India's experience has lessons for U.S. democracy
The frenzied mob trashing the Capitol reminded me instantly of the mob that destroyed a historic mosque, called the Babri Masjid, in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, on Dec 6, 1992.
The mosque structure was empty and was razed completely to the ground. The destruction of a religious place of worship shocked India's conscience and was thought to be a watershed moment stopping the rise of the violent right-wing Hindu nationalism. The opposite happened. The extreme right-wing ideology has become mainstream and is being used for garnering votes by appeasing their Hindu base. The lives and livelihood of Muslims, Christians and other minorities are at a great and increasing risk. In this is a sobering lesson for the U.S.
Just as in the Babri Masjid situation, initially it appears as if the shock of the Capitol assaults may reverse the trend of white supremacy that President-elect Joseph Biden and others have called domestic terrorism. But when Congress reconvened, more than half the Republican members of Congress and eight senators voted not to certify the electoral college vote, thus perpetuating a canard. The National Republican Convention reelected the same folks who have been carrying water for Trump, amplifying and perpetuating his half-truths and outright lies. The Capitol Hill assault has had no effect. The RNC and many Republicans continue to deny that any of Trump's statements were inciting violence.
It would be Pollyannish to think that as Trump leaves office, white supremacy will starve because it is not being fed on a steady diet of hate on Twitter and other media. There are many who are champing at the bit to take on the mantle. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, constitutional lawyers who have pleaded cases in the Supreme Court, are clearly the most disingenuous. They have charged to the front of this mob to grab the flag Trump had to relinquish.
The problem is not just Trump, but white supremacy. Trump is fed by and feeds white supremacy. It is nourished by good old racism, increasing tribalism on both sides of the social and political spectrum, change in immigration profile from white Europeans to people of color of non-European heritage and a sense of white victimhood.
Racism is systemic, but Republican leaders like Niki Haley deny it. Left-wing tribalism looks down upon the lower middle class blue collar and is potentially correctable, but the right-wing tribalism has veered off into the most bizarre conspiracy theories that are beyond the pale.
Immigrants have always been stereotyped, but the brown-skin immigrant from the southern border creates fear of an invasion as well as contempt. Victimhood of the majority that is nurtured by the notion that the minorities are being appeased has become part of the white supremacist's DNA
Bigger than tackling the coronavirus epidemic, the economy or climate change are the deep structural cracks in our society. Those who idolize Trump have many characteristics of cult followers but there is truth in the analysis that Trump is as much a mirror of this group as they are his mirror. Biden has to summon the wisdom of a Nelson Mandela and the charisma of a Ronald Reagan to reach these folks.
Another image that comes to mind is of the entire Congress standing on the steps of the Capitol and spontaneously singing, God Save America after the 9/11 attacks. Last week, after this recent attack on the Capitol, that spirit of unity and patriotism was nowhere in evidence. Inside the reconvened chamber, members seemed ready for a fist fight.
If these demons of hate remain unchecked, democracy is fertile ground for continued rise of demagogues like Trump and India's Modi. At least in the USA, there is a two-term limit and the leader that follows may not be as destructive.
I have always been a big cheerleader for the democracies in the U.S. and India. I know both countries have great constitutions that make secularism, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion as their main planks. When I would hear the phrase "democracy is fragile" I would respond with a shrug and add that the exceptions are the U.S. and India, where numerous elections have happened and power transfer have occurred multiple times. I had faith in the wisdom of the majority and conviction in the Constitution that it would prevent extremism except by fringe groups.
I am no longer sure.
• Javeed Akhter, M.D., is a physician and freelance writer from Oak Brook.