Just in case you think that, since January 6, 2021, the trials and tribulations of the American democratic system have been unique or even (to use an all-American word) exceptional, think again. In a recent New York Times column, Max Fisher focused on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s remarkable announcement of her decision to vacate her post well before the next election. (“I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility — the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”) There, the transition proved remarkably straightforward and swift, her party voting in a new prime minister almost instantly. As Fisher points out, while Ardern’s comments were out of the ordinary, among parliamentary democracies globally, this was not otherwise an atypical event. The most stable democracies have, in fact, proved to be parliamentary ones of the sort Ardern has led for the last five-and-a-half years, “where executive power is generated by legislative majorities and depends on such majorities for survival.”
On the other hand, presidential democracies of the American sort have had a far more daunting tendency to collapse in coups or other horrors, especially during the transition period between presidencies. Fisher adds, “Donald J. Trump’s efforts to hold onto power after losing the 2020 presidential election may have been shocking and unprecedented for the United States, but they were well in line with the sorts of crises that play out in presidential systems worldwide.”
As if to make that point all too graphically, the world recently watched Brazilians play out their very own version of January 6th, once again in front of the cameras. In both cases, the shaky changeovers were unnervingly insurrectionary in nature, but as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, suggests today, each of those events had its distinct qualities and striking differences.
And of the two, the American version may have come even closer than the Brazilian one to collapsing a system of government as we know it. (Thank you, Donald!) Given the extremity of the Trumpublicans who only recently (and barely) took over the House of Representatives, don’t for a second think we’re done with this yet. If you don’t believe me, just ask George Santos or Marjorie Taylor Greene about the future that awaits us and, while you’re at it, let Greenberg explain what still remains unnervingly — I just can’t help using the word — exceptional about our version of a coup attempt. Tom
How America’s Insurrectionists Crossed the Rubicon of History
Americans tuning into the television news on January 8th eyed a disturbingly recognizable scene. In an “eerily familiar” moment of “déjà vu,” just two years and two days after the January 6th Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., a mob of thousands stormed government buildings in the capital city of another country — Brazil. In Brasilia, what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ominously labelled “the first major international imitation of our Capitol riot” seemed to be taking place.
As the optics suggested, there were parallels indeed, underscoring a previously underappreciated fragility in our democratic framework: the period of transition between presidencies.
Those January 8th rioters in Brazil were protesting the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, the politician Barack Obama once referred to as “my man.”
Like President Trump, Lula’s predecessor, rightwing autocrat Jair Bolsonaro, had been voted out of office by a slim margin. Deemed “the Trump of the tropics,” he had followed the former U.S. president’s lead in seeding doubt as to election integrity in the months leading up to the vote. Like Trump, he also predicted election fraud and spread stories about rigged voting machines. Small wonder given his team’s ties to former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon who had consulted with the Bolsonaro team and insisted that Brazil’s election, too, would be stolen, while afterwards praising the rioters as “Brazilian freedom fighters.”
The fervent Bolsonaro supporters, like their American counterparts, wreaked havoc, destroying furniture at their Supreme Court, works of art in the presidential palace, and generally leaving the insides of the buildings they stormed, including that country’s congress, “in ruins.”
Far more overtly than in the United States, many in the security forces in Brazil seemed to sympathize with the protesters. A Brookings report found that “while the attack unfolded, Bolsonaro supporters met surprisingly limited resistance. Police officers… were caught on camera chatting with protesters and buying coconut water.” It added that “several military officials reportedly participated in the vandalism” and called the apparent “total complacency of local government and public security officials” alarming.
Still, if you peek beneath the surface, you’ll find some important differences.
As a start, Lula had already been installed as president when that presidential palace was stormed — and he wasn’t there — while Joe Biden was still 15 days away from his inauguration when the January 6th uprising occurred.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of that. The riots in Brasilia did not, in fact, disrupt the actual transfer of power. Although there had been protests in the run-up to Lula’s installation as president, including significant numbers of Bolsonaro supporters who refused to accept the election results and camped in protest tent cities for weeks in the capital, Lula, unlike Joe Biden, accepted the presidency without disruption. In addition, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro had actually authorized the transfer of power to the new president. He then headed for Florida before Lula’s inauguration, leaving his supporters without a leader in their ongoing protests. “We either live in a democracy or we don’t,” he told them. “And no one wants an adventure.”
