Does Donald Trump’s act of constitutional vandalism in inciting mob violence presage an end to America’s greatness or the rebirth of a country that has lost its way?
After last week’s unprecedented scenes of mayhem and wanton destruction in Washington’s Capitol building, the notion of a rebirth seems far-fetched. Worse could follow in the waning days of his presidency if Trump gives full vent to his vindictive nature by inflaming his hardcore supporters or initiating an international crisis. Without bipartisan support, impeachment risks turning Trump into a martyr and further polarising the electorate.
But American resilience and the capacity for renewal should never be underestimated. The Trump-inspired insurrection against the people’s house may be the shock the country needs to realise it has come to a fork in the road. Unconstrained populism is the low road that leads to dysfunction, division, violence and the anarchy of the mob. Joe Biden’s task is to bring America’s warring tribes to their senses and reverse the palpable decline in civic pride and principled behaviour that has debased the nation’s political culture.
Can he do it? Sceptics — and there are many — doubt Biden’s empathy and compassion are enough to heal the grievous wounds Trump has inflicted on the US body politic. But this could be a case of “cometh the hour, cometh the man”. Dismissed as a weak and ineffectual presidential candidate less than a year ago, a reinvigorated Biden has come roaring back to life, visibly growing in stature since his emphatic defeat of Trump at the ballot box.
The unexpected Democratic triumph in the two Georgia Senate run-off elections has gifted Biden rare control of both houses of congress. Well versed in the realities of congressional power, Biden is unlikely to look this gift horse in the mouth.
As Trump’s hold on the media and electorate loosens, Biden has seized the moral and political high ground by defending the constitution, calling for national unity and holding Trump to account for the chaos that has paralysed the country. The contrast couldn’t be greater. Biden’s unifying message is resonating across the political divide while Trump’s crass, self-serving behaviour is turning off an increasing number of Americans.
A highly unusual public declaration calling on the military to refrain from involvement in Trump’s attempt to delegitimise the election results by all 10 living former US defence secretaries — including two appointed and fired by Trump — was an early sign the pendulum was beginning to swing against the man who glories in his capacity to hire and fire at will. But this is not reality TV. In the real world there are consequences. One is that powerful people will strike back.
Although it was to be expected that the handful of longstanding, dissident Republicans such as Senator Mitt Romney would ramp up their criticisms of a man they clearly despise, Trump didn’t anticipate once stalwart loyalists throwing in the towel. Republican royalty in the form of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and leading conservative Lindsey Graham have clearly had enough, distancing themselves from a president they once defended. Opportunists such as Ted Cruz, who hope to inherit Trump’s crown and voter base, risk having their presidential ambitions derailed by their ill-conceived and futile attempt to derail Biden’s certification as president.
The lesson for Australia is that America’s democratic deficit is ours, too. Our democracy sprang from the same classical and Enlightenment philosophers who profoundly influenced the authors of the US constitution. And we suffer many of the same afflictions, although mob violence has thankfully not yet scarred the offices of our elected representatives or the halls of Parliament House.
The realisation that what happened in the US could happen anywhere will galvanise democracies everywhere, helping Biden in his quest to reunify the nation and push back against autocratic governments invested in democratic failure. Restoring the moral authority of the presidency, and faith in the foundational pillars of American democracy, is an essential first step to restoring US greatness, something Trump never understood. But the world’s dictators well understand the connection. That’s why they are gleefully portraying America’s travails as irrefutable evidence of a failing political system unable to deliver the national unity and social discipline required of great countries.
They have a point. If the US is a country at war with itself, so are many other leading democracies. The cancel culture intolerance that infects them is symptomatic of societies tribalising along racial, ethnic and identify lines rather than being united by common interests, values, traditions and institutions. In attempting to heal his country, Biden may find activists in his own party as much of a problem as the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol.
In addressing the many domestic problems the country confronts, Biden must be careful not to neglect the very real challenges that will be thrown at him by autocratic competitors and adversaries anxious to capitalise on Washington’s disarray.
The first challenge may come from China as it ramps up pressure on Hong Kong under its draconian national security law. Chinese officials are already arguing there is no difference between their crackdown on dissidents who “illegally” occupied the Hong Kong Legislative Council last year and US authorities restoring law and order in the Capitol. This is spurious. There is no moral equivalence between a society that defends its democratic institutions and one that subjugates its people to the dictates of an autocrat.
While authoritarian governments will continue to exploit the shocking optics of America’s “citadel of freedom” under mob attack, the reality is that only a vibrant and resilient democracy could have survived such an attack without breaking. This is a triumph, not a defeat. US democracy has survived the ultimate stress test and will emerge stronger for it.
Alan Dupont is chief executive officer of political and strategic risk consultancy The Cognoscenti Group and a non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.