Here is what has happened. US president Donald Trump asserted for months, without evidence, that he could not be defeated in a fair election. He duly attributed his defeat to a rigged election. Four in five Republicans still agree. The president pressured officials to overturn their states’ votes. Having failed, he sought to bully his vice-president and Congress into rejecting the electoral votes submitted by the states. He incited an assault on the Capitol, in order to pressure Congress into doing so. Some 147 members of Congress, including eight senators, voted to reject the states’ votes.
In brief, Mr Trump attempted a coup. Worse, the great majority of Republicans agree with his reasons for doing so. A huge number of federal legislators went along. The coup failed, because courts rejected evidence-free cases, and state officials did their jobs. But 10 former defence secretaries felt the need to warn the military to stay out.
In March 2016, before Mr Trump had even won the GOP nomination, I argued he was a grave threat. It was evident he lacked any of the qualities required in the leader of a great republic. But, it turned out, he had the redeeming flaw of gross incompetence.
How would you respond if told the following story about a democracy: the “big lie” about the rigged election that the incumbent clearly lost; the partisan media that spread this lie; the voters who believed it; the assault on the legislature by an insurrectionist mob; and the legislators who claimed that the election must be halted in response to doubt these lies had created? You would conclude that it was in mortal danger.
The US is not a majoritarian polity. Small states have disproportionate voting power, and some states have a history of racist vote suppression. But elections are supposed to decide who holds power. How can that work if most voters for one of the two main parties believe lost elections are stolen elections? How can power be gained peacefully and held legitimately? What is left as the decider, but violence?
As Yale’s Timothy Snyder asserts: “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president.” If truth is subjective, force must decide. There can then be no true democracy, only gangs of rival thugs or the boss’s dominant gang.
Optimists would have to agree that this has been a very bad moment for the worldwide credibility of the US republic, to the delight of despots everywhere. But, they may assert, it has come through its trial of fire and is now, once again, about to renew its promise, at home and abroad, as it did in the 1930s, under Franklin Roosevelt, at a time even more dangerous than today.
Alas, I do not believe this. The Republican party is rotten through with sedition. As soon as I write this, I know people will start complaining about the violence and socialists on the left. But absolutely no equivalent to Mr Trump is to be found among leading Democrats. Those pre-fascists are on the right.
Worse, Mr Trump is not himself the disease, but a symptom. James Murdoch recently declared that: “The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very, very much so. Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.” Was he referring to Fox News, his father Rupert’s poisonous creation?
The role of the rightwing media bubble in creating the post-truth world of Trumpism is evident. So, too, is the plutocrat-funded long march through the institutions. The judiciary this has created has delivered the armed citizenry, the invisible political contributions and the soaring inequality that now endanger democratic stability. Most troubling is how the Republican elite has weaponised the politics of racial division, so dreadful a part of US history, in order to attract the voter support they need for tax cuts and deregulation. White people without university degrees have been experiencing premature “deaths of despair”. But liberals and ethnic minorities are the right’s true foes.
So long as the politics of the right remain as they are, the danger revealed since the election will not evaporate. Congressional Republicans will seek to ensure that new president Joe Biden fails. The fanatics and careerists will continue to combine. Lunatic rightwing propaganda will continue to pour forth. What sort of person does one imagine such a movement will choose as its next presidential candidate? A traditional conservative like Mitt Romney?
Mr Trump has shown the way. Many will try to follow. So long as the aim of so many Republicans is to make the federal government fail and the rich richer, this is how its politics must work.
We have come to a hinge moment in history. The US is the world’s most powerful and influential democratic republic. For all its mistakes and flaws, it was the global model and protector of democratic values. Under Mr Trump, this vanished. He was a consistent opponent of the values and aspirations embodied in a republican ideal.
Mr Trump failed. Moreover, after his attempted coup, nobody can deny his threat was real. But this is not enough. If US politics unfolds as seems likely, there will be more Trumps. One of them, more competent and ruthless, may succeed. If that is to be prevented, US politics must now shift to respect for truth and an inclusive version of patriotism.
Rome was arguably the last republican superpower. But the rich and powerful destroyed that republic, bringing forth a military dictatorship, 1,800 years before the US was born. The US republic has survived the test of Trump. But it still needs to be saved from death.