“Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty”. Edward Gibbon,1737-19, English historian
It is tough resisting the temptation not to write on the stripping of America’s democratic credentials and the looming possibility that its spearhead, President Donald Trump, will be impeached for an unprecedented second time in the history of the US, with just a few days to the end of his ignoble presidency. Gloating over the demystification of the leadership role of the US among nations wears the label of democracies that may give many who have different reasons to rejoice at the blood in the nose of a giant. Some of the shock and awe at the spectacles of last week in the US are informed by inadequate knowledge of the history of the struggles of the US to reach its current status. These struggles have involved instances of the use of violent means to subvert the democratic process, the most serious being the civil war that followed the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the resultant civil war over the decision to abolish slavery. US democratic traditions and institutions have very deep roots in systemic violence and stubborn resistance to many of the edifying values and ideals of democracy.Indeed, the US is a study in the power of deliberate efforts to paint over terrible scars and ignore gaping wounds to create a facade for the world.It is also a resounding testament to the reality that there is no perfect democratic system in the world.Students of power will find much in the history of the US on the use and abuse of the most powerful weapon mankind had ever invented: the capacity to influence and direct the behaviour of others.
There will be another world that will be seriously upset at the predictable but avoidable end of a Trump presidency. An engineered insurrection by the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy against an in-coming administration will take years to unravel its implications. The US had planned and executed many coups in foreign countries to achieve its goals and frustrate the expression of local goals. It had failed in other attempts to subvert popular will and remove popular leaders it was not comfortable with. It had installed leaders and puppets; propped up dictators; embraced leaders who run completely non-democratic systems leaders; murdered foreign leaders; tolerated sham elections; punished abuse of human rights and tolerated abuse of human rights and generally acted as overseer of a system that was flexible enough for the US and its allies to set many different standards and punish their versions of misconduct. The record of the US at the global level is, therefore, only marginally worse than its domestic records at attempts to live up to the ideals of its founding fathers. Trump may not be an outstanding student of history, but his presidency showed an uncanny understanding of the potentials of deployment of powers against foreign adversaries and domestic opposition to achieve his personal goals. Still, warts and all, the US has just created a vacuum that will take a while to fill and cost a significant element of humanity much agony as it deals with subversions of democratic processes, which will take inspiration and comfort from the recent experience and circumstances of the US.
Many attempts at damage control make much of the idea that strong institutions are vital for the survival of democratic systems, and, in the specific case of the US, the evidence is strong in support of the idea that the insurrection triggered by Trump was bound to fail. Certainly, strong institutions are vital, but they are vital for the survival and growth of all forms of governments, including dictatorships. Democratic systems substantially create separate but related branches of government and other institutions like political parties, free press and laws that will support values such as freedoms of expression and association and rights to choose and hold opinions among others. What is problematic is the tendency to over-emphasise the central place of institutions and underrate the place of the nature of political leadership. Furthermore, no democratic system exists that can isolate the basic character and dynamics of the political system and the context in which it operates.
There are many lessons from Trump’s desecrations that teach the value of understanding contexts. Popular versions of recent US history point to the election of President Barrack Obama as a major departure from historical conventions. Eight years of the presidency of an African-American threatened to be succeeded by a female President and wife of a former Democrat President. The US would have been run for at least 16 years by liberal administrations headed by a black man and a woman. If you do not give Trump credit for anything, you have to concede to him an instinct for an awareness of a strong right-wing that was ready to be activated. His outing was a coup against the entire US political establishment. The Republican Party swallowed its pride and fears and collapsed around the outlines of government by a strong leader. It sank deeper when it read his serial assaults at the heart of America’s conventions as its gains, rising to his defence when he was impeached by the Democrats. His huge support base fed on a rich staple of alternative realities and a long list of old and new enemies. Trump was untouchable until voters said he had lost to Biden. The electoral process was thoroughly interrogated. It stood with the voters. Dozens of challenges in the courts confirmed this. Trump chased it all the way to the final certification, creating a frightening bloc of doubters and elected Republicans who were bent on smearing the popular will and staying in the good books of a president that was virtually a cult figure who could threaten political ambitions and American democracy.
Trump will be a rich source of understanding the fragile nature of power. He has upturned many settled questions about American democracy, principally the capacity of institutions to check personal ambitions, and the massive incursions of social media into mainstream US politics with its potent powers to alienate and create another America. He has breathed life into a huge segment of US society that will be difficult to put out. The Republican Party will take some remaking and valuable time to rediscover. The Democrats will have power, but they have to meander between strong hostile blocks attempting to fix a nation in search of a new mission and addressing existential threats such as the pandemic. As Trump skunks into one of the shameful chapters of US history, the rest of the world should limit its celebration at the fall of a giant. If a president in the world’s most powerful democracies can wrought so much damage, the perennial question over creating a resilient balance between diffused powers around leaders and institutions will now need a major re-visit. The world will have to fix those problems that will involve the US’s hefty hand, for good or evil. Leaders who already operate with the most minimal concern for legitimacy will draw inspiration from recent US experiences. Others who labour to build strong democratic institutions will draw encouragement from the strength of the US judiciary. The whole world will, however, need to deal with a relatively new power with awesome powers to disrupt: social media. This is the new child produced by a partnership between technology and democratisation that no one seems to have a handle over.