Why peace in the US requires more than a change of president

Supporters of President Trump in the Capitol Rotunda after storming the building, 6 January 2021. Credit: EPA / Jim Lo Scalzo

As a dark week for democracy in the United States draws to a close following the storming of the Capitol by pro-Trump supporters, the president has finally conceded his loss in November’s election and vowed to ensure an orderly transition of power. But the destruction he leaves in his wake will take a long time to rebuild.

After initially refusing to condemn the events on Capitol Hill on Wednesday 6 January, President Trump returned to Twitter the following day after a temporary ban to issue a statement acknowledging he had lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, and vowed to “ensure a smooth, orderly, seamless transition of power. ”The“ demonstrators ”whom he had said he“ loved ”just one day earlier, he now accused of“ [defiling] the seat of democracy ”.

But Trump’s long awaited speech may have come too late for an “orderly” transition, and calls for his immediate removal from office are growing louder by the hour. The Senate’s two top Democrats, speaker of the house of representatives Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, have both called on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to force Trump’s removal on the grounds that he is not fit to serve. Pelosi has said if this doesn’t happen, the house will move to impeach him.

With such a short time remaining before Biden’s inauguration (which, in the latest series of Tweets since his account was unblocked, Trump has said he will not be attending), the chances of an early exit by Trump are questionable. However, one thing is certain: whenever the president’s departure from the White House may be, the destruction he leaves in his wake will remain.

“Biden is an extraordinary figure and his messages of unity are the right balm for the wounded soul of America,” says Scott Weber, president of Geneva-based Interpeace, an international peacebuilding organisation. “But while that's very important, it’s insufficient…We have to be realistic and not expect the change of occupancy of the White House alone to fix a deeply divided America.”

Weber echoes a view voiced by many in the days following the siege on Capitol Hill: that the insurrection of a small number of Trump’s supporters is symptomatic of far deeper problems in American society that will take time, effort and resources to heal.

Yanina Welp, a research fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, explains that the “huge division in US democracy”, both between the political ideologies and in wider social and economic terms, lies at the root of the crisis that political scientists have been watching unfold in the country over the past few years, and indeed worldwide.

“Normally in a democratic system we need divisions. If you don’t have divisions you don’t have political parties,” says Welp. But the polarisation and mutual animosity between political ideologies that is being witnessed in the US today goes far beyond this, she says. “When we talk about affective polarisation it’s more related to emotions, and this is what is growing everywhere,” she adds.

Although Biden’s administration looks set to bring a new stability at the highest level, there is far more work to be done beyond Pennsylvania Avenue. “The US fabric has been deeply damaged not only with the recent events but over several decades of divisive politics. The division starts at the community level and in the demonisation of ‘the other’,” explains Weber. “There needs to be a concerted investment of resources in domestic peacebuilding in the United States, at national, state and local levels.”

Supporters of President Trump holding a Confederate flag and a police shield outside the Senate chambers. Credit: EPA / Jim Lo Scalzo
An American citizen himself, Weber argues that the deep schisms that have been exposed and exacerbated during Trump’s term in office require many of the same peacebuilding processes that are in operation elsewhere, in countries that are recovering from conflict.

“Fundamentally there is a broken social contract in the US, and I think this is the biggest challenge [it] faces,” says Weber. “Rebuilding a social contract starts with people seeing that their values are reflected in the leadership and the institutions of their society, and in nurturing a relationship of mutual accountability and duty to one another and to the country.”

“What we're living through in the US is not just the product of the last four years,” Weber adds. “This has been brewing for some time. People are hurt, they feel no one listening to them, that their communities are left behind while others benefit. This breeds feelings of injustice and grievance.”

Welp agrees that there needs to be a form of peace process following Biden’s inauguration to reach the people who feel let down by the existing systems. This, she explains, must involve a concerted effort to explain the electoral process, discredit the misinformation that has been rife throughout Trump’s presidency, and hopefully begin to rebuild trust in the country.

She cites a recent poll conducted by YouGov on Thursday which found 45 per cent of Republic voters supported the storming of the Capitol. “This is very dangerous,” she says.

Although these recent events deserve the widespread condemnation they have attracted, they may have served an important purpose. “When we work on peacebuilding in any country the first point of departure is to agree on the problem. You have to address the differing and often conflicting narratives that each group brings to the table. Because, if you cannot agree on the problem, you can't get people to work together to find solutions,” says Weber.

“I think the events at the Capitol were of such seriousness as to shock people into realising that this is not just nasty everyday politics. This was a wakeup call. The US is at an inflection point and fundamental change is needed.”