Donald Trump, of course, did anything but leave town. He had already tweeted to his followers, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th… Be there, will be wild!” On that day, he then inspired the attack by personally urging an armed mob assembled at Washington’s Ellipse Park to march on the Capitol and disrupt the vote meant to certify the election results. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told them. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
Nearly two years later, the congressional January 6th report would, as the legal blog Just Security summarized it, conclude: “Without that speech, without that mob… the assault on the Capitol would not have happened.” Moreover, although the Brazilian rioters broke windows, destroyed computers, and ransacked art, and although reports suggested weapons had been stolen from the presidential palace during the attack, there were, as the Associated Press noted, “no immediate reports of deaths or injuries” amid the rampage. Quite the contrary, there was some degree of camaraderie between many of the police and the rioters.
In Washington, on the other hand, seven deaths would be associated with the assault on the Capitol, 140 police officers would be wounded, and several individuals were hospitalized. Meanwhile, the insurrectionists, including significant numbers of militia members and both retired and still serving U.S. military personnel, quite literally demanded the heads of politicians like Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. (Some of the protesters even constructed a gallows in front of the Capitol.) In Brazil there were no similar threats to elected officials and the buildings under attack were largely empty.
Calling in the Troops — or Not
The attempts to quell the attacks in both countries differed as well. At the outset, given the levels of violence, sufficient law enforcement was lacking in both countries, though in different ways, as the insurrectionists in each instance passed through police barricades with surprising ease. Stephen Sund, the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, reported his horror at witnessing a “mob like nothing I have seen in my law enforcement career.” He watched his officers being “hit with pipes, wooden sticks, flag poles, and sprayed with mace and bear spray, all while trying to defend themselves against projectiles being directed at them.” Meanwhile, two pipe bombs were found in the vicinity of the riot, one each near Democratic National Committee headquarters and Republican National Committee headquarters.
But within a short period of time, a major difference emerged. In Brazil, the leader was absent. Bolsonaro was out of touch and, though surprisingly few police were initially on the scene and those that were seemed sympathetic to the former president’s rioting defenders, when President Lula called for backup from his security forces, they arrived in significant numbers.
In the United States, President Trump didn’t go anywhere. He simply continued — as he does to this day — to contest the election results, while watching developments on TV. That was true despite calls for help from longtime allies in Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who bitterly told the president that his followers were “trying to f—— kill” him. Trump, in fact, waited hours before telling the insurrectionists to go home, adding, “We love you. You’re very special.”
Chief Sund called for backup immediately but was rebuffed. The Capitol police, he later explained in a letter to Congressional leaders, “does not have the manpower, the training, or the capabilities to handle an armed insurrection involving thousands of individuals bent on violence and destruction at all costs.” He reached out and received help from the Secret Service, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, and others. But what he needed was the National Guard.
In fact, Sund had requested that the Guard be put on standby in the lead-up to January 6th. In a later interview, he told reporter Aaron Davis that he also had identified the need for the National Guard on January 3rd. On the day of the attack, he reported, he literally begged for them, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
According to the rules, the chief does not have the power to request the Guard without the approval first of the Capitol Police Board, which took more than an hour to obtain, and then of the Pentagon whose first responders recommended against approving the request, objecting to the “visual of the National Guard standing in a line with the Capitol in the background.” Chief Sund continued to plead for help and eventually an embattled Vice President Mike Pence ordered the D.C. National Guard dispatched to the capitol. Once they arrived — at approximately 5:30 p.m. — it still took two hours to fully quell the violence.
In Brazil, an aggressive strategy to identify leaders and followers began immediately. Authorities detained 1,500 people within 24 hours of the attack while individuals who had aided the protest from inside were quickly suspended and placed under further investigation. Higher-ups who might have abetted the riots were removed as well. Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro ally, was suspended and his chief of security and the head of the police were arrested. Lula has pledged to continue to root out Bolsonaro allies from his security forces, while the former president is reportedly under investigation for any role he might have had in the uprising.
Some, including Tyler McBrien at the Lawfare blog, have ascribed the swiftness and efficiency of the response in Brazil to lessons learned from January 6th. The differences are certainly telling. In the United States, it took six weeks after the insurrection for the Capitol Police to reportedly suspend six officers (with pay) for their actions that day, while putting 29 more under investigation. As for the rioters, the Department of Justice has focused on those who breached the Capitol’s perimeter and the building itself, many of them armed with “deadly or dangerous weapons,” ranging from baseball bats to guns. Two years later, at least 972 individuals have been charged with crimes related to the attack. Of those, 495 have reportedly pled guilty and six, including founder of the Oath Keepers militia Stewart Rhodes, have been found guilty of seditious conspiracy. At least 378 have received sentences and at least 55% received prison time. The longest sentence meted out so far is 10 years, though none of those convicted of seditious conspiracy has yet been sentenced.
