WASHINGTON — Jan. 6 was a dark day for American democracy. For only the second time in our republic’s history, our United States Capitol was ransacked, except this time it wasn’t by British troops. It was by a riotous mob of thugs, incited by our president, trying to stop the certification of the results of the presidential election.
As I sheltered with my Senate colleagues, my initial thoughts were of the safety of my staff, how to reach my family and how my colleagues were faring. Once we were able to get a television set up and see the dreadful images of the sacking of the Capitol, I was struck by what the rest of the world was seeing as well.
In the days since, I’ve read and received messages of solidarity and concern, as well as condemnation of the rioters, from officials in the governments of our closest allies, including Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Japan and many others. While I felt grateful for our strong alliances, I’ve also read messages from our adversaries who regularly undermine democratic norms at home and abroad.
To Iran’s president, the attack showed how “fragile Western democracy is.” A senior Russian official declared that “the celebration of democracy is over.” The president of Zimbabwe tweeted that the events “showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy.” And Chinese propaganda outlets predictably seized on the news of the riot, with one hawkish, state-owned news website calling the events “an iconic humiliation.”
This attack from within our own borders weakened our democracy, put that weakness on display and caused many around the world to question whether the future of our democratic system is at risk.
It was a grave reckoning, but it should not come as a surprise. For the past four years, President Trump has pushed the boundaries of our democracy, testing and eroding the guardrails and institutions that have safeguarded our republic for more than 230 years. He has failed to condemn white supremacists; he has challenged our judiciary and described journalists as “enemies of the people.” And he began undermining confidence in the 2020 election months before voting day.
His actions overseas have been equally alarming. Mr. Trump heaped praise on North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, while insulting leaders of some of our closest allies; he defended the Saudi government after the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and he recently ignored a huge Russian hack of our government and the private sector.
With this record, we shouldn’t be surprised that Mr. Trump would rally his supporters to assault the Capitol in an act of insurrection against the very Constitution that he pledged an oath to protect.
But we should be concerned. Our allies may now question our reliability as a democratic partner, and we should expect our authoritarian adversaries to exploit this dark day in American democracy for their own geopolitical gain. After all, it is the strength of our democracy — our respect for the rule of law, our faith in the dignity of each individual and our recognition that we must always strive to be a more perfect union — that undergirds our influence internationally.
When our president undermines the credibility of our elections, how can we insist upon free and fair elections in Belarus or Ivory Coast? When our president’s rhetoric demonizes journalists and allows his supporters to assault them, how can we stand up for freedom of the press in the Philippines or Turkey? Can our allies depend on the power of our military deterrence and will our adversaries be deterred when we do not secure our own institutions? If we don’t confront and address these dangerous shortcomings, we invite accusations of hypocrisy. It feeds into the playbooks of authoritarian leaders around the world who argue that their systems are superior to democratic ones and that the United States practices respect for human rights only when it is convenient.
It’s clear to me that the damage President Trump and his enablers have inflicted will outlive his presidency. But it’s also clear that for our democracy to survive and for the United States to maintain its position as a defender of our values and freedoms around the world, we need to show our allies and adversaries that our democracy has weathered this test.
Congress began this task as soon as the Capitol was cleared Wednesday night, by returning to our work and voting to certify the results of the election. But for us to send the strongest message to the rest of the world that the rule of law still reigns in the United States, we have to hold Wednesday’s rioters and instigators accountable — chief among them the president.
First, Donald Trump does not deserve to be president. He should resign today. My Republican colleagues who have served as allies and enablers of the president should persuade him to do so. If he won’t, Vice President Mike Pence should take responsibility, invoke the 25th Amendment and remove him — which only the vice president and the cabinet have the power to do. If they fail to do either, Congress must promptly move ahead with its own remedies, including impeachment or censure.
Second, Mr. Trump’s supporters in Congress — especially those who fanned the flames of Wednesday’s violence with false claims of voter fraud — need to start telling the truth. They need to declare that Mr. Biden won in a free and fair election, and they need to join us on Jan. 20 in reasserting our democracy with the peaceful transfer of power. To those Republican lawmakers who have been calling for healing and unity: There can be reconciliation only with repentance.
We have a challenging nine days ahead of us. Our president is unhinged and has demonstrably abandoned his post. We need to find the right balance of protecting our country and making it clear that in the United States, a leader cannot seek to subvert our democracy without repercussions. Once Mr. Biden is sworn in, Congress must move swiftly to begin the work of healing our nation, including by confirming his capable and seasoned nominees and passing a bipartisan relief package to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jan. 6 genuinely tested us. How we respond will determine whether we choose continued division or to heal, repair and strengthen our democracy. The world is watching.
Chris Coons is a Democratic senator from Delaware.
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