Republican rats deserting the good ship “Trump” make an enjoyable spectacle as they hypocritically pretend that it was only the invasion of the Capitol by a mob that finally revealed to them the failings of Donald Trump.
Longer-term opponents of Trump are cock-a-hoop that they can credibly denounce him for egging on a “deadly insurrection” and an “attempted coup”, comparing the incursion to the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 and even to Pearl Harbour in 1941. This is an exaggeration since this was not an organised attempt to seize power, but an arch-fabricator like Trump is in no position to complain about others dressing-up facts in their own interests.
Most telling was the ease with which the Capitol was briefly occupied. The 2,000 Capitol police, with an annual budget of $460m (£339m), put up little resistance while videos show some of them facilitating. Unsurprisingly, their tolerant response to the alt-right pro-Trump protesters is being widely condemned and compared with their brutal reaction to Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year. Racial bias by police in America is scarcely news but has seldom been so explicit or well-publicised.
It was gratifying to see Republican lawmakers scurrying out of the Capitol in fear of the very pro-Trump activists whose hatreds they have happily exploited for so long. But it is more important to try to understand what the Republican Party will do once the furore dies away, though the Democrats will do everything to make sure this does not happen and cast “the insurrection” as an equivalent to 9/11. A week ago it seemed likely that Trump could remain the most powerful force in the Republican Party for years to come, but no longer.
Dramatic events initially billed as turning points in history often turn out to be no such thing, but I think the invasion of the Capitol will live up to the hype – even if it was not exactly the storming of the Bastille. A better parallel might be the raid by the anti-slavery abolitionist John Brown in 1859 on Harpers Ferry further up the Potomac River from Washington. The circumstances may be very different, but both events galvanised and gave momentum to powerful political forces that were already on the move.
This was a calamitous day for Trump and Trumpism as they were battered by a series of disasters that hit them simultaneously. In a short space of time, the Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence turned publicly against Trump in formally accepting Joe Biden as the next president. As they did so the Democrats won two Senate seats in Georgia, giving them a majority in the chamber, a defeat blamed by many Republicans on Trump.
This was capped by the invasion of the Capitol by a Trumpian mob, every detail of which was filmed and broadcast around the world. Finally, Twitter temporarily closed down Trump’s account and deleted some of his incendiary tweets. His most crucial means of communicating with his supporters was briefly gone – he has said that without Twitter he would not be president – and this could happen again.
Up to that moment, he may have calculated that he had lost the White House, but would remain the controlling figure in the Republican Party. He could set up his own version of Fox News. Republican candidates, who could not win without him, would vie for his support. He might be their presidential candidate in 2024 and have a good chance of winning.
Within a day these prospects withered and he looked a beaten man as he denounced and demanded punishment for the self-same pro-Trump demonstrators whom he had incited and extravagantly praised hours earlier. he looked shrivelled and defeated, as if he sensed that his political power was ebbing away.
For four years America and the world has been obsessed by a single man. Trump’s dominance of the news agenda has been so complete and has gone on so long that it has come to feel normal. Even as he falls – and I believe this fall will be permanent – this Trump-obsession lives on among Republicans and Democrats alike.
Yet Trump is a symptom as well as a cause, the product of powerful political and social forces, some global, some specific to America. Trump is the apotheosis of what has been called “pluto-populism” – a movement combining plutocrats, the one per cent, the very rich, seeking lower taxes and deregulation, with a broad chunk of the population fixated on their racial, religious and cultural identity. It is much in the interests of the former that the latter should be encouraged to prioritise such concerns, much against their own interests to do so, rather than focus on the decline or stagnation of their standard of living.
There are several other pluto-populist leaders in the world, but none so skilled and effective as Trump. He made vague promises of bringing well-paying jobs back to America and rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure which remain unfulfilled, but he did carry through the traditional Republican programme of cutting taxes and deregulation. Even during the last few chaotic weeks, his administration has been selling rights to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Pluto-populism takes a particular form in America because of the country’s history and the success of a particular toxic variant of American nationalism now dominant in the Republican Party. It is rooted in a culture shaped by slavery, the Civil War between North and South, a century of Jim Crow discrimination against blacks, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the reaction against it. It was this past that produced the white, male, Christian non-metropolitan voters who saw Trump as their saviour.
The same split is there in every American election, most recently in the two Senate races in Georgia that the Democrats won by a whisper despite rampant voter suppression (with the highest incarceration rate in the US, Georgia has 275,000 convicted felons – many of whom are black – who are denied the vote).
Trump was expert at successfully playing on these racist themes, exploiting the paranoid and messianic strain in American culture. He did not lose the presidential election because this formula has stopped working, but because of his grotesque incompetence in handing the Covid-19 epidemic.
Does Trump have a political future after this week, catastrophic from his point of view? Probably not. The Georgia Senate races showed the Republicans that he is a vote loser as well as a vote winner. Crucially, the pro-Trump mob may have been less revolutionary than it is being portrayed, but the Republicans want to run the country, not blow it up.
Long before Trump appeared, it was said that the Republican Party never much liked, and even despised, its own voters. That is doubly true today after its leaders had to flee from fanatics who took seriously – and acted upon – Trump’s demented vision of America.