America’s hour of reckoning

Published January 18, 2021
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

WE certainly live in unprecedented times. The storming of the US Capitol on Jan 6 shook the country and shocked the world. A president who refused to accept the election results, declined to cooperate in the transfer of power and incited a violent mob to attack Congress — all pushed the country to the edge. This was followed by the historic impeachment of Donald Trump on the charge of “incitement of insurrection”.

The invasion of the Capitol was just the latest demonstration of the outrageous behaviour long associated with Trump. Taken to dangerous limits in his presidency’s final days it plunged the country into crisis. The effort by a rampaging horde to disrupt and prevent Congress from certifying the election result failed. But it left the country reeling from the attack described by US commentators as America’s “day of infamy”.

There are two ways of looking at the horrific events that led to the impeachment. As a failed ‘coup’ attempt that has created the opportunity for reassertion of the political middle ground and restoration of sanity and stability. Trump’s own goal left him and his supporters defeated and diminished. Had he not orchestrated this assault he would not be leaving the White House much weaker and impeached for a second time by the House of Representatives, a unique distinction. Many companies have axed campaign donations to him and cut business ties.

An alternative perspective is that last week’s events reflect the grim realities of a fractured country that will not easily disappear with Joe Biden’s assumption of the presidency. The political chasm that led to the violent siege has long been in evidence and reinforced by the election. The setback to the far right may just be a setback, not a terminal state. The alarming developments also exposed the sharp divide between senior Republicans and rank and file lawmakers of the party. In the impeachment vote 197 Republican Congressmen — an overwhelming majority — voted against the motion. Earlier, 147 Republican members of the House voted against certifying the election result even after the mob attack on the Capitol. These realities will continue to shape American politics and not fade away with the president’s inauguration.

Governance will be tough for Biden if Trump’s grip over the Republican party continues.

This will make governance more difficult for President Biden even though he starts with the crucial advantage of his party controlling both the Senate and the House. But his pledge to heal and unite a deeply divided country won’t be easy. Efforts at unifying the country also have to address racial tensions that have been erupting. These challenges have to be met when the pandemic is continuing to rage and wreak havoc on the country. This will be the first order of business for his administration. But it too will need national consensus and bipartisan cooperation.

Biden’s effort to stabilise the country will depend in large part on Trump’s political future, other than on containing the virus and ensuring an economic recovery. Despite Trump’s impeachment by the House, the Senate is unlikely to convict him given its composition. His future may largely depend on whether the Republican party severs the grip he has on the party. Its senior leadership in the Senate denounced the Capitol assault and rejected Trump’s narrative of a stolen election. A few Republican congressmen also voted for his impeachment.

Party moderates may now see Trump as a dangerous liability who has deprived them of the White House and Senate and who now stands impeached, though not yet debarred from holding office. But that is not necessarily the case for grassroots activists, his political base, and many Republican congressmen.

The question is whether senior Republican leaders will be able to withstand pressure from the rank and file, many of whom buy the falsehood that Trump was cheated of election victory. Right-wing political forces may be down but not necessarily out. White supremacist groups that Trump emboldened over the years have drawn oxygen from the recent attack and subsequent developments seeing them as an effort by the ‘deep state’ to thwart Trump.

The political calculus of the Democrats for the impeachment move was not just to hold Trump guilty of causing an insurrection and uphold the law but to write his political obituary and divide the Republican party so that the majority would disown him. It is yet to be seen if Republicans can reclaim the radicalised ‘party of Trump’. As Jennifer Rubin recently wrote in The Washington Post, “A shocking number of Republicans remain under Trump’s spell”.

Political turbulence therefore remains a real possibility especially as far-right violence is now part of the American political landscape. Fringe extremist groups that were mainstreamed and emboldened by Trump will continue to be a threat to stability. This is also signified by warnings of US security agencies during the Trump administration that armed white supremacist groups are among the most lethal threats to the country. In congressional testimony last October, the FBI director revealed that “racially motivated violent extremism,” principally from white supremacists, represented “the majority of domestic terrorism threats”.

The FBI has warned of violent protests across the country leading up to the inauguration and even beyond. Washington is on high alert with thousands of law-enforcement personnel deployed amid fears that extremist groups may plan violence on inauguration day.

As if this political crisis and troubled domestic legacy was not a formidable enough challenge the risk of more turmoil in a polarised environment makes Biden’s task even tougher. This will also complicate his effort to mend the immeasurable damage done to America’s global reputation. The assault on the Capitol and the impeachment drama have dealt a big blow to the international standing and image of the US. This has come on the back of policies pursued by Trump of unilateralism and disregard for international norms. These drained America’s soft power and tarnished its reputation.

Thus, America’s political crisis may not end with a new occupant in the White House. With the country at a crossroads politics may enter another phase of uncertainty, even unrest. After all, Trumpism remains firmly embedded in American society even with Trump gone. Washington’s Democratic mayor Muriel Bowser put it starkly: “Trumpism won’t die on January 20.”

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2021

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