palacio114_ROBERTO SCHMIDTAFP via Getty Images_capitol riot Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

The City on a Hill Besieged

The storming of the US Capitol by a mob egged on by President Donald Trump was a violent bid to disrupt the world's oldest democracy. But while it made for a truly dark day in US history, it need not become a defining day.

MADRID – In 1940, with Europe gripped by a war from which the United States remained aloof, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that the country needed to be “the great arsenal of democracy.” He meant it literally: he was appealing to Americans to “put every ounce of effort” into producing arms for European democracies, especially the United Kingdom, in their fight against fascism. But his words also carried powerful symbolic significance, positioning the US as the world’s leading democratic bulwark.

On January 6, that stronghold was breached by a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters. Egged on by the president himself, they stormed the US Capitol, desecrating one of the greatest monuments to democracy, and forced Congress to halt the vote to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. It was the clearest manifestation yet of the malignancy of Trump’s presidency – and the threat its legacy poses to the American democratic experiment.

That experiment’s success has, historically, been based on three qualities, which Alexis de Tocqueville identified some 185 years ago: the vibrancy of its society, its citizens’ trust in and respect for institutions, and a forward-looking perspective that encouraged risk-taking and innovation. These qualities were lacking in Europe, which was weighed down by long and fraught history.

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