including Canada, but it has evolved in a republic with a constitution that makes it exceptionally difficult to remove a president once they’re elected. Differences such as the offices of head of state versus head of government may seem minor to some, but during crises like we’re watching this evening they become centrally important. While the world watches Washington, we need to recognize the difference between the ideals of democracy, on the one hand, and the reality of American democracy, on the other. Today’s events may reveal what America really is, but they do not define democracy for everyone.
Jerry Bannister teaches history at Dalhousie University.
Featured image: Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump protest in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S. January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith.