A day in infamy in US history
A year ago, on January 6, armed, violent supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the US Capitol. Lawmakers hid in fear of their lives. Trump's Vice-President Mike Pence faced a real threat of being hanged for performing his ceremonial duty and declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 elections.
It was, to echo the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, "a day that will live in infamy." The events of that day were an ominous warning. Democracy faces an existential threat in the US—an unprecedented development in any Western democracy since World War II.
The crisis may have been triggered by Trump, but that is not where the real danger lies, a vital point to which I shall return.
To be sure, the origin of this existential threat to democracy is Trump's refusal to concede after losing the 2020 presidential election. Trump's political career is littered with many dubious firsts: He is the first US president to refuse to concede after losing an election; he is the first US president to be threatened that his mike would be switched off in a presidential debate if he didn't follow rules; and he is the first US president to lie so blatantly and often that the US media, normally deferential to the president, was forced to bring itself to call Trump a liar so often that the fact itself became passe.
Trump's lies have ranged from the frivolous (he said it didn't rain during his inauguration, when it did) to the silly (Trump said the Boy Scouts chief told him he had given the greatest speech to them ever. The Boy Scouts chief confirmed he said no such thing). Sometimes his lies were no laughing matter. His litany of untruthful remarks about the coronavirus (it was like the flu, the situation was "totally under control," the virus was "disappearing") had profound adverse consequences.
Trump's most consequential lie is his claim to have won the 2020 presidential election. This is a breach of one of the loftiest traditions of American politics. No matter how bitter the campaign, at the end of a presidential election, the losing candidate—whether Republican or Democratic—makes a gracious concession speech, which reaffirms the strength of American democracy. The sustenance of democracy, after all, depends on the consent of the defeated.
Trump and his supporters stubbornly claim to have won despite no evidence.
The real damage—and it is far from clear that US democracy will recover from it—is the vicious, mindless nature of the assault on the American electoral system.
Trump and his supporters filed a slew of lawsuits, all of which have been thrown out of court—frequently by judges appointed by Trump himself. Unsubstantiated claims of rigging, false voting, machine tampering have been made and debunked.
However, the reason American democracy is staring at a yawning abyss is not Trump or his cohorts so much as the complete meltdown of the Republican Party.
Awful as Trump's depredations have been, what has been stunning to behold is the complete moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party. Eight US senators and 139 House members—all Republicans—have refused to accept Biden's victory. There is a wry saying about American politics: "If you think the politicians are bad, you should see the constituents." According to a University of Massachusetts at Amherst poll in December last year, 71 percent of Republican Party supporters don't believe Biden is the legitimately elected president.
The intraparty Republican political bloodletting is reminiscent of Soviet-era purges. Georgia presents a depressing case study. Its popular Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are robust Trump supporters. Both face a remarkably odd predicament. As they gear up for re-election, they face intraparty rivals—an extraordinarily rare thing for an elected official. Why? Both Kemp and Raffensperger had refused to subvert the presidential elections in Georgia in 2020, and Trump, in a fit of spite, has backed Republican rivals to unseat both of them.
In a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Trump supporters have made blanket support for his big lie a litmus test. Equivocation is not acceptable, and the cult-like support they demand is completely untethered from consideration of facts.
The disquieting upshot of all of this is that American politics has entered a new era. Today, only partisan victory is an acceptable outcome to most Republicans. In the Republican Party, voices of reason and ethical democratic norms are marginalised to the point of extinction as Trumpier elements merrily rule the roost.
Democracy made a narrow escape in the 2020 elections. One reason was that election officials—including Republicans—refused to compromise the integrity of the electoral system.
Between threats to impartial election officials, unsubstantiated claims of malpractice whenever the results go the other way, and a vicious partisan mindset immune to facts, it is not clear at all the US will be so lucky next time.
Ashfaque Swapan is a writer and editor based in Atlanta, US.