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Last Wednesday, January 6, in Washington, DC, a violent mob invaded the national Capitol, fueled by a president attempting to destroy the board rather than admit he lost the game, like a toddler in a fit of rage. This episode in the United States is evidence that the escalation of ugly political dynamics into violence can happen anywhere. Unscrupulous demagogues can prey upon people’s fear and anger, cynical careerists can happily join in the hunt, while the merely complacent eventually discover that even strong public institutions and prosperous, cooperative, tolerant societies can reach a breaking point.
Among the concepts analysts are employing to explain what happened in Washington on Wednesday are “autogolpe” and “putsch;” over the past four years Americans had already become accustomed to tossing around words like “populism” and “fascism,” labels that formerly were only used to describe politics in foreign countries.
It is easy to criticize the corruption, intolerance, hypocrisy, and incitement to violence displayed by one’s political opponents. It requires real courage to acknowledge them on one’s own side, and even more to admit one’s own mistakes.
Fortunately for US democracy, when push finally came to shove and worse, a significant number of Republicans and conservatives stepped up to defend the integrity of the election of incoming President Joseph Biden. These include the members of the Supreme Court and lower courts, some Republican governors, a few former and current cabinet members, some journalists, and lastly but crucially, the Vice President and the Senate majority leader. They may have done so too late to receive any praise from the Democrats or progressives, but they are not too late to preserve the integrity of the election process.
Those outside the United States who value democracy and human rights, for the US’s own sake and because of its power and influence across the world, have expressed tremendous concern. The elected leaders of many democratic countries, as well as intellectuals and activists from outside the US, have not hesitated to condemn Donald Trump´s clear incitement of his supporters to hate and insurrection. The Organization of American States also condemned the mob violence.
Sadly, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has failed to criticize Trump even now, and Mexican President López Obrador appeared more concerned about tech firms´ decisions to cut off Donald Trump's social media accounts than political violence or threats to democracy.
Given that the US seems likely to find its way through this crisis and to protect its electoral integrity, the best way forward for the international human rights community is twofold.
First, we must continue to work together to learn how to navigate challenges to public civility posed by deliberate disinformation, social media and other new technologies. There are no easy answers. Autocrats everywhere would prefer to control means of communication directly. But having Facebook and Twitter censor Trump will likely only add to the fire.
And second, we must continue to argue that liberal political institutions are the best solution diverse human societies have developed to live together peacefully. We cannot expect too much from them: in the US, for example, it will take a long time to heal racial tensions. In Latin American countries, it is a bumpy ride toward social and economic inclusion. But free and fair elections and respect for basic human rights are a great humanitarian achievement, and universally available.
If there is any silver lining to the US situation, it will be the reduction of complacency about these values, inside that country and outside it.