On Jan. 6, 2021, supporters of the recently defeated president, Donald Trump, smashed their way into the U.S. Capitol and occupied it for hours, threatening to kill elected officials, injuring police officers and perpetrating many acts of vandalism, all because they were dissatisfied with the result of the election.
There are different interpretations of the nature of this incident in the United States: an attempted coup, a domestic riot, an act of terrorism. But no matter how it’s labeled, the impact of the incident is far-reaching. It is not only an ironic blow to the American democratic system but also a major setback for the international image of the United States.
Only if the U.S. government and the public learn from this incident — putting aside their blind confidence in their culture, institutions and power, instead focusing on building their capacity for national governance and responding to major domestic issues — the incident may well be a turning point, and a new America could make a splendid debut.
The attack on the Capitol dealt a heavy blow to the authority and maturity of the American democratic system, showing that the world’s oldest republic is facing a real crisis of democratic constitutionalism.
Now the urgent challenge facing the United States is whether a peaceful transfer of power can ever be achieved again. This important hallmark of democracies has been the pride of the U.S., but the Capitol attack has now drained whatever political capital had been amassed.
On Jan. 8, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun published an editorial describing the situation plainly:
“The attempt to violently prevent the orderly transition of power in a democratic system has been unheard of in the history of the United States,” it said. “For the United States, the great model democracy of the world, this is undoubtedly a huge historical stain.”
To save face for American democracy and the rule of law, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an article of impeachment indicting Trump for inciting the riot, making him the first president ever to be impeached twice. The charge is meant to hold Trump responsible and to reinforce the rule of law in American society.
It is also intended to be the political death knell of Trump, making it impossible for him to run for president again. Unsurprisingly, Trump called the second impeachment “a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics.” To the extent that resonates within the Republican Party and with Trump supporters across the country, the impeachment may further tear apart American society.
Obviously, the Capitol incident has created a political dilemma. If no countermeasures are taken, such incidents will be likely be repeated, which will significantly damage U.S. democracy and the rule of law. But if law enforcement and the political establishment move against it, those moves will only fuel social antagonism and sow the seeds of long-term division. In this regard, the United States is really in big trouble.
Second, the incident illustrates the anger, disappointment, and sense of helplessness among those in the lower strata of American society. The serious social crisis, the expanding gap between rich and poor and the disappearing value consensus have become the biggest domestic challenges facing the United States.
The U.S. is a unique global military power, and no country poses any real external security threat. Thus, the greatest enemy of the United States cannot come from abroad but only from within. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Capitol riot illustrates that a post-American world is coming “less because of the inevitable rise of others than because of what the United States has done to itself.”
In fact, the economic polarization, social ossification and political decay of the United States, as well as its arrogance and prejudice displayed elsewhere, are dragging the country downhill. As a result, Haas suggested, “Some self-awareness is called for. The United States is not nearly as unique as many Americans believe, including when it comes to the threat of democratic backsliding. What has happened should put an end to the notion of American exceptionalism.”
Third, the incident has further contributed to the declining international image of the U.S., with the country no longer shining as a beacon of democracy. Its strategic credibility is in serious disarray. This makes it difficult to restore American leadership in the world.
Americans often boast of being a “light on a hill” and the last hope for humanity. Not only do people believe this inside the country but many others follow suit elsewhere. But the Capitol attack has seriously tarnished the international image of the U.S. Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Agora Institute, said that Trump and his enablers have done terrible damage to the power of America’s example, to America’s reputation and, more important, to the reputation of democracy itself.
“American calls for democracy can be thrown back with scorn,” she said. “You don’t believe in it anymore, so why should we?”
Not only that, but the strategic credibility of the United States has been questioned as never before, as amply reflected in the reactions of U.S. allies. The U.S. is able to keep its allies partly because of its strength and partly because of mutual trust built on similar democratic systems. But the Capitol riot has fundamentally undermined the pillars of this mutual trust. After this incident, Haas admits: “Allies have little choice but to question their decision to entrust their security to the United States.”
In this context, how can the U.S. once again assume the role of a world leader? This is the most important question for the new Democratic administration of President Joe Biden, which is intent on once again “leading the world.”
Fourth, the Capitol attack presents the United States with an opportunity for change, and if it is used properly, the U.S. can still achieve rebirth.
Historically, the United States has experienced many domestic and international crises and eventually turned each on into an opportunity through reflection, debate and policy adjustments. The nation has thus developed a strong capacity for self-correction and recovery, thus bankrupting the omnipresent theory of America’s decline.
The impact of this incident on the U.S. is huge, and it serves as a warning. It reminds those in power in the U.S. to pay attention to the country’s deep-rooted political, economic, social and cultural problems; to ensure that the interests of political parties give way to the interests of the general public; to transform partisan disputes into more effective governance; to consolidate and expand the middle class; and to take practical and powerful actions to address the grievances of the general public. These should get the American Dream to shine again.
However, this is easier said than done. Democrat and Republican administrations have recognized the need for change, but have made little progress because of partisan barriers — once again illustrating that domestic issues are far more challenging than international ones.