America has witnessed one of the darkest days in the modern history of its democracy. Numerous violent rioters besieged the Capitol and breached into congressional chambers, attempting to stop the lawful certification of the presidential election. This barbarous attack, while sudden, is not an isolated incident, but the grand culmination of the four years of rhetorical strategy that Republican leaders have learned and enabled from President Trump.
This incident could have been averted if the President had abstained from making claims of a stolen election and if influential Republicans had refused to support him in a fool’s errand to overturn it. Instead, they escalated their claims until the very end, seemingly unaware of the immense harm their rhetoric has been inflicting upon this country. In consequence, they have paid the price by losing the presidency and the Senate — their small victory reducing their minority in the House being a small consolation, and certainly not a tangible mandate of popular support. America as a whole has paid with the weakening of its most fundamental institutions, and some have even lost their lives because of it.
Politics has always involved instances of appalling and deceptive language, such as the defamation of John Adams in the election of 1800, but not like what we have witnessed in recent years. Republican strategy has relied increasingly less on policy positions, rather turning to a tactic dependent almost solely on provocative and untruthful language to secure support and perpetuity in power.
In 2016, a reluctant Republican establishment elevated Trump as its candidate for the presidency. Many insiders and even outsiders like myself thought his outlandish, bombastic, and bellicose presentation would soon subside and that Trump would have to abide by the desires of a Republican leadership that wished to moderate him. This was not the case. Either the President proved too unhinged to be controlled, or Republicans turned weak in their efforts.
Nevertheless, as they quickly surrendered in their attempts, the GOP resolved that it could profit from this unusual yet dangerous approach to politics. Soon, the President was not alone in refusing truths, spreading lies, and using unbecoming language, as the Republican leaders of D.C. and beyond joined him in concert. Some like Senators Ted Cruz ’92 (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) did so even after the President dragged their names through the mud.
During the next four years, the Republican establishment refused to address directly the President’s wrongdoing, hiding behind a perfidious shield of alternative facts and hypocrisy. These Republicans played a short-sighted game of hate and lies in exchange for votes at all costs, and while they now pay with crumbling losses, the United States is footing a heavier bill through its institutions.
Strong and enduring institutions stand at the base of American democracy. They are tasked with making and keeping the law, the rights of citizens, essential government services, and the measures and procedures necessary to implement them. Nevertheless, institutions are not some form of political theoretical abstraction, and they are not just mere buildings lining the sides of the National Mall in D.C.
Institutions like the federal and state governments are dependent upon the officials that embody them, not only in their current function, but in their future and continued existence. These people — presidents, secretaries, congresspeople, and governors — must abide by a heightened standard, not only in their actions but in their words. With this kind of power, they are the mouthpiece of the State, and what is often deemed as “inoffensive” political rhetoric becomes a deadly weapon.
However, this powerful sword does not discriminate between friend or foe, the power of the State being greater than any petty politician who thinks to be its master. This is a self-destructive path that threatens to destroy the integrity of institutions themselves. When institutions are hijacked in the service of one man they are incapacitated from their ordained duty: the protection of American rights and democracy.
The vacuum of power left by their incapacitation instigates violent moments such this one among the radical and the lawless, who are legitimized by the indifference and even encouragement of the custodians of our institutions. From my time in Venezuela, I have witnessed a fair share of congressional assaults, and I can attest that Wednesday’s deplorable event is not just an isolated incident, but the gravest symptom of a shattered institutional framework — and the Republicans have held the hammer in plain sight all along.
Nevertheless, as we also have witnessed, relying on misinformation and hate to perpetuate yourself in power can only get you so far. Over the past two years, Republicans have lost the House, the Presidency, and now the Senate. This mandate from the electorate should be interpreted as an explicit denunciation of political strategies that have gone too low and too far. I recognize the existence of conservatives and Republicans that have been appalled by the words and actions of the President and his camp. I urge them — and especially my fellow Princetonians — to make their voices heard, and not to trade principle for a political base with no respect for the Constitution.
I am sure many of my fellow students will take on a life of public service, many of them with a conservative mindset. Understand that what we have seen in the last four years has not been conservatism, but its most dangerous opposite: the degradation of institutions in the service of corrupt men. Whether or not you have participated in Trump’s charade or not, I hope Wednesday’s events serve as a testament of what not to do and prompt a return to a more principled conservatism. The wisdom of one of your philosophical forebearers, Edmund Burke, speaks volumes on what is to be done: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Juan José López Haddad is a junior in the School of Public and International Affairs from Caracas, Venezuela. He can be reached at email@example.com.