The ultimate travesty of Trumpism is not simply its shocking aggression at the Capitol on January 6, but what that action revealed as the depths of division within the US polity and society. Biden and Harris have a formidable job to restore a modicum of reliable order. We need to re-think Australia’s willingness to accept US directions.
Trump planned and ordered his mob’s attack on the Capitol. This was a calculated political action designed to demolish the result of the presidential election and to seize control of the US government.
In most countries such an action, if defeated, would be severely punished.
Urgent discussions on removing Trump from office, immediately, are under way. Some 120 Republican members of Congress voted against certifying the Electoral College result after the attack on the Capitol. But there are signs of a growing awareness among Republicans that failure to hold Trump to account could damage their brand gravely.
The Biden/Harris inauguration is a little over a week away. Trump has said he will not attend.
Many commentators and some political leaders are now saying that the attack on the Capitol while the final action by the Electoral College in 2020 was under way was inevitable, as if that somehow puts it within the spectrum of political normalcy.
Such an observation is beside the point. What the events revealed was a President and an administration wanting to destroy the established system of popular government and replace it with an autocracy, led by Donald Trump.
Trump’s conduct for the past five years, in the lead-up to his presidency and during it, had two essential features.
First, to lie about everything. It was astonishing. Virtually nothing he said has been true. This went far beyond mere spin.
Second, his political currency was societal hostility, particularly between classes and regions, and racism; mainly the historic American version – discrimination against African-Americans, the descendants of slaves, but not exclusively. His attacks upon others, particularly Latin Americans and their children, were continuous and brutal.
Trump’s destruction of verity itself, in public discourse, has been massively corrosive. It has resulted in government itself and its associated structures, in the US and in many other comparable countries, being viewed with deep scepticism.
Trump and his acolytes’ trading in class and racial hostility has revealed starkly that those anxieties and phobias are deep and enduring, within the US.
Trump knew this and used it to assemble a mass political movement based on pandering to and exploiting those sources of hostility. He made this choice not only because it had political utility but because it accorded with his own, much documented, psycho- pathologies.
His success could not have been achieved within the political establishment into which he slipped, four years ago. He was given support, initially cautiously but then lavishly, by the Republican Party in its contemporary, post-Tea Party form and from its key leaders.
No one was more important in sustaining Trump, no matter what lies he told or crimes he committed, than Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
Speaking of criminal conduct, it is clear that throughout his career and, as President, Trump has conducted himself in a criminal fashion, in terms of both domestic and international law. He and his family’s conduct and that of his inner personal circle, some of whom have already been sentenced, came to be widely seen as redolent of the Mafia.
Those legal chickens are now heading towards the roost. It is persuasively reported that the Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) has the indictments and supporting data in her top drawer. These apparently will see Trump charged with major crimes when he leaves office.
Characteristic of Trump, it is also reported that he has held discussions on pardoning himself before he leaves office.
More important than these details are intrinsically is how they illustrate the extraordinary extent of the tawdry bargains reached by so many senior officials and elected representatives with Trump.
From Vice President Pence to Attorney General Barr, to name just two leading examples of this phenomenon, the knowledge was widespread of Trump’s immorality, laziness, corruption and profoundly dangerous unfitness for his job. Yet they looked away, trashing their own oath of office, and sought to protect Trump including, in the case of Attorney General Barr, by lying about the outcome of major investigations of his conduct.
Above all, they stuck with Trump when the House impeached him. McConnell’s Senate refused to allow the trial to proceed with any witnesses or documents. It was ludicrous and shameful conduct.
That Kafkaesque failure was enacted shortly before Covid-19 arrived in the US, bringing with it the pinnacle of Trump’s incompetence – his determined misrepresentation and then neglect of the Covid-19 challenge. This has led to tens of thousands of needless deaths. And it has placed the US as the world leader in the number of Covid-19 infections.
The Republican leadership made Trump and Trumpism viable for some years. They did this because they believed their seats and power depended on it.
Policy choices or outcomes were almost always political and ideological in nature; such as the gerrymandering of electorates, regressive taxation legislation, court appointments, and invoking culture wars around issues such as birth control and gun ownership. Their and Trump’s rejection of climate change was flagrant.
Trump’s appeal to the working and impoverished classes involved the paradox of poverty that so often accompanies nationalist/populist and fascist politics.
The promises of alleviating the condition of poorer people are made fulsomely in language hostile to their class enemies. Those promises are never delivered on, but the poor are comforted by the hostility expressed about their perceived enemies. Indeed, not only did Trump fail the poor, but he channelled large tax cuts to those who did not need them.
There was also the leitmotif that is classic in fascist propaganda: that we are victims. “Make America Great Again” was a perfect example – the idea that we have been robbed of our greatness, stabbed in the back, and that aggressive policies can rectify this.
Boris Johnson has followed the same playbook in the UK to become Prime Minister.
He began by circulating widely in the Brexit campaign the grand lie about how much EU membership cost the UK each week and is now lying about the completed exit deal, which is wildly incomplete, in its detail.
This has been supported throughout by the nationalist motif that leaving the EU will re-aggrandise Britain, return it to an approximation of its imperial glory.
Not only is this fatuous but it obscures the most palpable of the realities the UK is likely to now face; the dissolution of the United Kingdom, through the departure of Scotland and possibly the loss of Northern Ireland to a re-unified Ireland. Where Wales will go is also under discussion.
Reference to this kind of fascistic methodology serves to underline the irreducible conclusion that what Trump’s presidency and his movement became was a cult, a cult of the Leader incompatible with popular electoral democracy.
If the US is to assert both domestically and around the world that Trump and his cult was an unacceptable aberration in its political life, it must remove him from office without any further delay, as many leaders, scholars and commentators, are now urging.
Biden and Harris face a formidable task in seeking to return some decency to US politics, public life and in societal relationships. Many Americans want them to succeed in this, but many could not be less interested. Some 70 million voted for Trump and polls show a clear majority believe the election was stolen from them.
As former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has commented, Trump waged an attack upon US democracy for four years. It will not be easy for them to recover from this.
But these are American problems for them to solve. While they attempt to do that we should think again, very deeply, about how far we should continue to take US direction on any matters of policy and substantive importance.
And America should stay its hand on lecturing others on what constitutes democracy and how it should be organised.