This has been a big week for politics on both sides of the Atlantic. On Monday Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, narrowly escaped with his political life after 148 members of his own party voted to oust him as leader in a confidence vote. Then today, 9 June, the House Select Committee to investigate the 6 January 2021 riot at the Capitol in Washington DC will begin its six-part public hearings aiming to tie Donald Trump, the former president, to a plot to overturn the 2020 US presidential election result.
The US Congressional hearings and the UK vote have a similar objective: to hold elected officials responsible for their actions. No leader is expected to be perfect, but some behaviours are considered so egregious that they undermine democracy itself. The question is where to draw the line.
While no fan of the Conservative Party here in the UK, as an American I felt a twinge of jealousy on Monday evening while watching Tory MPs lambast the Prime Minister on talk shows for his lack of integrity. That word “integrity” was repeated in such a way that for a second I whimsically suspended my belief that the vote was less about upholding a democratic ideal of decency than preserving the party’s chances of re-election. Sure, Tory MPs could have called the vote instead because the Prime Minister mismanaged Covid so badly that the UK has suffered almost 178,000 deaths from the virus. But the line in the sand was found somewhere, even if it was found at No 10 staff chugging down beers with colleagues the night before the Queen sat alone at her husband’s funeral.
In the US lines in the sand are not so easily drawn. In fact, for all but two Republican members of the House of Representatives, the line doesn’t exist at all. It didn’t exist when Donald Trump tried to bribe the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s son. It didn’t exist when the former president referred to white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people”, and it didn’t exist when he incited a mob to overthrow a democratic election. Drinking with staffers during lockdown makes Johnson look like a wholesome, innocent Boy Scout compared with Donald “Grab-Them-by-the-Pussy” Trump’s list of disgraceful actions against his own country.
One of the reasons for the stark difference between the two nations is how the public perceives its leaders’ behaviour. Even though Johnson survived Monday’s vote he’s been described politically as a dead man walking. According to YouGov only 24 per cent of people think Johnson is doing a good job and one in three Tories said they would like to see him removed. This is not the case in the US. An Ipsos/ABC News poll from December revealed that only 45 per cent of Republicans considered the 6 January rioters a threat to democracy. The two Republican members of Congress who voted to create the Select Committee to investigate the attack are now fighting for political survival. One of them, Liz Cheney, was censored by the Republican party and is now trailing her Trump-backed opponent by 30 percentage points in the Wyoming Republican primary election.
What followed the 6 January rally were some of the darkest hours in US history. The mob openly chanted for the assassination of the vice-president, Mike Pence, and some of the attackers proudly paraded the Confederate Flag through the Capitol’s corridors. This very flag stood for a treasonous army that declared war against the same country the rioters claimed to adore. The irony was most certainly lost on all involved.