The Capitol riots reach beyond Trump
Published by The i paper (11th January, 2011)
John McCain was one of the most decent Republican leaders this century. He was a man who proved his strength through deed, most notably during five nightmarish years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and a politician prepared to reach out across the widening tribal divide. Yet to understand the incendiary events of last week with that invasion of the Capitol in Washington, cast your mind back to his presidential run in 2008. Yes, the one that ended with such a dignified message of support for his rival Barack Obama in which he recognised the significance of a black president and called for his nation to bridge its differences.
During that campaign, unlike his previous assault on the presidency, McCain tacked right to win over the “crazies” he claimed to despise. He shifted his stance on tax cuts, fudged his position on climate change and then picked Sarah Palin, a little-known governor from Alaska, as his running mate. The former pageant queen who hunted elk was a striking contrast to the grizzled veteran in his seventies, attracting attention and big crowds to their rallies. She delighted voters of a certain kind who saw a “real” American in the plain-speaking, Christian mother-of-five.
But as Obama says in his new presidential memoirs, as soon as she stepped into the spotlight it became clear she had no idea about issues from finance to foreign policy. This seemed not to matter to many Republicans, who attacked patronising liberal elites when she stumbled under fire. “It was a sign of things to come,” writes Obama, arguing that her selection presaged his succession by a man who makes Palin seem like a political giant. “A larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to blot out everything – your previous positions, your stated principles, even what your own senses told you to be true.”
That desperate move by McCain, figurehead of a party as it embraced hard-right populism, shows how Trump is a symptom, not just the cause, of the troubles confronting the United States. The nation’s political system – and the Republican party in particular – has corroded from the core, while preaching to the rest of the world about the nobility of democracy. It is difficult to detect the precise starting point: was it when Newt Gingrich inflamed polarisation three decades ago? Or do you go all the way back to 1968, when the right took control and Richard Nixon won the party’s nomination using the nasty and divisive politics of fear?
Regardless, this strategy has reached its dark apotheosis in an age of social media and money-drenched politics. This does not excuse the rats suddenly fleeing the sinking ship of Trump’s dire presidency, since they deserve bucketloads of bile for boarding in the first place. His unsuitability for high office was obvious during the 2016 campaign and became more obvious with every day in the White House. Yet activists and aides, journalists and politicians, went along for the ride till days before the predictable end of his rotten tenure. Some thought they could restrain him, some put careers before country, some took a Faustian pact in return for tax cuts or tilting the Supreme Court to the right.
All bear responsibility for enabling the traumatic events of last week – yet note how some of the most repellent Republicans still speak of fake electoral inconsistencies. It should not have taken a murderous mob, egged on by Trump and waving the Confederate flag as it invaded the Capitol, to see the flaws in this presidency. Bear in mind the startling words of Fiona Hill, one of his own security officials, who testified against him in impeachment hearings 14 months ago, and that all 10 living former defence secretaries signed a joint warning against military involvement in election disputes, out of fear the US President was planning a coup.
This is incredible. Yet it is not surprising. Trump is an entitled man of limited intellect and immense ego, contemptuous of everything except for himself. He does not care about political, constitutional or societal norms. It is crucial the debate over his future does not detract from more fundamental questions over how this mighty nation reached such a low point. The profound problems tearing apart the US will not disappear when Trump is ejected from the White House, despite a successor seeking to salve wounds.
Trump is at the apex of a country that is angry, bitter and divided. During five weeks covering the election I saw this fury on both sides of the gap, with foes dismissed as communists, paedophiles or racists. I heard people regurgitating absurd conspiracy theories, talking of looming civil war and telling me they would use their guns to take back their country. He was, remember, backed by 74.2 million voters. And note how identified rioters in Washington include academics, lawyers, police officers, property agents and teachers, not just the dispossessed working class of populist lore.
Yet I also witnessed again and again the nostalgic desire to rediscover bonds, restore pride and return to shared values. It would be nice to think this moment might be a cathartic moment for the country, not just another bump on the road to ruin that many fear. To believe Republicans might return to sanity; that the hard left will not drag down the Democrats in a power struggle; that the media, lobbyists, technology firms and corporate titans might have seen the damage they are doing to their democracy. To hope the tide of hate and violence might turn. And indeed to see their soul mates in Britain – where the Conservative Party is sliding down a similar path – slam on the brakes before it is too late.
For, as McCain said in that concession speech, we all make our own history and nothing is inevitable.