Photo: Brett Davis/Flickr
Hundreds of US citizens storming the sacred temple of the world’s oldest democracy. It’s hard to imagine a more striking script. Truth stranger than fiction. Images of the Capitol being stormed have burst into history books.
Trump supporters rioting to deliberately hinder and revile the peaceful transfer of power is really bad news. A liberal democracy needs procedures and values: procedures to codify the relationship between election winners and losers to avoid violent clashes after each election period, and values to safeguard the plurality of society. Without procedures or values, the foundations of democracy will crumble.
On 6th January, demonstrators tried to crush both dimensions in defence of their candidate. A sort of appointment by acclamation to cancel the election of Biden and Harris.
The Trumpism of the last four years has been a “stop-start presidential system” that has often stretched the limits of regulations, or, in more academic terms, erga omnes, i.e. unto everyone, walking a path bearing some resemblance to the political theories of Carl Schmitt. According to the baseline Nazi thinker, political acts subjugate the desire for justice, therefore neither the certification of the votes cast in a polling station nor the absence of proof of electoral fraud matter. The legal fact of Joe Biden’s nomination is undermined by the drumming of exhibitionists dressed as The Village People.
The decline of parliamentary action affects the essence of the Republican Party, whose leaders, apart from a few exceptions, have folded their sails about the Trump storm. The columnist Anne Applebaum warned us about this some time ago. Where have the Republicans critical of the most eccentric president of all times gone? What has happened to the few that threatened, shortly after Trump was elected, to oppose the half-truth president? Applebaum makes an interesting comparison between the events of several totalitarian dictatorships and events in the Republican Party whose members were apparently required to toe the line.
The magnitude of the earthquake that struck the cornerstones of the US democracy is considerable
The party of law and order seemed sluggish, cautious and unarmed when faced with Trump’s omnipresence, and not to have weighed up the impact of a presidency that is peculiar, to say the least. The Schmittian ogre aims to create a sovereign dictatorship, a political regime not indebted to the past or tradition and not in awe of the institutional anchorage that ensures a seamless political process.
The magnitude of the earthquake that struck the cornerstones of the US democracy, whose intellectual legacy we anticipated a few months ago, is considerable. Trumpism is unlikely to be a passing fad. Some people even say Ivanka Trump will take over. For the time being, US society faces three major political challenges to overcome the three Ps of the outgoing president: polarisation, provocation and protest.
The USA divided
With 45% of Republican voters in favour of storming the Capitol, the political arena seems to have become a trench for confrontation. If the persons who were violent on January 6th are ‘demonstrators’ or ‘patriots’, the internal battle is lost. Co-existence is waning and gaps can be seen between Republicans and Democrats, between townies and hillbillies, and between minorities and the traditional white majority.
The erosion of the political system can be seen in many democracies whose public opinions flirt with non-democratic forms of government. This is nothing new. It did not, of course, start with Trump. He is a symptom rather than a cause. In 1997, Fareed Zakaria rubbed salt in the wound. Hence this authoritarian tendency has been in the air for decades, with characters far removed from the canons of democracy, such as Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. This does not mean a return to dictatorships, but does mean a spring of stop-start presidential systems on steroids, with their respective motorised legislation, without parliamentary or institutional counterweights, in keeping with Schmittian thinking.
Democracies are upheld by constituent narratives that mystify the past to varying degrees and which, of course, need rites and protocols. Substance and form. It’s all the same. The arrival of the Mayflower and the fourth of July, the Civil War and the murder of Lincoln and the Normandy landing all nourish the collective memory of US society. More recently, other communities have staked their claim to be included in the creation of this official memory, the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement being the best known.
Rituals make continuity meaningful and encourage long-term projects. If Trump finally does not attend the ritual of the handover of power on January 20th, what part can he play in US politics? Four years as the head of the opposition, a figure that does not exist in US political tradition? The lack of a bowing-out ritual – because Trump has not specifically admitted defeat – will make it more complicated to reconcile and enable US citizens to understand each other again.
The trolling of Twitter accounts managed by the foreign ministries of Turkey, Russia and Venezuela in response to the assault demonstrates the negative impact of political violence and makes matters worse for the discourse of a weak American democracy with serious problems. Without a system legitimised by its own citizens, the soft power of the US is undermined. Who would want to sit next to a president who despises his own institutions?
These three political cornerstones will underpin the policy of the new Biden-Harris government which is not confined to post-Covid economic recovery or the response to the Chinese boom. Without a strong, united US society, the end of the US Century may, as Richard Haas says, have begun on January 6th 2021.
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