Editor’s Note: Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation and a former world chess champion. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
As terrible as the events of Jan. 6 were – and I’m on the record warning of “the unimaginable” – I’m going to repeat what I said after Election Day: It’s not over.
This battle against anti-democratic extremism didn’t end when a right-wing mob invaded the United States Capitol and five people died, including one police officer. It didn’t end when Twitter and other social media platforms finally muzzled President Donald Trump – although that was a heavier blow in this fight than most. And it won’t end when Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
Beating Trump was an essential step, of course. Four years of his thuggery and demagoguery were enough to bring American democracy to its knees. Four more might have finished it off. Had fewer than 45,000 votes across three key states gone the other way on Election Day, we’d be plunging toward authoritarian rule, and discussing which of Trump’s children would take over in 2024.
Narrowly dodging that metaphorical bullet was no protection against the threat of real bullets, as the attack on the Capitol proved. And there will be more violence, especially if the Capitol perpetrators and those who incited them – starting with the President – are not held accountable.
The correct response is the dispassionate application of the law. Not political persecution, but nor politically motivated leniency, either. We don’t have to choose between unity and justice. Avoiding doing the right thing will only prolong the crisis and give aid and comfort to enemies of the state and of the peace. Our Founding Fathers failed to resolve the historical challenge of slavery, passing a bloody Civil War on to future generations. Despite Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Reconstruction allowed the South a “defeat with honor,” decades of Jim Crow, and the pernicious Lost Cause mythology that persists today.
Consider the repugnant image of a Trumpist Capitol invader carrying a Confederate flag in a building that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson only dreamed of conquering. No new mythology should be allowed to sprout from this vile transgression. The worst result would be letting the mutineers off the hook – and this includes the elected officials who encouraged them, like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and especially President Trump. That they, and scores of other Republicans, continued to attack the integrity of the election even now is beyond the pale.
The perpetrators won’t become heroes or martyrs if the process of justice is not unduly politicized. It would be a blunder for the left to turn a clear case of criminal justice into a battleground for racial justice, which would help the Trumpist Republicans twist their illegal insurrection into the culture war they crave. White supremacy is a terrible evil of American history, and Trump and his followers’ traffic in it is repugnant, but we should not overburden a clear-cut criminal proceeding with the cleansing of sins.
History teaches us the cost of well-meaning but shortsighted attempts to sacrifice justice for unity. Russians learned this in the hardest possible way after the fall of the Soviet Union. As I discussed at length in my book, Winter Is Coming, they declined to root out the KGB security state in the interest of national harmony. It would be too traumatic, our leaders said, to expose the countless atrocities the Soviet security forces committed and to punish their authors.
A feeble truth commission was quickly abandoned by President Boris Yeltsin, and soon even the Soviet archives were closed, although not before researchers like Vladimir Bukovsky revealed some of the KGB’s atrocities. The KGB’s name was changed to the FSB and its members quietly stayed in touch and intact. The result? A mere nine years after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia elected a former KGB lieutenant colonel, Vladimir Putin, to the presidency. It was the last meaningful election we ever had. We chose unity and we got dictatorship.
America should not make a similar mistake. The truth may hurt, but lies will do far greater damage in the end. Americans should be prepared for a long fight against these anti-democratic forces. The attack on the Capitol has opened every eye; there can be no more feigned ignorance of the crisis.
Many Americans were shocked by how many of their compatriots, including nearly all GOP officials, have been willing to go along with Trump’s open assault on the pillars of their open society, from the free press to fair elections. As I warned early on, demagogues don’t find radicals to lead, they steadily radicalize their followers one outrage at a time. The culmination, so far, was January 6.
Hemingway wrote in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”: “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.” The time has come, and we are finding them out. Fortuitously, they are inclined to boast of their transgressions on Instagram and from the Senate floor, which makes them easy to find.
The question is if the will exists to apply the justice they deserve. Failing to do so will not mollify them. They are living in an alternate universe, where 70% of Republican voters say that Republican lawmakers who tried to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election were “protecting democracy,” according to a Quinnipiac poll taken AFTER the assault on the Capitol Trump incited. Seventy-three percent told pollsters they thought Trump, too, was “protecting” democracy.
Perhaps the most ominous number is the 24% of Republican voters who don’t accept the results of the election, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey last month, leaving the question of whether they will accept the results of any election ever again.
Coups aside, this was always the greatest threat of Trump’s rhetoric, and a result that will delight dictators like Putin, who are always eager to denigrate democracy and its champions. At its core, democracy is an act of faith, a shared belief that the people can fairly act in the common good by choosing their leaders. Destroying the faith in the system will destroy the American experiment.
This is precisely what we are trying to counter at the Renew Democracy Initiative. We are launching a campaign dedicated to the simple phrase, “what democracy means to me,” in the hopes of reminding everyone what a luxury it is for every citizen to have a say in the course of their lives and of their nation.
Democracy isn’t liberal or conservative, not left or right – at least it isn’t supposed to be. Millions of Americans currently believe that democracy isn’t working, or even that it isn’t worth saving. The battle to prove them wrong isn’t over, it’s just begun.