Why 6 January was a good day for the rule of law
I wrote in November that 2021 would be the year that the rule of law takes back control. The images from the US yesterday underscore my point.
Not the right-wing mob which seized the seat of the US legislature. Not the police who initially stood by, in contrast to approaches at BLM rallies. Not the elected representatives and their staff cowering in their offices, like so many high school shootings. Not the sitting president of the republic inciting and then doing too little to stop his supporters from essentially sacking the building. Not his repeated claims that the presidential election was stolen.
This is all huge, even if we have become desensitised to President Trump’s deeply disturbing behaviour. Four people died: a tragic and direct consequence of the actions of the President, for which (among other crimes) he should be prosecuted and justice allowed to run its course.
But, and this cannot be overstated enough, he lost.
The 6 January 2021 was the day the mob sacked Congress. But it was also the day that the Democrats won control of the Senate and President-Elect Biden’s victory was confirmed. The journalists and the cameras (and probably Hollywood) will remember the drama; history will remember the good or bad of a Biden Presidency.
For the more moderate Trump supporters, I suspect, there must be a belated epiphany that the ‘law and order’ president is no such thing. A reverential people, proud of their Country, are unlikely to forget this moment. They may find someone else to blame, but they are running out of scapegoats.
The 6 January was also a day when the chickens came home to roost for Mitch McConnell, who played the President’s game for too long, a loyal Praetorian finally betraying a latter-day Caligula (the Latin for “little boot”. What is the word for “little hands”?). This is on him, too.
A little historical context is needed: palaces and legislatures have been stormed before, often in coups, when the government of the day finally loses its nerve. Think Louis XVI’s meek surrender of his family at Versailles or the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
Then there are the events that few remember, that had no major consequences. The pro-hunt protesters who burst into the UK Parliament in 2004, as the Commons banned hunting by 339 votes to 155. Who can forget the Fathers 4 Justice purple condom hurtling towards Tony Blair during PMQs in 2004, a year before he was re-elected for an historic third consecutive term?
Perhaps the events to which the storming of the Capitol are most analogous are the mobs invading the Macedonian Parliament in 2017 (protesting the election of the Speaker), the Iraqi Parliament in 2016 (demanding reform) or the Kyrgyzstan Parliament (protesting the results of a Parliamentary election). There are countless other examples of mobs storming buildings of symbolic importance, smashing things up and fading away. It is this comparison that is so shocking. How could this have happened in the United States?
But the mob has not won. The 6 January was a day when the rule of law finally triumphed. Joe Biden will be the next president. The institutions (and the people) that hold the US together have themselves withstood an unprecedented attack from within by the most powerful man in the world.
At long last, it is clear that words have consequences; that allowing the President to get away with breaking the law has consequences; that putting party before country has consequences. Lawmakers will not want this to happen again on their watch.
The thin blue line holding the mob back on the steps of the Capitol was breached. That is shocking. The thin line between the rule of law and despotism has held.
Until yesterday, I would have said that democratic institutions have been weakened by four years of a Trump presidency. Now, as the physical embodiment of those institutions has been defiled, they might actually be stronger than ever.