US Capitol riot: White supremacists who attacked Congress are a warning against the politics of flags – Brian Wilson

If substance could be separated from symbolism, events in Washington boil down to an incomprehensible failure of security – as mundane as that.

Riot police push back a crowd of Trump supporters after they stormed the US Capitol in Washington, DC (Picture: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)
Riot police push back a crowd of Trump supporters after they stormed the US Capitol in Washington, DC (Picture: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Of course, the two cannot be separated. The scenes were astonishing, humiliating for American democracy and richly gratifying in every dictatorial capital of the world where they will be exploited for decades to come.

All true – but the fact remains that if appropriate security, of which Washington is eminently capable, had been in place, there would have been a ritual demonstration, lots of noise and flag-waving but that would have been the extent of it.

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The question every decent American should now demand an answer to is how a long-signalled, containable event was allowed to turn into the over-running of what Joe Biden optimistically described as “the citadel of liberty”.

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Unelectable political fringe

There has long been a dangerous far-right in American society but until now they have been kept beyond the Republican mainstream. I remember reporting a Ronald Reagan rally at the Kansas City convention where he lost the nomination to Gerald Ford.

I shared a cab with a veteran American journalist who reflected: “I thought I’d seen it all but these Reagan people are just unbelievable. They don’t have a thought in their heads.” Four years later, Reagan moved from an unelectable political fringe to the White House.

Critically, however, it would never have occurred to Reagan or any of his Republican successors to embrace the people who invaded the Capitol. Nor is it conceivable that he would have engaged in denial of defeat if he had lost an election. Therein lies the line between democracy and fascism. Only Trump has dared to cross it.

Voter suppression

While Trump’s appalling enablers must live with these indelible images from the Capitol, more worrying signs for American democracy lie in the numbers prepared to follow him across that line – 74 million voted for Trump in full knowledge of what he is. Forty-five per cent of Republican voters supported the Capitol invaders, according to a YouGov poll. That’s a very deep malaise.

If Wednesday was very bad for American democracy, Tuesday was very good – and the two are by no means unrelated. The election of two Democrats from Georgia, one of them the first black Democrat to be sent to the Senate from a southern state, will perhaps prove to be a moment of greater historical significance than what happened in Washington.

Stacey Abrams efforts to improve voter registration and increase turnout are thought to have helped win Georgia for Joe Biden and elect the state's first ever black senator (Picture: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence)

It reminded me of another cameo from my days reporting American elections, visiting a voter registration campaign office in Birmingham, Alabama. It was an uphill struggle. In some counties, black people were only allowed to register if they could recite the Oath of Allegiance. Right down to the present day, suppression of voter registration remains a key tool in the Republican armoury.

A genuine American hero

In a week of villains, we should celebrate a genuine American hero. Stacey Abrams founded the New Georgia Project in 2014 with the single aim of extending voter registration and turnout. In 2018, she ran for Governor of Georgia and was deprived of that office when 340,000 names were removed without notice from the register by the Republican Secretary of State – who was her opponent.

This merely propelled Ms Abrams and her movement to greater efforts, the fruits of which were borne when Georgia narrowly gave its votes to Joe Biden and then went on to elect two Democrat senators with massive national implications for the incoming administration.

This is the point at which the two events converge for the question of race is never far away in American politics. The mob inside the Capitol were not so much Republicans – any more than Trump himself is – as a rag-bag of white supremacists who see the way the wind is blowing if democracy is allowed to advance, and had found a leader in the disreputable personage of Donald John Trump.

These scenes in the Capitol should serve as a permanent reminder that the politics of flags – any flags – are dangerous wherever they arise, masking prejudice and false patriotism. Even citadels of liberty should never under-estimate the power of these forces.

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