The riots in Washington DC this week were an extreme illustration of what can happen when you forget about what politics is for.
What we saw on our TV screens was the result of a man whose character flaws mean he can’t accept defeat. A man who is prepared to encourage others to act out whatever fantasy he holds in his head for hanging on to power. And a man who has long since lost touch with why he is doing what he is doing.
If Donald Trump had any idea of what he is now seeking to achieve in politics, he would surely have taken any other course of action than we saw play out two days ago.
If he wanted to ensure the ongoing success of conservative politics and to thwart the policy aspirations of the left, he would have tempered his criticism of the outcome sufficiently to allow the Republicans to hold the two Georgia senate spots in the runoff they have now just lost. Remember they finished ahead of the Democrats in both seats just two months ago.
If he had wanted to set himself up for a comeback in four years’ time, endorse a successor, or endorse other Republican congressional candidates consistent with his worldview, he would not have gone this far. He would have been true to type and railed against his defeat but stopped short of inciting rebellion.
He did none of those things. He confirmed his reputation for aiming low and going lower. He convinced his most fanatical supporters that they had to stop the fraud by storming the Capitol building. Despite the lack of any actual evidence for said fraud.
Now his legacy lies in complete tatters. His Party of cling-ons are abandoning him faster than rats leaving a sinking ship. His attack on Georgian Republicans and his self-absorbed election eve rally in that state ended up demolishing the Republicans’ majority in the Senate, thereby gifting the Democrats an unfettered run of power for the next two years.
I suspect after the events of that 24 hours, there is now little cachet in the Republican Party in being associated with President Trump and his legacy.
Wednesday’s tragic events could yet turn out to be a turning point for US democracy. Staring into the abyss can have that effect. However a number of things have to play out positively.
The Trump fanatics have to give up and go home. My suspicion is they will, at least in the short term. This seemed a directionless, disorganised rebellion, as evidenced by the sight of many simply touring the Capitol taking selfies once they had stormed it.
The Democrats will have to restrain themselves from being triumphalist about their narrow election victory. If they career off on an aggressively partisan path, then all bets are off, and the sense of grievance on the other side of politics will only grow.
It is worth remembering that despite his obvious and visible flaws, Trump was elected by 63 million ordinary Americans to the highest and most powerful office in America, and indeed the world. And despite all of the well-catalogued excesses and self-interested decisions made during his presidency, 47 per cent of voters preferred his policies and sought to re-elect him. They can’t all be right-wing nut jobs.
With the help of the magic of streaming audio, I spent a bit of time listening to US talkback stations yesterday to tryd to understand what often seems unfathomable from this distance. I can report the sense of grievance and disconnection with the Washington elite is palpable and real, and being expressed by what we might call ordinary people.
That so many could hold their nose and vote for Trump in preference to the alternative, not once but twice, suggests a big disconnect between Washington and liberal states like New York and California, and the rest of America. Politicians should reflect on that. And someone will have to pick up the grievance of those voters and channel it more positively.
The Republicans will have to reckon with their Trump legacy. They danced with the devil because he could win, and they wanted to win above all else. It’s a sadly common compromise in politics, and the rest of the world, including New Zealand, has not always been immune from it.
Taking shortcuts like that almost always ends up damaging your wider cause. Many people have made compromises over the last four years that will leave their political reputations tarnished beyond repair. The Republican Party will have to rebuild and find leaders that can articulate more constructively the desires of those once and current Maga supporters for a better life.
And society as a whole will have to reckon with social media. The effect of handing everyone the ability to be a broadcaster at the drop of a hat has on one level democratised the media but on another created a cacophony of noise where the first casualty is often the truth.
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle and I think it is dubious to encourage social media platforms to act as censors. Censoring people like President Trump tends to feed the conspiracists. I am hopeful that in time this fad of social media and its hold on us will pass just like broadcast TV did a generation ago. People will surely eventually tire of talking nonsense to each other, like a more sophisticated form of the old CB radio.
Above all Americans might need to go back to first principles on what politics is truly for. Whether you are individualistic or collectivist, liberal or conservative, politics is not a culture war, it is about electing governments to act on our behalf to better people’s lives.
It’s not just about one person’s outsized ego, it is about voters and their aspirations. That is democracy’s strength — and why it will endure.
– Steven Joyce is a former National Party MP and former Minister of Finance.
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