As for the higher-ups who failed to defend the capitol adequately, the push for accountability has been meager at best. Sund resigned, as did at least two members of the Capitol Board. Other than that, there has been little to no responsibility taken for what happened.
Looking to identify the leaders of the insurrection and not just its foot soldiers, the Senate convened a select committee to investigate the events surrounding January 6th. Almost seven months later, on June 30, 2021, they went to work, hearing from more than 1,000 witnesses, and on December 22, 2022 (just before the Republicans were to take back the House of Representatives), finally issuing a report that focused primarily on the misdeeds of Donald Trump. In addition to calling for charges against him, the committee recommended criminal charges against his election lawyer John Eastman. But while Attorney General Merrick Garland has promised “justice without fear or favor,” no indictments have yet been announced for either the former president or any of his chief allies.
While such steps towards accountability remain crucial, another issue warrants attention as well: the period of the presidential transition, between election day on the second Tuesday in November and inauguration day, January 20th. That 10-week period is, we now know, fraught with possibilities for the abuse of power and the undermining of democratic norms.
And this is not the first time that the potential for disruption — or even disaster — has come to the fore.
Presidential Transitions, Then and Now
As it happens, the 2020 election was hardly the first time the results of a presidential contest had been in question. As early as 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr squared off for six days and 35 ballots in the House of Representatives before Jefferson was finally declared president. Or consider the “corrupt bargain” election of 1824 in which Andrew Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams in a stand-off decided in the House after neither of them won a majority of the electoral college votes. Or Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 after which, by inauguration day in 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union. And then there was the Samuel Tilden-Rutherford B. Hayes election of 1876 in which Tilden was one vote shy of a majority in the electoral college. That led to a transition period of intense fighting over voting violations. After the passage of the Electoral Commission Act, Republican Hayes, caving in on the post-Civil War Reconstruction program, garnered additional support from Democrats and became president. More recently, of course, there was the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore in which a Florida recount delayed the results for several weeks.
During any presidential transition period, much has to happen. Money has to be transferred to the incoming team for equipment; offices need to be set up; and perhaps most important, nominations to top positions need to be made. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which governs “the orderly transfer of the executive power,” noted that “any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.”
The 9/11 Commission underscored the dangers of a poorly executed transfer of power, suggesting that failure to be prepared for the attacks of September 11, 2001, was connected, at least in part, to a truncated transition period. By the time the Supreme Court finally intervened and stopped the Florida recount, making George Bush president on December 12th, that period had been reduced to 39 days, half the normal time, with damaging repercussions. The commission concluded that the delay had “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” thereby hindering National Security Council efforts to prevent those terrorists from attacking the following September.
In response to such concerns, in 2010 and again in 2019, Congress lengthened the time allotted for the transfer of information between administrations and put earlier deadlines on top government appointments. The fraught transition period after Joe Biden’s election, however, provided clear evidence that more was needed. On December 22, 2022, Congress passed the Presidential Transition Improvement Act which deals specifically, among other things, with the problems created by a contested election.
But no legislation is likely to deal adequately with what Donald Trump and his cadre of election deniers (and insurrectionists) tried to do on January 6, 2021. Whether or not that signals a new and more perilous future for the American system remains to be seen. One thing is clear: on that day, the United States failed to transfer power peacefully. While the new president was indeed finally certified, it was on a transition day of historically lethal violence.
Yes, had it not happened, it’s hard to imagine that events in Brazil would have occurred the way they did — such is the global effect of social media — but the Brazil comparison, for all its obvious similarities (and even the element of imitation), falls short. After all, despite those violent protestors, Brazil’s actual transfer of power did indeed occur peacefully in a way that this country’s didn’t — a reality that no one should sweep under the rug.
The United States came within a hair’s breadth of a successful coup attempt and the actual blocking of the lawful election of a president. Despite the active prosecutions of that day’s insurrectionists, despite whatever charges might sooner or later be leveled at Donald Trump and his accomplices, and despite legislation aimed at plugging the loopholes that led to the crisis, it’s important never to forget that a daunting historical threshold has been crossed, one we can’t afford to witness again.
Copyright 2023 Karen Greenberg