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Assault on US Capitol was based on white supremacist beliefs that has marked Trump’s politics

If Trump’s 2016 election victory was partly the result of a racial backlash against the Obama presidency, Biden’s public embrace of diversity and inclusion is sure to reinforce white resentment and disaffection.

Written by Sanjib Baruah |
Updated: January 18, 2021 9:12:10 am
Trump supporters occupy the US Capitol Building in Washington, (Reuters)

With the approval of the impeachment resolution by the US House of Representatives last Wednesday, Donald Trump became the first president in American history to be impeached twice. But since the Senate is not scheduled to meet till January 19 — the day before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated — the impeachment will not cut short Trump’s term in office. Its effects will be mostly symbolic. But Senate action on the resolution even after he leaves office could disqualify him from the presidency and preclude another presidential run.

The charge made against President Trump in the impeachment resolution is mind-boggling — the incitement of insurrection. The resolution refers to the false statements that he has made repeatedly about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential elections and the suggestion that the results “should not be accepted by the American people or certified by State or Federal officials”, and to his role in encouraging the January 6 siege of the Capitol.

On that day, Trump told his supporters that “we won this election, and we won it by a landslide”. There is no evidence to back his claim; multiple legal challenges to the election results in various states had failed for lack of credible evidence. He encouraged his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol”, falsely suggesting that the election results could still be overturned by the Congress, which was meeting that day for ceremonially counting the Electoral College votes and certifying the winner. But the Senate majority leader Senator Mitch McConnell — a staunch Trump ally till recently — reminded his colleagues that the constitution gave Congress only a limited role. Since the “voters, courts, states have all spoken”, overruling them would “damage our republic forever”.

There is little doubt that the angry mobs at the Capitol posed a direct threat to the lives of elected representatives — especially those demonised by Trump. Quite a few of the Trump loyalists wore military uniforms and were armed — members of neo-fascist and white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys. It is hard not to see the siege of the Capitol as an act of insurrection incited by a sitting president and a stunning assault on American democracy.

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Trump’s base is, of course, convinced that there was widespread voter fraud in the elections. The narrative of a stolen election has a racial subtext that has long roots in American history. The focus of his allegations is the so-called “Democrat-run cities” of Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and Atlanta, where African-Americans constitute a majority or a plurality. They overwhelmingly voted Democratic tipping the balance for Biden in those battleground states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. “Democrat-run cities, like Detroit and Philadelphia, two of the most politically corrupt places in America”, he said in a Facebook post, “cannot be responsible for deciding the outcome of this race”. The terms “Democrat-run” and “politically corrupt” are codewords for Black areas. The notion that it is illegitimate for the outcome of the presidential election to be decided by cities with large African-American populations resonates with America’s dismal history of opposition to Black suffrage.

An explicit appeal to racial resentment has been the foundation of Trump’s support among the white working class. It was by embracing the fringe conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to serve as president that Trump first made a mark among the largely white base of the Republican Party. It was a way of challenging the legitimacy of America’s first Black president without using overtly racist language. Many of Trump’s decisions on admission into the country by foreigners — the border wall, the travel bans, cuts in legal immigration, limiting refugee admissions, immigration-enforcement raids, family-splitting deportations, crackdown on sanctuary cities and pushing back asylum seekers — to use the words of political analyst Ronald Brownstein, “preponderantly tilted toward the white voters most hostile to immigration and most uneasy about demographic change overall”.

The Capitol-storming Trump supporters were overwhelmingly white. Pictures and videos taken during the siege and shared on social media have received much attention. The restraint and amiability of some police officers towards the intruders surprised many. In a widely circulated image, a police officer posed for a selfie with a protester. There were also shots of police officers politely escorting rioters out of the building. The Capitol Police has been criticised for failing to anticipate the breach and the potential for violence despite the fact that Trump supporters openly discussed their plans on online forums.

The contrast with the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer couldn’t be more revealing. Had Black and brown BLM protesters tried to enter the Capitol instead of predominantly white Trump supporters, says Washington D.C. area BLM organiser Anthony Lorenzo Green, “we would be shackled, we would be carried away, we would be shot, we would be dead”.

President-elect Biden has promised to appoint “the single most diverse Cabinet based on race, colour, based on gender, that’s ever existed in the United States of America”. He is on track to deliver on that promise. Biden introduced his nominees to lead the Justice Department at a press conference held a day after the siege of the Capitol. The nominees for the three top positions at the Justice Department below the attorney general are women. If confirmed by the Senate, Indian-American civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta will be the first woman of colour to serve as associate attorney general.

It is likely that while half of America will welcome Biden’s choices and his decision as a sign of social progress, the other half will take a dim view of it. If Trump’s 2016 election victory was partly the result of a racial backlash against the Obama presidency, Biden’s public embrace of diversity and inclusion is sure to reinforce white resentment and disaffection. Unfortunately, such emotions, says African-American scholar Carol Anderson, author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, have “long thrived on the fantasy of being under siege and having to fight back”.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 18, 2021, under the title “The incitement to racisim”. The writer is professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York

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