Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
“Where are all the moderate Republican Imams?” asked David Frum, former speechwriter to George W Bush, after the Donald Trump-incited mob had ransacked the Capitol.
We came to learn that the 9/11 attacks, far from coming out of a clear blue sky, were the product of decades of radicalisation that Saudi Arabia had sponsored – because it gave its religious radicals something to do; because it allowed the kingdom to compete for influence with revolutionary Iran; and because the extremists sincerely believed in the doctrines to which the Saudi state paid only lip service. Riyadh was forced into a bloody counter-insurgency campaign against domestic terrorists and fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The attack on the Capitol, in which an absurdly-dressed mob gave cover for what the FBI is now investigating as a terrorist plot to take senators hostage, is the direct result of Trump sponsoring the anti-democratic Right in America.
This is the price of the GOP’s deal with Trump. Trump added fringe voters to the Republican coalition, gave them power for four years and allowed it to put three judges on the Supreme Court, but it’s brought about the biggest threat to democracy in America since the Civil War.
Trump’s bullying of his party through his celebrity appeal to the Republican base, threatening any congressman or senator with the American equivalent of deselection in primaries, will be familiar to many current and former Conservative MPs, as well as to Democratic politicians at the receiving end.
But after losing to Joe Biden in November, Trump went beyond political hardball to subvert the constitution itself. Brad Raffensberger, Georgia’s elections chief resisted (we know, because he taped Trump’s threats), but 138 congressmen and seven senators broke their oaths of office to try and overturn the votes of the American people on the basis of Trump’s own lies about electoral fraud.
It seems that some Capitol policemen also broke their oaths, refusing to defend the Capitol from the mob. More worrying still is the slowness with which Defense Department Officials responded to requests for them to authorise the deployment of the DC national guard, and to give permission for Virginia and Maryland to send backup. In the end it was Mike Pence, himself under siege in the Capitol building, who stood in to authorise intervention.
Τhe crisis is about far more than Trump’s personality. In fact, his outrageously flawed character hides the danger he poses, in the same way that animal-skin clad rioter obscured the much more serious kidnapping plot at the Capitol. Trumpists and many democratic American conservatives agreed about getting their people onto the Supreme Court, limiting abortion and restricting immigration, but they should disagree on how it can get done.
What distinguishes the anti-democratic right from democratic conservatives is not policy, but the concept of political office.
American government, like that in all liberal democracies, was created to be carried out by people who hold certain political offices subject to constitutional law and conventions. That’s what John Adams meant when he talked of a “government of laws, and not of men.” In liberal democracies, we don’t elect kings, but people who are temporarily “clothed”, to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, in the powers of the office they hold.
Democratic conservatives believe that people hold specific powers in trust, repsecting the laws and conventions made in the past, and keeping them, adapted for the changing times, to hand over to their successors. The anti-democratic right wants to put their leaders in total power, to enact their will, disregarding traditions of the past and stability in the future.
They say it’s because people have the right to hire their leaders, and fire them when they come up short. But Trump’s behaviour gives the lie to that. Despite the American people firing him, Trump tried to intimidate election officials and incited a violent mob to try and stay in power anyway: there’s a technical term for this, by the way, invented in Latin America, it’s an autogolpe or self-coup.
Thanks to four years of encouragement from Trump, there’s now a large number of radicalised, violent and armed anti-democratic rightists in the United States. The FBI is bracing itself for coordinated acts of violence in on inauguration day.
As with all terrorist movements, the violent few are surrounded by a penumbra of fellow-travellers who make excuses for them, give them platforms on TV, amplify them on social media, and argue that their grievances must be addressed in the name of peace and unity. As with Islamist or Northern Irish terrorism, this would be a grave mistake.
The terrorists must be brought to justice, their funds caught off and the arguments of their fellow-travellers dismissed. Please no more specious arguments about Trump being “censored” by Twitter. Even had Twitter been a state entity, his megaphone should have been removed as a threat to public safety.
The application of the US’s extensive anti-terrorist legislation needs to be vigorous and swift. It must deny this movement access to weapons. It must put its leaders and activists behind bars. Trump and his accomplices need to be banned from future public office, either through an impeachment or the use of the third clause of the 14th Amendment.
Then there is the ideological battle against the anti-democratic tenets of this movement, which is not confined to America. The issue not that they are “extreme”, but that they’re anti-constitutional. Let them hold positions as right-wing as they like, and compete for support like anyone else, but only within the limts of constitutional government, where laws apply to public office-holders, and are adjudicated by independent courts.
As during the Cold War, where it was democratic lefitsts who stood up to violent communists, it’s now up to democratic conservatives to dismantle the ideology of the anti-democratic right, and its dangerous idea that law, constitutions, and the civil political process are part of some plot by a “liberal elite” or “activist lawyers”.
Even where we agree with some hard-right policies, or sympathise with their positions (about left-wing dominance at universities, say), upholding the institutions and norms of parliamentary democracy has to come first, something that escaped our own absurdly-dressed (and visually challenged) revolutionary before he was ejected.
Otherwise, make no mistake, they’ll come for us. No amount of toadying to Trump protected Mike Pence or Mitch McConnell on January 6th. All conservatives have to choose: are they with democracy or with the terrorists?