Spare us, at least, the mock horror. On the morning after the US presidential election of November 4th, The Irish Times ran a headline: “At 2.23am, the US president launched an attempted coup.” This was merely factual reporting.
With tens of millions of votes still uncounted, Donald Trump had appeared on a carefully prepared stage bedecked with US flags and demanded that the counting be stopped and that he be declared the winner. The election was in the past tense: “Frankly we did win this election.”
This was not a moment of madness. It was a show for which Trump had been running trailers for at least a year.
This was never a dark conspiracy. It was an undisguised insurrection. Trump’s one great virtue is his openness. On September 23rd, asked whether he would “commit here today for a peaceful transferral of power after the November election”, Trump replied, “Get rid of the [mail-in] ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful – there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”
What more did anyone want? Read his lips: there will be no peaceful transition of power. Like every other autocrat, Trump understood the sole purpose of an election as the endorsement of his rule. Any other possibility could not be entertained.
Almost the entire Republican Party went along with this declaration of war on the democratic process; a majority of its congressional delegation actively supported it. And nearly 75 million people voted for Trump in the full knowledge that he would never, ever, accept the result of the election unless he won.
No need to speculate
So what did they think he was going to do when he lost? There was no need to speculate. On December 19th, Trump tweeted: “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Over and over, Trump has made it plain that he would use every means available to subvert the will of the majority of voters and remain in power. What were those means? There were three layers of subversion.
First there was the courts. Trump believed his hand-picked judges, up to and including the three he had nominated to the Supreme Court, would deliver the election to him by invalidating millions of votes.
This would have been the cleanest kind of coup. But the judiciary baulked – not least because Trump’s sabotage was too open, too crude, too unsubtle and, in the hands of his deranged lawyer Rudi Giuliani, too dementedly incompetent.
But Trump had two more sets of allies: the Republican Party in the chambers of Congress and the neo-fascists on the streets. This is an alliance he created and sustained precisely for such a purpose.
Again, the nature of this alliance was completely open. Look at the pictures from Wednesday of the leader of the congressional coup attempt, Missouri Republican senator Josh Hawley, giving the clenched fist salute to the mob outside the Capitol building.
This was not a rush of blood to the head. It is the logic of a post-democratic Republican Party that has given up hope of being able to win a majority in fair presidential elections.
Nor is this a passing phase. Even after the mob stormed the Capitol, a majority of Republican members of the House, including House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and House minority whip Steve Scalise, voted in support of Trump’s bogus claims that Arizona’s election results must be invalidated.
The only surprise about what happened on Wednesday, therefore, is that anyone can claim to be surprised. What do they think a post-democratic political party looks like?
There has been, though, a cognitive dissonance on the right of American politics. Conservatives think of themselves as, well, conservative – protective of established institutions and norms.
This has long been a dubious proposition: Watergate and Iran-Contra are merely the most egregious examples of Republican presidencies becoming actively criminal and flagrantly subversive of the US constitutional order. White supremacist repression of Black voting rights was not invented by Trump; it is a mainstream Republican tactic for suppressing the democratic vote.
But the power of self-delusion can never be overstated. The mainstream right in the US has drifted more and more into the orbit of pre-fascist authoritarianism and lawlessness, even while seeking to retain its sense of conservative respectability.
It has become a political version of the Picture of Dorian Grey: suave men in well-cut suits retaining the outward veneer of republican democracy while, in the attic, the true picture comes to resemble more and more a Confederate flag-waving thug in combat gear.
That double game is up. The picture was readjusted on Wednesday. Respectable republicanism got a glimpse of its own true face and recoiled at the sight.
Yet here, too, there should be no surprise. This is what always happens with far-right takeovers. The suave men think they can use the demagogue and the thugs they calls patriots and “fine people”, and dispense with them when they feel like it. They think they can keep the mob outside the door while they get on with the real business. Sooner or later, the mob comes through the door and openly occupies the space the suave men have prepared for it.
This article has been republished from The Irish Times 07 January 2021.