I RARELY AGREE with George W Bush, the butcher of Iraq who has been ludicrously resurrected as an icon of liberal order. But he was right to say, “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic – not our democratic republic.” I would only add that, in “banana republics”, election-crashing mobs are commonly incited by America’s CIA, while in this democratic republic, the CIA’s part was filled by a burnt-out reality TV celebrity who somehow spent four years as President. Still, Bush is correct: this event won’t beat his invasions for real carnage, but it will do more to symbolise American decline.
Bush illustrates the rule that America’s political-media class always finds a way of reclaiming past Presidents as secular saints. Even Richard Nixon underwent a “statesmanlike” revivification towards the end. It’s the iron law of American history writing: no matter how evil your deeds, you will enter the pantheon of good guys. But after whipping up this mindless, drunken posse to attack America’s democratic processes, Trump will likely prove the exception.
Trump has not committed the worst acts of any American President: there is no Vietnam, no Iran-Contra, no Iraq to his name. He’s arguably not the most racist of American Presidents (Woodrow Wilson told black leaders, “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit” – here are some more examples). He’s not even the first American President to menace democratic processes with mobs, if foreign policy matters. But he is the most brazen, the most openly malevolent and by far the greatest embarrassment to America’s good guy self-image. While most Presidents use words to soothe consciences, Trump’s rhetoric brought America’s violent legacy of class, race and imperialism into the open.
Mob violence should be condemned. So should Trump’s role in it. But the deeper question is how such an obviously unfit character not only won in 2016, but almost repeated the trick in 2020. There’s more to this than racism and misogyny. Trump did not “win” the presidency, but he did gain six percentage points from black men and five from Hispanic women, albeit from a low Republican base.
A character like Trump only gets close to winning because there is a void separating America’s establishment from the people. His era was symptomatic of that deeper problem. And while everyone will unite in ritual denunciation of the crazed posse, the deeper problem persists. Biden and Harris may strain to revive the globe-trotting, tank-wielding, market-imposing style of American leadership, but there is no guarantee of domestic consent, because the bulk of Americans no longer benefit. Nor, indeed, does the rest of the world.