The other contagion: Why the US Capitol attack is a warning to populists

From now on, citizens will understand much more clearly why it is said that democracies die bit by bit, until they suddenly succumb and it is too late

José Ignacio Torreblanca
Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow
Capitol Breach 2Brett Davis / Flickr CC BY-NC

Just as the disastrous digestion process of the Brexit referendum has become the best vaccine against anti-EU populism, so could the assault on the US Capitol become the mirror in which populists in Europe and other parts of the world see their reflections from now on, each time they try to impose their discourse of delegitimising institutions.

Such an American impact would be nothing new. With all its problems and limitations, US democracy has always stood as a beacon for all people around the world who wished to live in freedom and equality under the rule of law. When the French people gave the American people the Statue of Liberty in 1886, marking the first centenary of US independence, it was not just a gesture of recognition, but also a conscious transferral of the flame of freedom for preservation in a safe place while the old continent waited for better times.

As its designer, sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, said to the promoter of the initiative, French jurist and politician Édouard Laboulaye, “I will endeavour to glorify the Republic over there, until the day we rediscover it among ourselves”. But, far from being glorified, the Republic came close to being lost.  

Democracy is contagious, as is populism. Until now, the US populist contagion reaching Europe has run along two lines: an indirect one, based on imitation; and a direct one, stemming from cooperation, with support from the US, especially via the activism of Steve Bannon and the financing of Brexit and European far-right parties (see, for example, the establishment of US far-right movement QAnon in Germany, and the Trumpism of Spain’s Vox on George Soros).

These two types of influence have come together in the use of social media and alternative media, with the result that the followers of populist movements reinforce their sense of grievance with the system and immunise themselves against the facts.

The Washington riots … will have a significant impact on the worst of the populists in our midst.

But, now we have seen a mob assaulting the US Congress, this could change. From now on, each time someone attempts to set themselves up as the sole spokesperson of the people, urges protesters to occupy institutions, undermines the role of the courts as supreme arbiters of the law, or conceals their defeats behind baseless claims of electoral fraud, everyone will know how the story ends: your country out of the European Union, a clown in disguise at the parliamentary platform, violence in the streets, institutions in disrepute, and an illiberal democracy with reduced rights. 

From now on, citizens will understand much more clearly why it is said that democracies die bit by bit, until they suddenly succumb and it is too late; understand that they must take a stand against each small violation of institutional independence, demagogical outburst by their leaders, incendiary and hate-filled speeches by political representatives, imposter journalists, fake media outlets, and disinformation campaigns that nurture and encourage populists. 

Undoubtedly, these effects will be felt on both sides of the political spectrum. Even though the Trump phenomenon can be likened to the nationalist populism of the far right, left-wing populisms are also populisms. And, in all likelihood, the population will sharpen its eyes and recognise that, though the issues are different (religion, immigration, or the economy), the methods for gaining power are the same.

Beyond empowering European democrats and weakening forces that aspire to take power by assault, the Washington riots, added to Trump’s exit, will have a significant impact on the worst of the populists in our midst – those who have already reached power in Poland and Hungary, bolstered by Trump’s United States – both as an example and in policy terms.

For other EU member states and their institutions, the events in Washington are an important reminder that, from the dawn of time, the heavens have been breached first by assaulting public institutions and undermining the rule of law. After all, the Statue of Liberty holds a torch in her right hand, and a tablet of laws in her left. There is no liberty outside the law, only within – be it in Washington, Paris, or Warsaw.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

José Ignacio Torreblanca
Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow