Light and ShadowsLaw-Makers and Populist AttacksA Transatlantic Comparison
Amid the multiple similarities between the populism of Donald Trump and Brexit, Peter Jukes and Heidi Siegmund Cuda look at the stark differences between the way in which the UK Parliament and the US Congress deal with threats to democracy
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump described himself as ‘Mr Brexit Plus Plus Plus’, and Byline Times has traced many of the connections between his election and the campaign for Britain to leave the EU in the same year – in terms of money, ideology, personnel, and the prevalence of online information operations with companies such as the now-defunct data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica and the intervention of the Russian intelligence services.
But one of the starkest differences between the two countries has been the ways in which their legislatures have dealt with the allegations of unlawful activity.
The threats to American democracy have been the subject of half a dozen congressional committees and FBI investigations including the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference.
When Trump refused to accept the victory of Joe Biden in last year’s election, and appeared to incite the storming of the Capitol Building on 6 January to prevent the ratification of the vote, five people died in the first violent attack in the national assembly for two centuries, with several suicides connected to the aftermath. So far, 605 people have been arrested in connection with it and charged with a variety of offences.
In the wake of the storming of the Capitol, the House of Representatives set up a congressional inquiry into the attack, to provide a complete and authoritative account of what happened that day. Though, because of Republican non-co-operation, it is not a completely independent panel like the one that investigated 9/11, it does have senior Republicans on it – as well as the power to subpoena witnesses to testify under oath.
Its first hearing took place on 27 July, broadcast on most major American TV networks as four police officers present on the day gave powerful testimony, each describing their attempts to hold the line, and the subsequent trauma they endured.
“This is how I’m going to die,” said Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, as he told of being beaten by the violent mob in what he described as a “Medieval battle”.
Gonell, a 15-year veteran of the Capitol Police who was born in the Dominican Republic and served eight years in the US Army, described being punched, kicked, shoved, and sprayed with chemicals as he attempted to defend a Capitol entrance.
“Rioters called me a traitor, a disgrace, and that I, an Army veteran and a police officer, should be executed,” he continued. “There’s a continued shocking attempt to ignore or try to destroy the truth of what truly happened that day and to whitewash the facts into something other than what they unmistakingly reveal – an attack on our democracy by violent domestic extremists and a stain on our history and our moral standing here at home and abroad.”
“I heard chants of ‘kill him with his own gun’,” said Michael Fanone of Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, as he described being beaten unconscious.
“I was electrocuted again and again and again with a taser. I’m sure I was screaming, but I don’t think I could even hear my own voice… I thought about using my firearm on my attackers, but I knew that if I did, I would be quickly overwhelmed, and that in their minds would provide them with the justification for killing me. So I instead decided to appeal to any humanity they might have. I said as loud as I could manage, ‘I’ve got kids!’”
Fanone, who suffered a heart attack and a brain injury during the storming of the Capitol, spoke up against the attempts by certain Republican politicians to downplay the violence of the insurrection. “I feel like I went to hell and back. But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful,” he said, as he pounded his fist on the table.
There can be no moving on without accountability. There can be no healing until we make sure that this can’t happen againDaniel Hodges
Daniel Hodges of the DC Metropolitan Police Department, who spent six years in the 116th infantry third battalion as an indirect fire infantryman, laid the blame squarely at the feet of Donald Trump. He called the mob “terrorists” 15 times, also referring to them as “Donald Trump’s people”. “There can be no moving on without accountability,” said Hodges. “There can be no healing until we make sure that this can’t happen again.”
The congressional inquiry will continue for the next few years to establish accountability and to prevent a recurrence. According to a poll by Politico, a majority of Americans support the investigation by a ratio of 2:1.
But what of the threat to UK politics from Donald Trump’s favourite offshoot project, Brexit?
In Britain, we only know about the unlawful over-spending of the official Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum, led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, because the elections watchdog had to be forced into re-examining its finances because of legal pressure and the investigative journalism of openDemocracy and Carole Cadwalladr at the Observer.
The subsequent investigation by the Metropolitan Police into the cover-up was discontinued after a year, and a National Crime Agency probe into the finances of Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign was dropped with little explanation (though some investigations are reportedly ongoing). The Information Commissioner’s Office issued fines for data misuse but has not provided a detailed account of what it found on the servers of Cambridge Analytica when these were seized, after a long delay, in 2018.
The only substantive report into the connections between the Trump campaign, Russian Government interference and the EU Referendum has been the ‘Disinformation and Fake News’ report by the Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee. And one of the crucial witnesses to that, Dominic Cummings – former director of the Vote Leave campaign – refused to attend its hearings to answer questions about the unlawful overspend, and use of the Cambridge Analytica offshoot, AIQ, for the bulk of his expenditure.
The sanction for non-attendance at a House of Commons committee is the threat of being held in contempt of Parliament. In theory, this could result in imprisonment somewhere in Westminster. A sergeant-at-arms was sent to News International’s headquarters to summon Rupert and James Murdoch to attend a hearing on phone-hacking.
When Cummings defied the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and was held in contempt of the Commons, the threat turned out to be a paper tiger. He was later appointed as the Prime Minister’s chief advisor in 2019.
Earlier this year, Cummings did attend another joint committee of MPs investigating the Coronavirus and made some very powerful criticisms of the Government’s handling of it – but, as before, his attendance was voluntary and evidence could only be requested, not subpoenaed as in a public inquiry.
He was also quizzed extensively last month by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who did not ask him anything about Vote Leave’s unlawful overspending or the use of AIQ.
When she asked him – arguably, five years too late – about the Vote Leave campaign’s infamously misleading slogan stating that the ‘£350 million a week’ sent to the EU each week could instead be dedicated to the NHS after Brexit, Cummings grinned and said that it was done “deliberately” because of the Cameron Government’s power over the “media” and was justifiable because it drove “the Remain campaign and the people running it crazy”.
Likewise, he justified another false claim that Turkey was imminently joining the EU on the basis that it would “disorientate the people on the other side… that’s politics”.
But most concerning of all was Cummings’ description of how he and a small circle of like-minded people decided to back Boris Johnson in the 2019 General Election, only to doubt his abilities soon after.
“We were already saying, by the summer either we’ll all have gone from here, or we’ll be in the process of trying to get rid of him and get someone else in as Prime Minister,” Cummings told Kuenssberg. “He doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t know how to be Prime Minister and we only got him in there because we had to solve a certain problem not because he was the right person to be running the country.”
Kuenssberg asked how many people were in this small cabal planning to determine British politics – but not for any names.
While the US seems determined to bring some of the darkest forces in American politics into the glare of full inspection, the British system of deference, weak rules and weary conventions, seems to encourage our anti-democratic elements to hide in the shadows.