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Is America now a failed state?

Trump lit the fuse, but scenes from the Capitol on Wednesday are the culmination of an unraveling of US democracy over 40 years

A Trump supporter during the invasion of the Capitol building on 6 January. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

IN the end, even the most rusted on Trump loyalists could bear it no more.

“Count me out. Enough is enough,” Lindsey Graham said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

Graham was speaking once order had been installed in the Capitol building, hours after a wild mob in red MAGA baseball caps and waving Confederate flags had broken into the home of American democracy, rampaging through its corridors and chambers with impunity, looting and pillaging at will, and terrorising those within, including elected representatives. The building filled with teargas, guns were drawn and bullets were fired, at least one person was killed, and finally the National Guard arrived to clear and secure the building.

Graham spoke for the rest of world, watching with horror as scenes once considered unthinkable were played out live on our television screens, an insurrection taking place in the building considered the bastion of democracy. And meanwhile a small group of Graham’s fellow Republicans — among them the presidential-aspirant Ted Cruz — were attempting another form of coup by plotting to vote against certifying the election result. Even after they had been forced to evacuate their chambers by the violence outside, they came back in later to continue their wantonly destructive attempt to subvert the will of the people.

The scenes we witnessed were not unfamiliar: we have seen them from any number of tin pot republics over the years: in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, central and south America and parts of Asia. We know what authoritarian takeovers look like. We recognise demagoguery, extremism and the warning signs of dictatorships.

But what made this different was it was in the capital of the United States, the so-called beacon of democracy to the world.

There was something of the last days of the Roman Empire about the events in Washington today. Now we can say it, once and for all: America is a failed state and the man most responsible is in the White House.

For future generations, Trump will be a byword for a particularly obnoxious form of political reptile; a single word epithet spoken with bile, ranking as even worse than Nixon and Thatcher.

Finally, on this day of carnage and violence, senior Republicans like Lindsey Graham found their voices. But it was too late. Graham is as guilty as anyone of enabling the mad man in the White House over the past four years, and one speech in the Senate cannot wash his hands of his complicity.

For four years, Graham and the entire Republican legislative leadership — particularly Mitch McConnell — have indulged and flattered Trump with sycophancy and cowardice, doing his bidding again and again, never standing up to him or putting the national interest ahead of their own selfish political interests.

They have petrol fumes on their hands, but it is Trump himself who lit the match that resulted in the Capitol being held siege on Wednesday.

From day one, Trump has been an avatar for the worst demons of the American psyche: a swaggering sociopath equal parts greedy, violent, racist, misogynistic, dishonest, unprincipled and corrupt.

From his bully pulpit in the Oval Office, he has played a dangerous game of simultaneously courting and egging on the extremist right his entire term. He has used Twitter like a weapon to attack his rivals and direct his mob of supporters.

Trump was elected by exploiting and manipulating existing grievances, and rather than use his role to unify Americans and seek a more peaceful and progressive nation — as his predecessors have done — Trump has used it to divide and to foment violence.

But even by the standards of what came before, Trump’s behaviour since the election has been appalling. Two months later, he still refuses to concede defeat and accept the will of the people in the face of facts that Joe Biden won 7 million more votes and 64 more electoral college seats. He continues to assert baseless conspiracies about electoral fraud and vote rigging. He has unsuccessfully challenged the outcome in the courts, pressured and harangued election officials and elected representatives in the states he lost, and when both those tactics have failed, he has encouraged a blatant takeover of democracy.

For weeks, he urged the mob to rally in Washington DC on 6 January, and shortly before the attack on the Capitol began, he incited the crowd of “freedom fighters” to riot at a ‘Stop The Steal’ rally outside the White House with the words: “We will never give up, we will never concede.” Rudy Giuliani was more blunt: “Let’s have trial by combat.” All this from a guy who ran for re-election on a “law and order” platform.

There is no longer anything alarmist about warning of a worse-case scenario where Trump attempts to install himself as a leader for life, a la Putin.

Like a modern day Nero fiddling while Rome burns, Trump spent the afternoon watching the ransacking of the Congress on TV in the White House, emerging only to praise the vandals as “very special”, and to repeat again falsehoods that he won the election.

Today was meant to be a mere procedural formality, a ceremonial event where the electoral college results from state are read out and certified by the Congress. That is how it has worked for almost 250 years.

In the end, nothing could stop Biden’s win being certified. Once the invaders were cleared from the Capitol and the streets of Washington following a 6pm curfew, the two Congressional chambers resumed business and eventually at 4am on Thursday, Washington time, Biden’s victory was duly ratified.

