When colonial Americans declared their independence on July 4 1776, they rejected more than British rule. They explicitly denounced the British form of government and the unlegislated norms, traditions and conventions a royal head of government entailed.
The recent hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol has made clear that efforts to resist the monarchical model remain unfinished.
The central question at hand: is the nation’s democracy ensured by allegiance to its constitution or to its leaders?
The sixth and most recent hearing by the Select Committee into the January 6 Capitol riots got to the heart of the matter on allegiances.
Liz Cheney, the committee’s lead Republican lawmaker, said that among the more than 1,000 witnesses who testified before their committee, some have faced intimidation to remain “loyal” to former President Trump.
US citizens don’t swear oaths of loyalty to any monarch, individual or party – they swear allegiance to a constitution treated by most Americans with a level of reverence otherwise reserved for religious entities.
To this day, practically every single US government official vows to support and defend the US Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Nearly 20 hours’ worth of public hearings by the committee has demonstrated that for many members of the Trump administration – most notably Vice President Mike Pence, the White House Counsel’s Office, and Attorney General Bill Barr – swearing allegiance to the constitution was foundational to their public service.
However, for a crucial and powerful minority – most notably Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former legal advisor John Eastman, and President Trump himself – it seemingly was not.
Political violence and dissatisfaction with democracy
Recent polling found only half of US citizens are satisfied with their democracy. Two-thirds said the US system of government needs major changes, if not a complete reform.
Such pessimistic attitudes are an outlier when compared, for example, to the 80% of Australians who remain satisfied with their democracy.
Dissatisfaction with democracy and its institutions isn’t new in modern US life.
What’s new, however, is these trends coincide with a marked increase in the number of US citizens who support political violence. This ultimately resulted in the first ever attempted hostile takeover of Congress on January 6.
In May 1995, fewer than 10% of Americans said it was “justified for citizens to take violent action against the government”.
John Eastman, the renowned and once-respected lawyer who advised the Trump re-election campaign, reportedly accepted and anticipated such violence, saying:
there’s been violence in the history of our country in order to protect the democracy, or to protect the republic.
The prevailing view among those seeking to overturn the election results was that the well-being of American democracy depended on the continued reign of President Trump.
Indeed, according to the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, former assistant to Trump’s Chief of Staff, rioting was expected and deemed necessary by many in Trump’s inner circle.
Hutchinson’s testimony gave a compelling account indicating that Trump and several others understood the undemocratic and potentially violent nature of their intended actions – planned many weeks in advance – but pursued them undeterred.
To save US democracy, they undermined it.
What has the Jan 6 committee taught us?
The January 6 Committee has shown that US democracy remains reliant on the actions of individuals. As Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House committee, put it:
A handful of election officials in several key states stood between Donald Trump and the upending of democracy.
At the conclusion of the most recent and arguably the most consequential public hearings of the January 6 committee thus far, Cheney reaffirmed the importance of such individuals:
Our nation is preserved by those who abide by their oath to our constitution. Our nation is preserved by those who know the fundamental difference between right and wrong.
When faced with the question of laws versus leaders, the founding fathers chose laws. But many of the people now under investigation by the committee will come under intense scrutiny as to whether they chose loyalty to Trump over laws.
Will Trump be indicted?
Many people would say an obvious path forward now lies with Attorney General Merrick Garland. He must decide whether he will take the unprecedented step of indicting a former president on charges ranging from sedition and inciting a riot to breaking campaign finance laws.
Although an estimated two-thirds of US citizens support prosecuting Trump for his alleged efforts to overturn the election, even some Democrats have expressed concern about the potential pitfalls involved.
There’s the danger of the Department of Justice appearing overly partisan, and also potentially setting a precedent in which opposing political parties indict former presidents as soon as they leave power.
But, perhaps more importantly, one former US federal prosecutor argued there’s also the high likelihood the former president would never be convicted by a jury:
Despite a mountain of evidence that would convict most people many times over, Trump would not be convicted. Criminal convictions require a unanimous verdict. On a 12-person jury, there are going to be Trump supporters.
The US continues to grapple with the anti-royal concept of no individual being above the law.
Where to from here?
The US has a history of reinventing itself in unique and unprecedented ways, most notably by founding a new nation based on laws instead of kings.
This critical moment, in which a former holder of the nation’s most powerful office is under investigation, gives the world’s oldest democracy an opportunity to embrace its revolutionary roots and finally reject monarchy in all its forms.