Forget the insurrection as ‘a teaching opportunity’

Jan 20, 2021

Here’s to betting that impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump prove a political disaster for the US and the Democrats; that Trumpism emerges more popular than ever; and that the drift towards the disintegration of the republic continues.

If this occurs, it will, I suspect, be because many in the leadership of the Democrats, especially in the congress, see the riot in Washington last week as a “teachable occasion” – a platform by which American “deplorables” and other discontents can be made to see the error of their perceptions. Can, moreover, be wrenched from rabble-rousers in the pulpit, the National Rifle Association, in social media, or in extreme right-wing media who have encouraged and developed their sense of displacement from society.

The big problem is that most senior Democrats are not speaking the same language as most modern Republicans. It is not merely that the nation has become hyper-partisan and that party affiliation is more a matter of culture and religion than of economic philosophy or preference as between smorgasbords of electoral goodies. Or that they have different sources of “news”, attribute significance to different “facts” and have low trust in the mainstream media.

It is that the differences are so great that communication seems to have become almost impossible. It is aggravated by the fact that a good many working-class Republicans sense (correctly) that senior Democrats despise them. Their loving reproofs are rightly seen as patronising. Remember when Hillary Clinton referred to the “deplorables”? Words and symbols have different meanings; the relationship between head and heart, or logic and emotion are fundamentally different, and there seems less and less common ground.

The result will be that the words by which Democrats believe they can discredit Trumpism forever will satisfy only Democrats and the mainstream commentariat but have a scarce impact on the people and the party Trump controls. It’s not about reason and logic, or correct legal syllogisms. Nor is the argument that proceedings must occur because “there must be consequences” for the incitement of rebellion. (If consequences are necessary, he could, of course, be criminally charged with this on January 21, and I doubt any self-pardons will be a bar. But a jury of nine Republicans might be.)

Trumpites see Democrats as elitists, hectoring, arrogant, snobbish and condescending. Democrats did not win by winning back Republicans but by organising a bigger turnout from their own constituencies.

Perhaps it would be nice, from the Democrat point of view if Americans “came together.” But it by no means follows that they will come together under Biden, or Democrat politicians with agendas, such as, for example, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Kamala Harris, let alone the now-retired predecessor Hillary Clinton. So personalised has been the hatred memes of the past four years, that Trumpites give an involuntary shudder, and utter an oath, each time they hear such names. They see most of what they say as elitist, hectoring, arrogant, snobbish and condescending, and out of touch with the feelings and needs of “real” Americans. Democrats did not win the election by wooing Republicans back into the fold. They won it by organising a bigger turnout from their own constituencies.

Nor is there a simple morality play by which the most alienated Republicans can be brought to understand that the election was fair, and that, the majority being Democrat, Republicans must accept the verdict and accept its decisions with the same enthusiasm as they greeted decisions by Trump. They may come to grudgingly accept Joe Biden — a man hard to hate — but it is difficult to imagine them ever identifying him — as, rightly or wrongly, so many have come to identify Trump — as brave, patriotic, a reformer, an outsider, and a person who, despite manifest flaws seemed to be an instrument of God. Most Australians, like most non-Americans, may sneer at this reverence for Trump, or the ready and emotional acceptance of his gospel, whatever that is. But his very success, before his ultimate failure, is a reminder that Trump is a brand, an ideology and a movement.

As Democrats see it, Trump and Trumpism were decisively defeated at the election. The run-offs for senate places in Georgia gave them legitimate control of congress. The election itself provided Biden with both a domestic and international mandate, including an explicit one of winding back many of the more disastrous policies of the past four years. It was also a mandate for a more urgent approach to the coronavirus pandemic and a reversal of anti-migration policies. They have no need, as such, to apologise to the losers. Yet Biden, and others, have talked the language of reconciliation, and of uniting the nation again. And the appalling way in which Trump extremists went too far in Washington, as well as Trump’s impeachable manner of whipping up the rage has made clear the need for some agreement about common ground.

Even extremist Republicans such as Mitch McConnell, who have never dreamed of making the slightest concession to the sentiments of Democrats, or of supporting any measures with which Democrats were associated, is now talking conciliatory words about cooperation. Yet the logic of this paragraph starts with the assumption, which many Republicans, despite the evidence, refuse to accept, that Biden won the election.

No doubt Democrats will feel that an impeachment trial is just the occasion for a feast of righteous preaching by the winners to the losers. Who could pass up the opportunity to mock a discredited and deluded soon-to-be former president, still insisting he was robbed. A man accused of urging and encouraging a violent riot at which an array of his crazies rampaged down Washington streets into congress. Some were armed, and seemingly determined to fight and die to prevent the winners of what they had been encouraged to believe was a rigged election using the power that election had given them. Whether as coup attempt or rampage, it was complete over-reach, susceptible even to the feeble and half-hearted attempts by police, many of them obvious sympathisers, to restrain them.

The over-reach was soon underlined by the president’s denial that he had incited their violence and his insistence that he had always urged peaceful exercise of rights of free assembly, not violence and destruction. To the bemusement of many of the true believers, he has even threatened the wrath of the state on those who responded to his call.

The question remains, however, whether the Democrats have the words, the language, and the followership to make mainstream and fringe Republicans look abashed and ashamed. To make them realise the error of their ways, the falseness of their perceptions and the need to play politics like gentlemen and gentlewoman. Even the orator and persuader of the age, Barack Obama, couldn’t make that happen.

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