Politics Opinion

6 January 2021: America's new 'day of infamy'

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President Donald Trump's extreme Right wing rhetoric was blamed for inciting the attack on the Capitol building (Image by Dan Jensen)

Political unrest within the White House led to a domestic terrorism event some in the media have compared to the attack on Pearl Harbour, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

VICE PRESIDENT Mike Pence announced Joe Biden’s victory in the Presidential Election very early on Thursday 7 January in Washington, capping a long day of shock and insurrection.

He was presiding over the United States Senate where for hours, rioters urged on by outgoing President Donald Trump had taken over the chamber and the House of Representatives next door.

The senators and Congress members had come out of safe quarters, in locked offices or under desks, to reclaim the place, brush aside last-ditch ploys by Trump allies to try and block Biden’s chances then formally certify his win.

How did the players shape up that day — the political leadership, security services sent to protect their work, or news media sent to document it all?

Politicians — pals dumping Trump too late

Anger and recrimination came out, with Trump’s enemies demanding he be removed from office; social media services suspending his posts on grounds of incitement to violence; the man himself declaring he would skip Biden’s inauguration to concentrate on a new campaign while implausibly switching around to try and chastise his followers for their riotous conduct.

In the meantime, his friends were moving off, Cabinet members resigning and Republican Party leaders performing a chain of major betrayals.

Mitch McConnell, the party leader in the U.S. Senate, said the senators going back to the knocked-about chamber would “not be intimidated”. He had already dumped on Trump just in the few hours before the riot, dismissing Trump’s call for a misreading of the Constitution, where the Congress would change the result of the Presidential Election. That would put democracy into a death spiral, he said.

McConnell had led the congratulations and adulation as Donald Trump delivered on his plans, especially massive tax cuts to billionaires, a core party goal, shifting wealth from “have-nots” to the “haves”. He stitched up the numbers to prevent Trump from being impeached late in 2019 when there was still time to pull him up.

Now, he was telling him no:

“Trump claims the election was stolen. But over and over, the court rejected these claims...”

Similarly, the “loyal” Vice President, Mike Pence, as the mob approached, turned around and rejected demands by Trump that he should re-read the rules, to try and revoke the Election outcome once it got to the Senate for confirmation. It gave him practice for his announcement of Biden’s victory later after the long day turned into night.

Former Republican President George W Bush broke a long silence, calling Trump reckless, running the country like a “banana republic”, creating “sickening” scenes. It takes one to know one, given recklessness in his own record: his invasion of Iraq on the weakest arguments, a disaster for humanity; or his deregulations for the oil industry, a disaster for the environment. Senator Mitt Romney, the former Republican Presidential nominee, already a critic, went further: Trump had incited an insurrection, he said.

Down in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, leader of the Republicans’ sister party, the Liberals, called the violence distressing; he hoped for a peaceful transfer of power. A sideways kick and not a direct strike against Trump — after all, a close mate. In September 2019, Morrison received red carpet treatment in Washington; in return, he addressed a Trump meeting in an industrial plant, dodged a U.N. climate change meeting and stirred up the Chinese for him, declaring Australia would lead the world investigating China over COVID-19. Last month, while pardoning crooks, Trump handed out a medal to Scott Morrison.

With desertions by friends, the punches from Trump’s critics in the Democratic Party and in European governments he’d been repudiating and insulting for four years became harder and harder.

Oregon Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley told the New Yorker there was a bad feeling in Congress over the Republicans opposing Trump far too late:

“Our Republican colleagues have broadly failed the test of leadership, of standing up to President Trump over the last four years when he lied time and time again and when those lies became more dangerous in the context of this election, as he claimed that the election was not valid...“

Police — off guard and not too keen

Police in Washington on balance came out of it badly, their pacifying approach – most lightly armed – put into contrast with the violent responses given to Black Lives Matter protests earlier. They were no good at the light touch, letting insurgents roam around town, actually retreating before them as they stormed into the Capitol.

The push-back, too late, was then done by-the-book: make safe the elected representatives; bring in reserves; push the intruders out and down the steps; set up a perimeter where elements of the crowd could be boxed in. Some 80 were arrested that night. The federal police, FBI, started checking the thousands of faces of the mob on social media, television screens and CCTV. Not many were covered up by masks — in a time of COVID-19, it was a super-spreader kind of event.

Trump, after criticising his supporters, then said he’d defend them. Will he try to pardon them? A woman among the insurrectionists was killed by police fire in the melee and one of their own officers died from his injuries. Senior police commanders have resigned.

Media and how they brought the news

In the news coverage, Australia had a key vantage point provided by the time zones, Washington DC being 16 hours behind Sydney.

Radio made the running, starting about 6 A.M. in Australia AEDT with the related but different story of the Democrats winning the two closely contested U.S. Senate seats in Georgia: the first candidate, Raphael Warnock, was already over the line; the second, Jon Ossoff, claimed victory as the last votes were being counted. Their election gave Joe Biden the numbers he will need to get legislation through Congress.

Audio feeds came through at the same time, Donald Trump at a rally telling his supporters they had been cheated at the polls, should back the last-gasp procedural battle by some Republican legislators to stop the formal registration of Joe Biden as President and should deploy strength, not weakness.

‘We're walking to the Capitol!’ ~ Trump

Trump said:

“We’re going to walk to the Capitol. You’ll take back our country. I’ll be right with you.”

Early Australian news bulletins battled to keep the U.S. story out in favour of the national meeting on COVID-19 or the cricket Test against India, but outlets like the ABC’s News Radio grasped the story quickly enough and began running it live and continuous.

Early risers hearing something was up found slower coverage online or in social media, either unhurriedly concentrating on the composition of the pages or starting out cluttered with chat.

On television, the morning shows were warming up towards 8 A.M., persisting with timetabled programs to begin – cooking on the ABC, California “celebs” getting divorced and hoping for Emmies on Channel Nine – but then started exposing the whole thing in live pictures as the rioters accelerated speed. Nine sent a reporter to the Capitol very fast after that, the ABC not long behind, both grounded, good, explaining what you were seeing, reeling off background as needed.

Chasing up the rioters

One way to assess events like this riot is to count the crowds. Mostly we got no numbers. It looked like tens of thousands listening to Trump, not more, maybe ten thousand getting to the Capitol buildings. Historically, it would take 100,000 protestors to fill some of those malls, not obviously so crowded this time. An ABC reporter said two or three hundred thousand had turned out, no sources given — maybe he was in a good place to make a crowd estimate. The numbers are important for the follow-ups. Actually, how big is this Blackshirt movement? How many will be prosecuted and what charges?

At the day’s end, news broadcasts began linking it to another day — 7 December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbour. Quoting President Roosevelt, it was “a date that will live in infamy”.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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