In September, 2001, three planes high jacked by terrorists were aimed at three carefully selected targets: The Pentagon, the Twin Towers and Washington D.C. The 20th anniversary of that event is due this year. The symbolic intent of the terrorists was clear; the first was aimed at the U.S. military, the second at the nation’s economic centre and the third, we may presume, at the centre of its government in Washington, possibly at the President himself. The first two targets were hit as planned, the economic centre taking the severest damage. The courage of the passengers in grappling with the terrorists prevented the third plane from reaching its target – the Presidency and the seat of government was spared.
What the terrorists failed to do in their attempt to symbolically destroy the seat of government and the Presidency, Donald Trump as sitting President has almost achieved in the last days of his Presidency. The bizarre claims of being robbed of the election, the refusal to concede and the stirring up of violent demonstrations against the seat of government on Capitol Hill which have ended in loss of life have astounded and sickened most law-abiding Americans.
It is a story line which the most rabid of film makers would be hard pressed to conceive. It is not fiction, however, but hard, scarcely believable fact. The situation for American democracy was utterly critical. It was imperative that Republicans and Democrats put law and order and the constitution before party, and this highly dangerous demagogue was stopped. Twelve months ago, here in Britain we had our own serious threat to our constitution over the Brexit issue, but in the mercy of God we survived it. The American scene is, however, much more serious. We must pray that in the mercy of God America will also survive this current chaos. It is crucial not only for America but for the world.
In recent years there has been considerable amount of writing about democracy and what is needed to maintain it. That is largely because over the last few decades we have seen a number of fledgling democracies crumple before unscrupulous “strongmen” and become “tyrannies” beset with corruption.
The American dream of the 1990s of spreading its democratic ideal across the nations to replace the post-war hard, authoritarian regimes has taken a severe hit in this new century. Among those commenting on the need to watch over the democratic way of governance, there has been a general recognition that certain norms of personal behaviour are vital for the health of democracy. These “norms” fundamentally involve respect (verbal and actual) by political leaders for their opponents and for the laws of the constitution.
Attacks on these “norms” can be recognised when:
- There is a failure to play by the rules of democracy, that is to say, for example, a refusal to accept credible electoral results, or an endorsement of mass protest movements tinged with violence.
- There is lack of tolerance and demonisation of political opponents, calling them “subversive” or even “criminals”.
- There is toleration of violence, refusing to condemn it among their supporters, and even encouraging it. (see: How Democracies Die; Levitsky & Ziblatt p.23).
It is abundantly evident that Donald Trump has consistently failed to observe these norms right from the very beginning of his Presidency, and especially so since his defeat in the recent election. His utter inability to acknowledge any personal defeat of any kind (a very telling and marked psychological weakness) or to take note of any rational advice has been of such an order that the possibility of making him “unfit to rule” as defined by a U.S. constitutional amendment is something that has to be seriously considered.
Some very dangerous consequences have already flowed out of the fiasco of these events. In the first place China has been given a propaganda opportunity of the highest order. China has a repressive party regime which keeps that nation under a strict authoritarian grip. In order for that regime to survive it has to demonstrate its legitimacy against those who urge the freedoms of open democracy. The events in America will greatly help the Chinese rulers to contrast the weakness and foolishness of democratic regimes with its own purposeful regime, and so strengthen its repressive hand. It will particularly help the Chinese rulers in justifying their increasing clamp down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, and will also make them more determined than ever to increase their authoritarian control of their own country. What is true of China is also equally true of an equally repressive Russia, which has been offered the same propaganda bonus.
Secondly, assuming there is now a proper transition to Joe Biden as President, the new president will face a difficult task in bringing together a bitterly divided American nation and keeping a lid on further riotous behaviour. Existing deep divisions in America have been made much worse by Donald Trump’s divisive political behaviour patterns. Neo-anarchist groups have found new opportunities and become more active.
The process of healing will not be easy. Donald Trump located people in areas of social deprivation across America and was able to exploit their needs to work out his demagogic call. Recognising that need and addressing that depredation with appropriate legislation will be crucial in the future. If Joe Biden finds that, like President Obama, he is constitutionally prevented from implementing any real remedial social policies the anger and division may well remain. Unrest and bitterness is dangerous in a nation when unity is particularly important at the moment. How much better Joe Biden’s political agenda will be than Donald Trump’s remains to be seen. He may restore “the law”, but if he and his party pursue an all-out libertarian “woke” style agenda with “freedoms” that are in reality socially destructive then he will bring further tragedy to America.
This leads one to say that all this current chaotic scene needs to be seen in the ongoing historical process of America’s gradual loss of its position as the acknowledged leader and protector of the world order.
At the end of the last century, with the U.S.S.R. having disintegrated, its position as the dominating world power able to keep “the peace” seemed unassailable. In the year 2000 America stood on a crest. That has now radically changed. The fall from that crest began with the 9/11 attack and the all-out war on terrorism that it provoked. In the decade which followed that attack the military was further mauled in the highly unsuccessful “regime change” attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economy was equally mauled by the enormous expenditure incurred by those wars and by the disastrous financial and economic effects of the sub-prime scandal and its bank failures. Though spared in the terrorist attack, the presidency of George Bush proved to be weak and was manipulated by stronger and more clever men who were really responsible for the disastrous foreign ventures.
The presidency of Barack Obama was crippled by his inability to effect legislation for real social relief where it was needed, and by his inability to calm the Middle East, which became increasingly a thorn in America’s side.
Donald Trump made some significant noises in the direction of China and Iran, but generally withdrew from important international bodies in favour of “America First” and has finally left office causing an unprecedented debacle .
Containing Russia in the past was one thing but containing China in the future will be equally important and, one suspects, much more difficult. The future will require the gift to the nation of a president who exhibits a rare ability of wisdom, and strength. For that to happen, the common cry of “God bless America” will have to become a deep and earnest prayer of repentance, and there will have to be a return to the faith and godly behaviour of the nation’s early fathers.