Donald Trump has irreparably damaged US power
Dictators and democrats around the world would have been aware that they were witnessing the irreversible decline of the sole superpower in the shocking live footage of armed mobs rampaging through the US Capitol, the seat of the legislative branch of the world’s most powerful democracy, which left four people dead. More so, when this astonishing attack on the heart of America’s democracy was incited by a sitting president of the United States, the world’s most powerful leader. After a delayed joint session of Congress confirmed Joe Biden as the next president, a formality in presidential transitions for over two centuries, Mr Trump released a statement — his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts having been blocked — promising an orderly transition on January 20. But he doubled down on his unfounded assertions of rampant voter fraud. It is unclear whether this qualified assurance will save him from stronger Congressional censure — whether impeachment or an activation of the 25th amendment of the Constitution, which lays out how a US president or vice-president may be succeeded or replaced. But Mr Trump’s sole culpability for Wednesday’s attack is undeniable.
The 45th president has been assaulting American democratic traditions since his election in 2016 without sacrificing his support of Congressional support and donor base. But his campaign since November challenging elections that Mr Biden squarely won moved the needle sharply towards undermining the people’s mandate, which most American lawmakers hold sacrosanct. Mr Trump was within his rights to challenge the results in court — over 60 cases — but when he lost all of those he chose to sustain his extremist rhetoric and bizarre conspiracy theories to animate his base and pressure his allies in Congress. This is the path of authoritarian demagogues.
When it became clear that his two most powerful Congressional allies, Vice-President Mike Pence and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, were distancing themselves from his claims, Mr Trump mobilised his supporters to rally in Washington. At a gathering of hundreds of these worthies before the Ellipses, the public park south of the White House, he and his sons deployed language more suited to mafia dons. They threatened to work against every Republican Congressman who did not back their father, while his maverick lawyer Rudy Giuliani spoke of “trial by combat” even as the president specifically asked his supporters to march towards Congress while it was in session. If the outcome of this inflammatory rhetoric exceeded Mr Trump’s expectations, it also had the unintended effect of unifying Democrats and most Republicans. The challenges to Mr Biden’s victory in Arizona and Pennsylvania failed in both Houses and the defeated Republican Senators from the Georgia run-offs decided to withdraw their challenges in the light of the attacks on Congress.
But this is a Pyrrhic victory for Mr Biden. Visuals of Trump supporters clashing with Congressional security forces and the National Guard and trashing Congressional offices have weakened the institutional authority of the US presidency just as global leadership is sorely needed for such issues as climate change, terrorism, and pandemics. Wednesday’s events will be deeply discouraging for America’s allies even as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping may be energised to expand their global authoritarian footprints. After this, Mr Trump may end his days in ignominy, but the lasting contribution of his presidency is to have made America weak again.