Democracy is a mindset and Americans are losing it
The world might be witnessing not only the death throes of the Trump presidency but of US democracy.
Democracy's great virtue is not that it guarantees the best possible ruler but that it allows the bloodless removal of a bad one, as the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper said. Donald Trump's denialist contortions are an effort to prevent democracy delivering its ultimate benefit.
Supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber.Credit:AP
Witnessing the invasion of the American parliament, Trump's first Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, didn't shrink from naming the chief culprit: "Today's violent assault on our Capitol, an effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule, was fomented by Mr. Trump." And he's right.
Trump has potential to do far worse in the final fortnight of his presidency. "Chaos is his friend," his former national security adviser, John Bolton, told me, even before the latest mayhem, "as it has been many times in his life and in businesses and he's hoping to fall back on it".
As unconscionable as Trump's conduct has been so far, he could still conjure much worse chaos if he chooses to activate the armed extremists such as the violent far-right Proud Boys he famously told to "stand back and stand by".
Although overshadowed by the scenes in the Capitol, pro-Trump groups turned out in many American state capitals to support his fantasy that "we won in a landslide". Almost all were peaceful.
But in Oklahoma, Georgia, Arizona and Washington state some protesters carried guns as they demonstrated outside state parliaments. They were not appalled to hear the news the Trump mob had violently breached the Capitol in Washington DC. They cheered. They were excited, encouraged.
Trump's fanatics are poised to sow much more violent chaos. They await the signal from their hero. Yet whatever Trump attempts, however ugly it might be, he is certain to fail.
Ultimately the transfer of power to a new president will occur. A critical mass of responsible officials and political leaders including Vice-President Mike Pence are acting constitutionally to ensure it.
Trump can influence the manner of the transition but cannot prevent it.
It's not the attempt at mob takeover of the US Capitol that is the worst portent for the survival of US democracy, nor is Trump's appalling effort to incite a people's coup.
The worst omen was the behaviour of the people fully entitled to occupy the seats in the US Congress. Specifically, the members of the US House of Representatives, and Republicans in particular.
Even after they'd been forced to go into hiding when the mob broke into their chambers, even after the violent mayhem had forced them to abandon the formalisation of the election outcome, even after they'd seen the fragility of order in the parliament itself, they were not sobered.
A majority of the Republican members of the US House went on to vote to reject the results of the presidential election in the states where Trump lost. By a vote of 121-83 among the Republican members, in the case of the Arizona result for instance. Their effort failed, overwhelmed by Democrat votes in the event.
These Republican denialists are the people that Jim Mattis described as Trump's enablers – "pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice". He is surely right. They put their tribe ahead of their nation, their immediate political careers ahead of democracy itself.
In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write that "although mass responses to extremist appeals matter, what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy's gatekeepers".
Even after experiencing first-hand the fragility of America's democratic order, these Republicans voted for a coup. Trump ultimately will be gone; the deep divisions and anti-democratic urges that allowed his rise will linger.
A new president is not enough. Democracy is a mindset; Americans are losing it. The deepening bitterness, expressed in economic and race and cultural wars, is the acid eating away US democracy.
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Understand the election result and its aftermath with expert analysis from US correspondent Matthew Knott. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald‘s newsletter here, The Age‘s here, Brisbane Times‘ here and WAtoday‘s here.
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