The riots were a fascist attack on democracyTED EYTAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

On Wednesday 6th January, Trump protestors stormed the Capitol to prevent Congress from confirming Joe Biden’s election victory. They were supported by the President himself, who had told the crowd to “fight like hell” earlier that day, and the result was mob violence in which five people died. The rioters ultimately failed, and once law enforcement removed them, Congress resumed session. Whatever happens now, though, Trump has lost – his political career is over.

While Trump’s presidency has always had far-right connections, it is clear that this more than any other event was a fascist attack on democracy. It may have failed, but the consequences will surely be far-reaching. Politicians have denounced it as an “unprecedented assault” on democracy, but they must do more to prevent America from falling into the clutches of autocracy.

As I watched the scenes unfolding in Washington, I was reminded of a violent episode from the fall of the Roman Republic more than two millennia ago. It is fruitful to compare the two, revealing just how dangerous America’s current situation is for world democracy.

Roman democracy was in crisis in the 50s BCE. The imperial city’s growing population felt ignored by their leaders, comprised of wealthy aristocrats who controlled the Republic through the Senate (a body over which the people had little control). Demagogues exploited this anti-elite sentiment, using popular hatred to gain power. Publius Clodius Pulcher mobilised this anger, manifesting mob violence which grew to such intensity that elections were suspended, completely interrupting the democratic process.

“Both mobs attacked ... demonstrating the blazing heat of their anger.”

America’s political climate is similarly toxic. Like the Roman demagogues, Trump has exploited populist sympathies to gain power, promising to “drain the swamp” of the congressional elite’s corruption. He is supported by far-right ideologues who seek to subvert America’s democratic constitution by persuading people that autocracy is the answer to their problems. They have led mob violence against their enemies: at the Charlottesville rally in 2017, by the Proud Boys who were told by Trump to ‘stand by’ in 2020, and now in this attack on the Capitol.

Nowhere is this similarity more explicit than concerning the events of 52 BCE. When Clodius was killed, a mob destroyed the seat of the Roman Senate; at his funeral, rather than conforming to the norm of glorifying his family, Clodius’ eulogisers incited the crowd to take revenge against his enemies, causing a riot that resulted in the burning-down of the Senate house. What clearer symbol of popular discontent could there be than the destruction of the elite’s seat of power?

Both episodes involved demagogic incitements to revolt from populist leaders; both followed the deaths of those leaders, whether that be ‘death’ in an actual or electoral sense; both mobs blamed governmental institutions. And they both then attacked the seat of those institutions, demonstrating the blazing heat of their anger.

“Groomed by demagoguery, they chose autocracy over a flawed democracy.”

Of course, discontent with an oligarchy is quite different from anger over unsubstantiated claims of election fraud – but the result is the same. Fascist manipulation has convinced Trump’s supporters that by attacking democracy they are in fact saving it. They believe the current system does not listen to them, and that the only way to change this is to prevent Congress from ‘stealing’ the election.

The attack on the Capitol shows that while Trump’s political career may be over, many still believe in the subversion of democracy he encouraged. Indeed, a YouGov poll has shown that 45% of Republican voters support the storming of the Capitol. This group will not disappear with the advent of Biden’s presidency.


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Our comparison with Rome shows how dangerous this is. Three years after the Senate house was burnt down, many who still felt ignored supported Julius Caesar as he marched on Rome and was installed as dictator; groomed by demagoguery, they chose autocracy over a flawed democracy. America, I fear, is in the same position. Trumpism will live on, and many Trump supporters will continue to believe democracy has failed them. Rather than live in a flawed democracy, they may turn to increasingly autocratic solutions in order to be heard.

America must now act quickly to make sure this is not the case, to restore trust in democracy by disproving the mistruths of the far-right. If they do not, they risk the fall of democracy to their own Caesar.