Monday, January 18, 2021

Trump’s incitement of mob hopefully a wake-up call for senior Republicans, but America’s standing as ‘beacon of democracy’ damaged, say Canadian Parliamentarians

Trump's incitement of mob hopefully a wake-up call for senior Republicans, but America's standing as 'beacon of democracy' damaged, say Canadian Parliamentarians

Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s incitement of hundreds of his supporters to stymie the certification of the electoral results may leave him somewhat diminished, serving as a wake-up call for Republican leadership, say some Parliamentarians, but the violent attack is likely to scar America’s image as a beacon of democracy. 

For many, the assault on the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 was shocking, but not incomprehensible.

“Things were moving towards a flashpoint because of his denial of the election results. He was trying all kinds of means to try to overturn the results,” said Independent Senator Peter Boehm (Ontario) of the storming of Capitol Hill. “His last gambit was to have the vice-president overturn the election—and obviously, what precipitated things was the fact that the Vice-President [Mike] Pence was very clear that he could not do that constitutionally, that he’d sworn an oath to the Constitution.” 

For weeks, after losing the presidential race, Mr. Trump has baselessly claimed electoral fraud, stoking the fury of his supporters who also turned out in record numbers to vote for him. Many senior Republicans also refused to immediately recognize U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s victory. 

Despite reports that pro-Trump supporters were openly plotting an occupation on Capitol Hill to overturn the election results, Capitol Police were overrun and unable to prevent rioters from ransacking the Senate Chamber and several offices, as a joint session convened to certify Mr. Biden’s win. The mob temporarily halted proceedings, but after police reined in the rioters, both chambers reconvened and formally recognized Mr. Biden would be the next president. Five people died as a result of last week’s shocking attack on the Capitol Building, CNN reported on Friday. 

Independent Senator Donna Dasko (Ontario) said Republicans who backed Mr. Trump in his drive to delegitimize the election for apparent political advantage bear some brunt of the blame. “They seemed to think they could do that without negative consequences, because he was going to lose anyway,” she said.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also called out Mr. Trump and political leaders who condoned the violence, saying “what we witnessed was an assault on democracy by violent rioters, incited by the current president and other politicians.”

Independent Senator Peter Boehm says with Donald Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, the ingredients were there for a flashpoint.  The Hill Times file photograph by Sam Garcia

Sen. Boehm said Mr. Pence and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to lend any credence to Mr. Trump’s claim that they can invalidate the results during the pro forma exercise, and the decision to press forward with the proceedings, has left Mr. Trump “quite diminished.”

“I think senior Republican leadership has received a wake-up call,” he said. 

In the immediate aftermath, at least two cabinet officials resigned and there were discussions of invoking the 25th amendment of the U.S. Constitution to try to remove Mr. Trump from office in the waning days of his presidency. Mr. Biden’s inauguration is on Jan. 20. Mr. Trump tweeted Jan. 8 that he would forgo the tradition of past presidents appearing at the event to mark the transfer of power. 

Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) said the violent episode may be sobering for many Republicans. “I definitely think there was a rupture within the Republican Party over what happened,” she said. “When they came back to vote on some of the objections, they no longer had adequate sponsors to force a two-hour debate.”

Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May says the outgoing president ‘has set alight some very dangerous fuses.’ The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Though nearly 150 Republicans refused to recognize the results after the riots, some who had tied their political fates closely to Mr. Trump, including Senator Lindsey Graham, broke with the president. After facing backlash from his own ranks, Mr. Trump released a video pledging he would co-operate in the “orderly” transfer of power and that a new administration would be sworn in. He did not, however, concede that the election was free and fair. 

Even as Ms. May and Sen. Boehm, who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, were hopeful that some Republicans have been chastened, they said Mr. Biden’s effort to unify the country amid deep partisan rancour will be no small feat.

“[Mr. Trump] has set alight some very dangerous fuses, and they still remain a threat,” Ms. May said. 

Independent Senator Frances Lankin (Ontario) said it’s a terrifying prospect that there’s a crowd, essentially, ready to be mobilized to thwart the peaceful transition of power, because they’ve been fed unsubstantiated claims. “That’s a very dangerous situation when one can only hope that, with time, things will calm down,” she said. 

Independent Sen. Donna Dasko says incoming U.S. president Joe Biden can help reset the tone. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

As difficult as it will be for Mr. Biden, who has a track record for embracing bipartisanship, to bridge the partisan divides, Sen. Dasko said, a change at the top can help reset the tone. And, without access to the levers of power, including the unfettered ability to tweet without consequence, she added, Mr. Trump won’t have the same clout and profile. (Mr. Trump was temporarily locked out of his Twitter account for posting a video urging his supporters to “show strength” at the rally. The social media giant on Friday said it would permanently ban him, citing the risk of him inciting more violence.)

“The change in leadership is going to be really important. It’s going to be absolutely crucial. He brings a completely different set of values,” she said. 

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said the Biden administration has an “extraordinary opportunity” to address the challenges, and that the cross-partisan outcry that’s followed should be “empowering” for him. That, she said, along with securing Democratic control of the Senate and the House, gives him all the legislative and executive levers he needs to “bring society together and reduce the climate inequality, the racial and societal inequality, and economic inequality that has led to the rise of populism over the past years.”

‘Damage has been done’

The images of rioters donning Trump regalia and neo-Nazi garb as they wrested control of the Capitol likely left many across the world astonished that such events could unfold in a country that has held itself up as the leader of the free world. 

Progressive Senator Dennis Dawson (Lauzon, Que.), a member of the Canada-U.S. Interparliamentary Group, who has long been involved in efforts alongside his U.S. counterparts to promote democracy abroad, said America’s ability to cast itself as a beacon for democracy has been tarnished. He added it’s also going to undermine Canada’s own efforts.

“The damage has been done. [That image] is going to be weakened forever,” he said. “Who are we now? Who are they to talk about respect for orderly transfer of power?”

Canadian Senators Group’s Diane Griffin (Prince Edward Island) agreed. “It is an embarrassment for them, an embarrassment for all democracies,” she said. “Who would ever believe that we’d see the Capitol Building being stormed by its own citizens? There’s no need for us to be cocky—that it would never happen in Canada.”

NDP MP Jack Harris says the riots in Washington landed a ‘significant blow’ to the U.S. The Hill Times file photograph

NDP MP Jack Harris (St. John’s East, N.L.), his party’s foreign affairs critic, said it’s landed “a significant blow” to America’s standing on the world stage. “It’s very worrisome not only for the U.S., but for the standing of democratic institutions throughout the world,” he said. “Any penetration, for political reasons, on an institution like the U.S. Senate is totally unprecedented in a country that’s supposed to be a beacon for democracy.”

Those in charge of securing the Capitol Building, including the sergeants-at-arms, have resigned. There have been bipartisan calls for an investigation into the breach. News media have reported that the Capitol Police turned down offers for reinforcement, including from the National Guard, even as some feared civil unrest.

Mr. Harris’ Conservative counterpart, Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), issued a press statement a day after the riots, pinning blame on Mr. Trump for inciting an “unruly mob” and calling on him to “respect the will of the American people.”

The events have also prompted Canadian political leaders to reflect on Canada’s own brush with politically motivated violence.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul says the Biden administration has an ‘extraordinary opportunity’ to address the challenges facing the U.S. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Watching the endless stream of images of the chaos unfolding brought Progressive Senator Jane Cordy (Nova Scotia) back to the stressful hours six years ago, when a 32-year-old gunman, suspected of being an extremist, killed Nathan Cirillo, an honour guard posted at the National War Memorial, before storming Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Sen. Cordy and other Parliamentarians had to hunker down, unaware of the exact details of the events unfolding above them before travelling through the tunnels to East Block.

There were TVs in the room broadcasting live coverage, but early information had suggested there could be more than one shooter.

“It was that feeling of—‘what’s going on?’—because you were locked inside,” she said. “You could only imagine what [U.S.] staff and Senators and House representatives who were there, what they must’ve been going through.”

Ms. May suggested it’s a testament to their commitment to democracy that a majority of American lawmakers were determined to see the certification process through after the threat they faced. 

“When we got through what happened [in 2014], we reconvened for long enough to say, ‘We’re not doing anything today. We are adjourned,’ ” she said. “Imagine if we said, ‘We’re going back to work.’ ”

The Hill Times

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