I've refrained from writing about the American situation until I felt I could see where politics were going in that country that once seemed to offer so much hope to the cause of liberal democracy, even flawed as it always was. But now it's quite clear that former President Trump will be found Not Guilty in his second impeachment trial and we can also see the shape of the new Biden administration. So, time to express some of my current thoughts - and concerns.
What happened on January 6th was unprecedented in US history. All frenzied rhetoric aside it was an assault on the fundamental structure of a functioning democracy, an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power. It was inspired, if not incited, by the current President, unable or unwilling to acknowledge his loss of the election. Of course it was never going to succeed; it wouldn't have succeeded even if some of the rumours concerning some extremist discussions of a martial law style coup turn out to be true as the years lay bare the real history. But it could well have launched the country on the road to another civil war, or toward the secession of some States.
It didn't and for that we can be thankful. But the lessons it should have taught politicians seem to be fading fast. The realisation that things had gone too far that was expressed by leaders like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham after the invasion of the capitol has evaporated. McCarthy went down to Florida to reingratiate himself with Trump. Graham, who after the ‘riot’ said “Trump and I, we've had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way. Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view he's been a consequential president. But today, first thing you'll see. All I can say, is count me out, enough is enough" one week later tweeted “President Trump’s statement tonight hit the mark. He rejected violence, unequivocally condemned those who defiled our Capitol, called for full accountability, and emphasized those who engage in violence tarnish the movement. His speech helps move the country move forward. It is now time for President-elect Biden to rise to the occasion and instruct his party to call off post-presidential impeachment proceedings”.
Senator McConnell has been more consistent, perhaps recognising more clearly that the Republican party stands at the proverbial crossroads. Will it remain the party of Trumpism or can it reform around the traditional conservative values represented by people like Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Liz Cheney? It managed to reject right wing extremism once before when it broke with the John Birch Society though people forget or do not know what a struggle it was, even with the support of the leadership, unlike today. As an aside, I thoroughly recommend this article in the Washington Post for those unfamiliar with the struggle against the Birchers: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/01/29/gop-john-birch-society-trump/?arc404=true
If the Republican centre does not reclaim its party then it will become ever more extreme, with people like Marjory Taylor Green moving from the lunatic fringes to leadership positions. If that happens, I don’t see how the Right will ever win a Presidential election again, IF…
Yes, there is always an “if”. In the case of the USA today, the big ‘if’ is whether President Biden can restrain the extreme wing of his own party, And that’s not a given by any means. The 70 million who voted for Trump are not all extremists by any means, they are conservatives, mostly rural, who feel abandoned and neglected by the urban political establishment. Social conservatives whose fear of attacks on their cultural values was a vein so easily and richly exploited by Trump. A cultural war by an increasingly ‘woke’ (gods how I hate that word) wing of the Democratic party will simply lead to ever greater division between the massive urban socially liberal States on both coasts and the traditional culturally conservative ‘flyover’ States of the interior of the country.
As a historian of the US, I am an optimist about America; it has survived political and cultural crises before, from McCarthyism to the divisions over Vietnam. It even survived the plague of slavery and the war it caused. Despite the still existing and inherent racism in so much of society, life for black Americans is much better than 70 years ago. My fear is that it now faces crises augmented and magnified by a technology of mass communications, something the framers of the Constitution never envisaged. If the leaders of the nation cannot work out how to use social media for the good of society then I truly do fear an increasingly Disunited States of America.