But if anyone thinks that is the end of the matter, they are dangerously mistaken.

Donald Trump now has just 13 days left as President of the United States, but that is 13 days too many. It is horrifying to contemplate the damage Trump could inflict upon America in his last fortnight in office.

But barring a military takeover, the only way Trump can be removed would be if Vice-President Mike Pence — another sycophant who finally found the independence and integrity to stand up to Trump today — invoked section 4 of the 25th Amendment, which provides for the transfer of power when the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

Section 4 has never been used in the 53 years since the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967. The Amendment itself has only been used once to replace a sitting President: in 1974, after Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Through his actions over the past few weeks, culminating in his incitement of an attempted coup today, Trump is no longer fit for office. He has sat on his hands while more than 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the election, going AWOL on the golf course and showing no interest in doing the work of President, apart from rushing through a series of state executions and pardoning a cabal of fraudsters, murderers and other assorted criminals, many of them his business associates.

If Pence won’t invoke the 25th for democracy, he should do it to keep America safe from a ranting and vengeful pyschopath who seems intent to blow up the place on his way out.

But the prospects of a successful invocation of section 4 are next to zero. Firstly, it would require Pence to show courage many steps above anything in the last four years. Like other senior Republicans, he would need to look into his heart and ask is his loyalty to his nation and its constitution or is it to Trump and his base?

But secondly, Pence would need the support of either a majority of Trump’s hand-picked Cabinet or two-thirds of the combined houses of Congress to succeed. Neither is a realistic prospect and would be doomed to fail as comprehensively as the impeachment did last year. But that doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t try.

So the only alternative is to complete isolate Trump for his remaining days in office. Treat him like a pariah and deny him any oxygen. Refuse to acknowledge him as a legitimate president, much like Twitter and Facebook have suspended his accounts — but make it permanent.

Ironically this attack on democracy occurred almost simultaneously with the two Democratic Party candidates winning the Senate run-offs in Georgia. No doubt Trump’s post-election ranting and raging was a factor in swinging moderate Republicans and centrists towards Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Since his 2016 win, Trump has cost the Republicans the House of Representatives, the White House, and now the Senate. Thanks to his delusions of grandeur, Joe Biden has now been granted greater power to govern, much as Trump enjoyed — but fortunately wasted — in his first two years.

Sane minds in the Republican Party must now realise just how toxic Trump is in the wider electorate. Embrace him at your peril because anyone closely associated with Trump is now an electoral liability, even if the support of his base is needed to win a primary.

Even if by some miracle the 25th Amendment was successfully invoked, removing Trump from office would not change anything. The genie is out of the bottle and the dangerous forces Trump has allowed to be unleashed won’t be contained simply by replacing him.

Joe Biden today claimed that America is better than this, and that the mob who invaded the Capitol do not represent the real America. But to the rest of the world, that is now how we see America: a broken democracy descending into anarchy and civil war.

Biden faces a monumental and impossible task to bridge these divisions. Not even someone who combined the talents of FDR, Obama and Lincoln could heal America now.

The carnage and anarchy we are seeing now, the disregard for democracy and the rule of law and the contempt for the institutions of government, the distrust of traditional media whose business model has collapsed combined with a right wing media ecosystem that peddles lies and is given a megaphone by inflammatory social media, have been a long time coming. Trump lit the fuse but the slow unraveling of the US has been underway since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The ongoing culture wars over guns, abortion, race and more have polarised America to such an extent there will be no way back.

The violence can only get worse. Armed militias will return to Washington DC to protest at Biden’s inauguration, and there’s now a better than even chance that the ceremony will be disrupted by some type of violence, perhaps a bomb. All around the nation, fed propaganda by a toxic media ecosystem of conspiracy theorists and right wing polemicists, Trump fanatics will be inspired by their leader and the events in Washington to take up arms for their thuggish cause.

Trump himself is now so paranoid and irrational as he sees power slipping from his hands that he is a dangerous threat to national and global security, capable of the most horrific destruction while he retains the title of commander-in-chief.

Once their initial outrage had petered out, Republicans like Lindsey Graham will revert back to intransigent partisanship, determined to block Biden’s agenda at every turn. The wheels will become stuck in the mud, another lost opportunity.

Democracy is sacred, but it is also fragile. Over history, millions of people have died fighting for democracy and when won, it must be carefully guarded.

On the floor of the Senate, before the invasion had started, Mitch McConnell had warned insurgent Republicans that to refuse to recognise the election result would be the beginning of a “death spiral” for American democracy.

But he was wrong. What we saw today was not the beginning, but the final stages of the death spiral.

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