Over the weekend I had the opportunity to sit down and reflect on the events that unfolded last week in Washington, DC.
After the annus horribilis 2020, there were high hopes that 2021 would be a better year. But, the developments during the first full week do not bode well. On Wednesday, we saw our democracy come under attack when the U.S. Capitol was stormed. This political crisis comes against the backdrop of an ongoing national public health emergency. On Thursday, the United States recorded more than 4,000 Covid-19 deaths in a single day, the highest one-day death toll since the beginning of the pandemic. And, on Friday the United States surpassed 300,000 daily coronavirus cases. The number – which roughly equates the population of Pittsburgh or St. Louis – comes roughly two months after the U.S. recorded 100,000 cases a day for the first time. Covid cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, even as millions of vaccine doses ship out across the country. Health networks and emergency services have been drained and hospitals overcrowded.
Like many others, I was glued to the news on Wednesday afternoon. As protesters gathered outside the Capitol while a joint session of Congress began a somewhat contested but traditionally ceremonial formal count of the Electoral College votes from the November 3 general election, I was reminded of similar images of Berlin’s Reichstag building. In late August during a demonstration against government measures to slow the spread of the pandemic, several hundred protesters – including far-right activists – breached barriers surrounding the Bundestag. They were pushed back by police and the building was secured, but I remember thinking: Could something like that happen here in the U.S.?
On Wednesday, January 6, it did.
Although some of the imagery was similar (swap the Confederate flag for the Reichsflagge), I don’t want to make too much of a comparison between the two events. But, they are both tangible signs of a troubling trend: The waning confidence in democratic institutions and practices noted in public opinion surveys – including one conducted by ACG and Atlantik-Brücke in early 2018 – is continuing to grow.
One could argue that the protesters in Germany reflect a loud minority intent on rolling back a slate of government policies related to Covid. What happened in Washington was worse. Extremists intent on overturning a democratic election entered the Capitol and were destructive and violent.
These are signs that democracy is under attack – but also a sobering reminder that belief in fake news and alternative facts has become commonplace. In both cases, the protesters, rioters, insurrectionists (call them what you will) appear to believe in an alternate reality. One that is not based on a common set of facts.
I was shocked, appalled, and deeply saddened by what I saw on Wednesday. But, as an American who has spent much of his life trying to strengthen ties between Germany and the United States and who has spent much of his career working for organizations created after the Second World War to build understanding and seek reconciliation, it was particularly painful to see and hear references to the darkest chapters in Germany’s history last week at the Capitol. From the newly elected Republican congresswoman Mary Miller’s quote that “Hitler was right about one thing” on Tuesday to the picture of a man wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Camp Auschwitz” who had stormed the building, I was sickened.
On Wednesday I received countless calls, emails, and text messages from friends and colleagues across the country and on both sides of the Atlantic aghast over the violence at the Capitol. At home and abroad we heard calls that “This is not America.”
As we try to digest the painful events of last Wednesday and to come to terms with the images that have been seared into our memory, we must recognize that this is not the America we want or believe in – but, sadly, it is a part of America.
When the new administration takes office in ten days, it will inherit a deeply divided country. It will have to rebuild trust at home – and abroad. After last Wednesday’s unprecedented events, America’s standing in the world is even lower today than it was a week ago.
With threats of violence in the days ahead and the dissemination of disinformation, this is a time to reaffirm the values that we hold dear. But, it is also a call to action.
It is not easy to bridge ideological divides, but in a democracy one must be able to build consensus and reach political compromise. In an effort to do that, the mission of the American Council on Germany to educate and inform Americans and Europeans is more important than ever.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead at the ACG we will work to shore up our shared values, seek reconciliation between opposing sides, and provide a (virtual) venue for the open exchange of ideas and viewpoints.