America certainly knows how to make good television.
For weeks now, the drama that is the unravelling of the Trump Presidency has had viewers around the globe enthralled. The “will-he-won’t-he go quietly” build-up of suspense has culminated in the season finale: live scenes, perfectly timed for prime European evening viewing, of the invasion of the citadel of democracy by a half-crazed mob. This was a putsch made not just for the TV age, but for the age of TikTok and Instagram, with day-tripping Maga-ites posting selfies in ransacked offices. The enduring image of bare-breasted QAnon shaman Jack Angeli replete with face paint and cod-Viking raider helmet, graced front pages around the world.
Like The Plot Against America, the TV dramatization of Philip Roth’s alternative history positing the capture of America by an authoritarian President, this drama appears, for now at least, to be heading for a happy ending, in classic Hollywood style. With the mob sent packing, and Congress certifying Joe Biden’s election, we can now look forward to a return to normalcy after the frenetically surreal interregnum of the past four years.
For Europeans in particular, Biden promises a reversion to a more predictable America, fully engaged in world affairs. A dependable ally in the fight to maintain the global rule-based order and promote Western values of democracy and human rights against a resurgent and belligerent China and a Russia that seems increasingly rogue.
American institutions were tested to destruction, but they did, in the end, hold. Enough Republican fellow travellers came to their senses, having peered over the edge of the abyss to which they were led by the Maga cult. A few brave-ish souls are starting to think about how to reclaim the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower for common sense conservatism and traditional American values.
The Merkels and Macrons, viewing developments from afar, will be hoping the high tide of populist anarchy that gave us Brexit and Trump has now peaked. Pocket tyrants closer to home like Hungary’s Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, having have lost their White House patron, may now more easily be brought to heel.
The UK was the scene of much mutual fawning between Trump and Prime Minister Johnson, and a similar willingness to test the boundaries of democratic acceptability. Here too, Rightist Tories are rushing to distance themselves from their disgraced former hero. Over recent weeks, Johnson has shed the move-fast-and-break-things characteristics of his earlier days in office. His neo-Maoist chief of staff Dominic Cummings has gone and with him his oppositionist creed of permanent revolution. The choice of replacement, the very sensible Dan Rosenfeld, is a belated recognition that in government, competence matters.
We can’t, however, forget that a staggering 70 million+ Americans voted for Trump. Polls taken after January 6 show half of Republicans surveyed approving the storming of Congress, while three quarters still believe the election was stolen. The dominant fear is that Trumpism will survive Trump or even metastasize into something more deadly.
For the moment, it is enough that Biden is not Trump. Such has been the relief at Trump’s eclipse, that scrutiny of Biden’s program, policies or team has been minimal at best. But expectations are sky high and challenges monumental. To the monumental challenges of Covid, China, widening inequality, and the environment, must now be added that of a dangerously divided nation, which will need more than well-meaning avuncular rhetoric to heal.
Liberal Americans cheered when Twitter and Facebook first censored and then silenced the US President. But Angela Merkel and Alexei Navalny, the latter once again behind bars, both know what real authoritarianism looks and smells like. They are not so sure. Deciding where to draw the line between freedom of speech and incitement should be a job for democratic governments and courts exercising due process, not unaccountable, private monopolies.
Have the US and the UK been too complacent about how robust they are as democracies? Hasn’t that made them uniquely vulnerable compared with continental European nations who know how fragile democracy can be? The ‘Old World,’ as Americans perhaps think of it, is ever vigilant, having embedded strong guard rails in their societies and constitutions. They have instituted thresholds that restrict the ability of extremist parties to gain seats in their legislatures, have maintained strict limits on campaign expenditure, have regulations that oblige broadcasters to maintain balance and accuracy and suppress hate speech. They also recognize that a functioning welfare system and universal healthcare provision are necessary underpinnings for the free market and democratic politics alike.
Such measures may be regarded as too un-American to merit serious consideration, even after the Trump-ist putsch. But the notion that America is uniquely immune to illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies should surely have been dispelled by recent events.
Europeans know the veneer of civilisation is thinner than we like to think. The Capitol Hill rioters were not the sans-culottes of Victor Hugo’s Misérables. Many were middle aged, and middle class. They included firefighters, off duty policemen, a realtor and an Olympic gold medallist. For all the elements of farce, five people lost their lives, and American democracy, while not in the end subverted, has been severely compromised. America’s standing in the world, its all-important soft power, has undoubtedly been wounded; not fatally, but wounded none the less.
In a memorable speech to the House of Commons in 1948, Winston Churchill, famously remarked: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”
Trump is no Mussolini, and the siege of Congress no March on Rome, much less the storming of the Winter Palace. But the world laughed off the armed thugs who occupied a Munich beer hall in 1923 and demanded their unpopular government resign. Ten years later Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor as the only man who could unite a divided Germany.
The world waits with bated breath to see if the new man in the Oval Office gets America properly back on the rails. Most will be hoping he succeeds, and would prefer, given the choice, a calmer, less angry America even if it makes for less compulsive TV.