Imagine if, in the days after the US presidential election, Donald Trump had accepted defeat. ‘It’s a tough one to take,’ he might have said. ‘But I congratulate my opponent Joe Biden.’
Imagine then that he had spent his last few weeks in office dutifully going about his presidential duties.
Everybody would have been so pleasantly surprised. His fans would still have loved him. His critics would have said maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.
He could have positioned himself perfectly for a triumphant comeback in 2024. Everybody could have agreed that, for all of the squabbling of the last four years, America remains a great country, a beacon to the world.
Nice thought, isn’t it? Sadly, Trump took the other road – one that led to the awful scenes we saw in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday night.
Graceful retirement just isn’t in Trump’s DNA. If he couldn’t win, he had to be a sore loser. So he turned American democracy into an embarrassing circus. He made the world’s greatest power a global laughing stock. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
One of the worst parts is that the Trump movement, which isn’t all bad, will now be forever tarnished. Trump’s fans are often called racists and rednecks. They aren’t. Trumpists are mostly good working-class people who are fed up with a Washington elite that has ignored or exploited them for decades.
But Trumpism has always had a loopy flavour. With his epic post-election tantrum, Trump has empowered the craziest fringe of his movement. The lunatics have taken over the Republican Party asylum.
Any fellow-traveller who dares to suggest that the election might not have been stolen by an evil cabal of communists is branded a ‘NeverTrumper.’ People who say Joe Biden ‘won the election’ are rudely corrected.
Anyone who suggests that a peaceful transition of power might be good for America is called weak. It’s more religious cult than political party.
Many of the maniacs who broke into Congress were convinced that it was their sacred duty to defend America from the evil of the Democratic Party.
Others were just full of wild self-pity. ‘You did this to us!’ screamed one man at an ITV camera. Because it couldn’t be his fault that he was breaking into a government building.
Trump will say he never encouraged violence. ‘We are the party of law and order,’ he keeps saying. But you’d have to be deluded to believe him.
His rhetoric has always been inflammatory. In recent weeks, it has become apocalyptic. ‘Let the weak ones get out,’ he told his vast crowd in Washington, ‘this is a time for strength.’ He sounds like some would-be Messiah.
Trump often mocks the media for calling him unpresidential. ‘You know how easy it would be to be presidential,’ he once said. ‘But you’d be so bored.’ That’s a good line. But strong leaders should be boring sometimes. Statesmanship isn’t reality TV. It does require some solemnity.
America’s problems are bigger than just one carnival barker of a President. The land of sunny optimism is turning dark, especially in this time of pandemic.
Wednesday’s freakshow was trivial, in terms of numbers, compared to recent uprisings in America. After George Floyd died under a policeman’s knee in May, race riots spread across America, devastating a number of cities.
America’s culture wars divide Americans ever more sharply – between liberal and conservative, urban and rural, religious and faithless, rich and poor. Trump didn’t cause these problems, though his shambolic presidency may be a symptom of them.
Fifteen years ago, if you told an American he was living in a failing state, he would not have taken you seriously. Today, most Americans sound like they are in mourning when discussing the state of their nation. Something is seriously wrong.
In 2008, Barack Obama won an election with an inspirational message of ‘hope and change’. He made lots of beautiful speeches but changed little. He left millions of Americans feeling so desperate that they turned to a braggadocious billionaire who said he would Make America Great Again.
George W Bush was another unsuccessful president, even if many now look back on his time in office with fondness in comparison to Trump. But he was right on Wednesday when he said that ‘this is how elections results are disputed in a banana Republic.’
What he didn’t say, but should have, is that the Democrats are also guilty. They spent most of the last four years claiming that Russia hacked the 2016 election to install Donald Trump.
Americans of all political persuasions are ever more addicted to grand conspiracy theories. It’s the only way to make sense of the madness.
The country desperately needs brilliant leadership. Instead it got Donald Trump. Will 78-year-old Joe Biden do better? The omens aren’t good.
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