Trump writes the rule book for future demagogues

Feb 16, 2021

What a cop out. The respectable Republican operatives who have used Trump’s populist appeal to maintain their position and privileges are more dangerous than the supporters of Trump who stormed the Capitol.

When he was first running for President Donald Trump proclaimed: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Who would have thought his boast would be put to the test?

There is little doubt that Trump incited the mob violence unleashed on the Capitol in January. This was acknowledged by the leading Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, who then voted against impeachment on the spurious grounds that one cannot impeach a President no longer in office.

One assumes McConnell thought his own position as Minority Leader might be imperilled were he to join the seven Republican Senators who did vote for impeachment. Of those only one, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, is up for re-election in two years, while at least two have declared this their last term in office. But the backlash against the seven has already been ferocious, several having already been censured by their state party officials.

It seems likely that some of the senators who voted against impeachment did so because they feared the wrath of Donald Trump in future elections. I suspect some also recognised that to impeach Trump could lead to greater examination of their own failure to defend the election of Joe Biden and speak out against the constant campaign of misinformation that has left most Republican voters apparently convinced that the election was, as Trump claims, stolen by fraud and chicanery.

The attempt to delegitimise the results of the November poll is more serious than the events of January 6, despite the loss of life on that day. Democratic governance depends upon widespread acceptance of electoral and judicial processes, and Trump’s refusal to do so is unprecedented in recent American history.

When the Supreme Court ruled in a five to four majority in 2000 that Florida had voted for George W Bush over Al Gore, thus declaring him President Elect, Gore immediately accepted the verdict. There is a parallel in our history; Gough Whitlam believed the action of Sir John Kerr in dismissing him was profoundly unconstitutional, but there was no call for mass disobedience or attacks upon Yarralumla.

Trump’s team lodged 60 or so appeals against the November results and could find no judge, including many he had himself appointed, willing to support his claims. Trump was able to appoint three justices to the Supreme Court, close to a record for a one-term President, but none  was willing to even consider his appeals.

That large sections of the Republican Party were willing to disregard the consistent rejection of appeals against the November vote suggests a fundamental subversion of American belief in their own system. Ironically the system is already flawed and subject to partisan bias, but biased towards the Republicans, who have deliberately sought to make it harder for their opponents to vote.

State legislatures and governors control the creation of electoral divisions for the House of
Representatives and the rules for voter registration, postal ballots and the provision of electoral sites, all of which can be used to favour the ruling party. In retrospect the greatest failure of the Obama Administration was the lack of attention to local politics, so that Republicans were able to increase their strength in a number of key states.

The supporters of Trump who stormed the Capitol are less dangerous than the respectable Republican operatives who have used Trump’s populist appeal to maintain their position and privileges. Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters were scathing about him before he won the party’s presidential nomination; only a few of his critics such as Senator Mitt Romney have remained active in mainstream politics.

As moderate conservatives withdraw from a party now so identified with Trump-mania the Republican Party becomes increasingly the preserve of white racists, conspiracy theorists and rightwing evangelists. There are members of Congress who have close links to the very groups who stormed the Capitol, such as Alt Right and Proud Boys, and adherents of the far right are increasingly winning  control of the party at a local level.

In Michigan there are well-documented links between senior Republican politicians and the militia who planned to kidnap Governor Whitmer last year.

While Democrats now control the Presidency and both houses of Congress, their majorities in both the Representatives and Senate are vulnerable to mid-term elections in 2022, and those Republicans who have not supported Trump are likely to be replaced by hard liners. Trump’s strident daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, is seen as a likely Senate candidate in North Carolina.

The United States has a history of demagogues, such as Huey Long in Louisiana or Alabama’s George Wallace, who won 13 per cent of the vote in the 1968 presidential election. What was unique to Trump was that he built a mass following by consistently railing against the system over which he presided, without any pretence of adhering to constitutional conventions.

Whether Trump can maintain his support from his Mar-A-Lago retreat is uncertain. But he has provided a rule book for future demagogues who will be equally unscrupulous in fomenting rage against the swamp within which they themselves live. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, maybe even Trump’s son Donald Jr, may already be preparing a presidential run.

Last year’s Economist’s Democracy Index already listed the United States as a “flawed democracy”. In light of the events of this year it is likely to fall further. Maybe our Prime Minister might offer the services of the Australian Electoral Commission to President Biden in the spirit of supporting our shared democratic values to which he is apparently so committed.

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