America’s democratic decay under Trump
January 6 was a result of weakened institutional norms, limited democratic accountability, politics based on personality cult and a broken information system
Ten days ago, hundreds of millions of Americans bid farewell to one of the darkest years in the nation’s 243-year history. In the year 2020, the United States (US) sustained an unspeakable loss of life as a series of unforced errors made it the global epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. It weathered a volatile and protracted presidential election, marked by a Right-wing fringe living in denial about its defeat. And it experienced severe economic and psychological hardship as Covid-19 raged unabated, dashing any hopes of a swift return to offices, schools, and the mundane joys of daily life.
But the mere turning of pages on a calendar could not erase the noxious forces which have come to infect America’s body politic. For two months, Donald Trump has stewed in the juices of November’s electoral defeat — spinning outlandish conspiracy theories, recklessly tweeting allegations of unproven electoral fraud, and riling up crowds of supporters to fuel their collective aggrievement. Even as Trump’s lawyers consistently failed to muster even a shred of credible evidence before a court of law that former Vice-President Joe Biden won the poll through fraud, the president encouraged his supporters — both in the halls of Congress and outside — to do whatever they could to block the official certification of the election of Biden and Kamala Harris.
So on Wednesday morning, Trump gathered thousands of angry supporters at the White House and encouraged them to take their quixotic fight to the grounds of the US Capitol — inciting a violent insurrection that would disrupt congressional proceedings, debase the hallowed halls of a towering symbol of American democracy, and leave at least five people dead.
For the past four years, Trump and his allies in the Right-wing media have fed his supporters a steady diet of outrageous misinformation, dehumanising rhetoric about the Democratic opposition, and grandiose delusions untethered from reality. Emboldened by his legions of followers and the fecklessness of traditional Republican power brokers to rein him in, Trump shattered one democratic norm after another with impunity. Each time Trump’s political allies gave him an inch, he took a mile.
But this time, Trump led an assault on one of the most foundational norms underpinning any democracy worth its name — the peaceful transfer of power. Make no mistake, one can draw a direct causal arrow from the incendiary rhetoric espoused by the president, his family members, and various enablers, to the primitive violence that shook the seat of American legislative power.
Having riled up his supporters in the preceding weeks, Trump encouraged them to march on the Capitol, saying “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.” The president’s personal attorney called on Trump supporters to settle the election dispute by engaging in “trial by combat” — a reference to the practice during the Middle Ages of settling disputes through an armed duel.
Even as the insurrection produced startling scenes of lawlessness and desecration — each one more shocking than the next —Trump showed no sign of remorse, simultaneously calling for the “peaceful” protestors to remain calm while imploring the mob to avenge the “stolen” election.
In 10 days, come hell or high water, Biden and Harris will be sworn into office and Trump will be a disgraced ex-president. But this putsch — to call it a “coup” would dignify it with a coherence that its protagonists lacked — has left an indelible stain on American democracy, one whose ramifications will be felt for years to come and whose lessons extend far beyond America’s shores.
First, the Trump era serves as a vivid illustration that institutions are ultimately only as strong as the social norms that underpin them, and the individuals who mobilise to support them. The grotesque abuse of presidential pardon power, the politicisation of the bureaucracy, and the repeated attempts to interfere with law enforcement, all demonstrate that formal laws on the books are only as resilient as the informal norms, habits, and customs that buttress them.
Second, democratic accountability cannot be limited to the ballot box alone. From the obstruction of justice painstakingly documented in the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to the presidential family’s myriad conflicts of interest, Trump’s partisan allies have enabled — indeed, sometimes cheered — his willingness to flout the rule of law at every turn. Only when Republican leaders literally found themselves in the crosshairs of the Trump-enabled mob were some of them moved to condemn his actions. Desperate talk of the need to protect the country from Trump to avoid further chaos in his final days only underlines the series of missed opportunities to hold him to account.
Third, cults of personality that place a single exalted leader above party, country, and constitutional office, rarely end well. Even as Republican lawmakers denounced the president as a “demagogue”, some prefaced their remarks by clarifying that they happily voted for him, not once but twice. Many had foolishly hoped the presidency would tame Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and moderate his erratic behaviour. But as the author Maya Angelou famously said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Finally, this week’s violence is, in part, the product of a broken global information ecosystem. America’s toxic political climate is not simply about two sides talking past each other, it is that one side is engaging with reality while the other is trafficking in fantasy. Rejecting calls to placate the Trump supporters who believe Biden was illegitimately elected, Republican Senator Mitt Romney — a rare anti-Trump voice on the Right — argued instead that “the best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth”. The truth is that Trump lost fair and square.
There is a degree of schadenfreude easily discernible among some in India now that the US, quick to lecture others on their democratic travails, has become the poster-child for democratic decay. There’s undeniably much truth in the idea that Americans have a penchant for overlooking their foibles while harping on the very same infirmities when they crop up elsewhere.
But there is little reason to revel in America’s comeuppance. At its best, American democracy — however flawed — can be an ally to those fighting for freedom and liberty in their own backyard. Furthermore, as the historian Tanvi Madan noted, just as the US is invested in the idea of a strong, prosperous, democratic India for its own reasons, a strong, prosperous, democratic US is important for Indian interests. But, above all, the democratic backsliding on display in America holds an even bigger lesson. The past four years remind us that the greatest threat to democracy comes not from foreign meddlers or external crises; rather, it emanates from within. For decades, Americans have told themselves “it cannot happen here”. Until, on a blustery January afternoon in Washington, it did just that.
Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director, South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.The views expressed are personal