By despoiling high office, Trump has made it harder for liberty to prevail

Donald Trump has reportedly surrounded himself with an ever-smaller group of loyalists who cater...
Donald Trump.
Tyrants gaze with glee at what Donald Trump has done to American democracy, writes Andrew Rawnsley.

Ever since he lost last November’s election, there have been entirely believable reports that Donald Trump is toying with issuing a presidential pardon to himself. What he will never secure is a reprieve from history’s verdict on his wretched presidency.

It will be a defining image and an enduring epitaph: the invasion and ransacking of the US Capitol by a mob he incited to prevent Congress certifying that Joe Biden had won a free and fair election.

It is highly moot whether the use of the 25th amendment or a second impeachment will now bring a slightly earlier conclusion to America’s long national nightmare by removing him before the official end of his term on January 20. However that turns out, posterity will condemn him as the president who conspired to subvert the Constitution that he was solemnly sworn to preserve and protect.

Historians will also dwell on some of the other actors in play, including those Republican senators and congressmen who indulged or stoked his plot to overturn the election result by peddling claims of fraud that were themselves fraudulent and have been investigated and rejected at every level of government. None of that, nor questions about the role played by social media and why the security around Congress was so easily breached, should distract us from the fundamental point. Culpability for the violent assault on the heart of American democracy lies squarely with him, as even some who were his most ardent apologists have acknowledged.

An event can be shocking and at the same time not at all surprising. The dark hours when the Capitol was overrun by a pro-Trump horde, some of the invaders emblazoned with Nazi slogans, were the product of the four dark years of vandalism he has unleashed on America’s body politic. The assault on Capitol Hill was the savage consummation of a presidency founded, fuelled and feeding on division; a presidency that has stamped on democratic norms, fomented lunatic conspiracy theories and made lies the chief currency of its public discourse since the very beginning.

It was a grimly appropriate finale that he employed demagoguery powered by falsehoods to invite the assault on lawmakers, inflaming a so-called ‘‘Save America’’ rally by declaring: ‘‘You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.’’ His personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was even more explicitly insurrectionist when he told the crowd: ‘‘Let’s have trial by combat.’’ The horde, some of them armed, then overran the Capitol screaming Mr Trump’s mendacious mantra: ‘‘Stop the steal!’’ The mobster-in-chief, the capo of chaos, then released a pre-recorded video expressing his ‘‘love’’ for the ‘‘very special’’ people who were menacing elected representatives and rampaging in the most hallowed chambers of America’s democracy while regurgitating the lie that he won the election. Liz Cheney, the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, offered a quote for the history books when she said: ‘‘There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.’’ She is right. Mitt Romney, the Utah senator and former presidential candidate, had something to say to those in his party who colluded with the scheme to delegitimise the election result. He yelled in their direction: ‘‘This is what you’ve gotten.’’ He is right.

An enforced climbdown which reeked of insincerity does nothing to alleviate the most damnatory verdict against this president.

‘‘This is banana republic crap,’’ Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman, said before making this plea to its author. ‘‘Mr President, you have got to stop this. Call it off! The election is over. Call it off! This is bigger than you.’’ He was also right, but hopelessly naive to think that Mr Trump can ever conceive of anything bigger than himself.

Only much later did he seek to distance himself from the mob that he had instigated and ignited. In a robotic statement that some likened to a hostage video, he redefined his ‘‘very special’’ people as the perpetrators of a ‘‘heinous act’’. This volte-face came only after the insurrection had failed, when even some previously diehard loyalists had deserted him in disgust and advisers were warning he had exposed himself to a prosecution for sedition. An enforced climbdown that reeked of insincerity does nothing to alleviate the most damnatory verdict against this president. You can argue that there are slivers of encouragement to be extracted from the day of infamy. Once the rioters had been cleared from the Capitol, Congress reconvened in the early hours to certify Joe Biden as the next president. Shockingly, more than a hundred Republicans in Congress continued to collude with Mr Trump even after the storming of the building, but it should be noted that others have shown a commendable dedication to democracy.

The ugly events on Capitol Hill overshadowed a revelation earlier in the week that the president had unsuccessfully sought to bully Brad Raffensperger, a Republican and the senior election official in Georgia, into ‘‘finding’’ enough votes to flip the result in that state. Judges have thrown out more than 60 Trumpian gambits to discredit the election. The conservative-dominated supreme court, three of whose justices are Trump appointments, rejected his attempts to block ballots in a number of key states that voted for Mr Biden. So you can make a case that the Constitution and the republic’s attachment to democratic values have ultimately proved sufficiently robust to meet the severe stress test inflicted by this disgraced president.

There is a terrible cost, though, to America’s experiment with Trumpism and the price will still be being paid after he has been removed. The catastrophic wreckage left by his presidency is not just to be reckoned in the broken glass, trashed offices and fatalities on Capitol Hill. The cost of Trumpism is also to be counted in a poisoning of American politics. He is an electoral failure. Never forget that he lost the popular vote in both the contests he fought, defeated by a thumping margin of more than sevenmillion votes last November. Yet he has been horribly successful in undermining faith in American democracy and corroding respect for it abroad. Once, you would have assumed that the spectacle of rioters desecrating the national legislature would repel Republican voters. They usually like to think they belong to the party of law and order. So it is testimony to the scale of his malignant achievement that polling of Trump voters suggests that two-thirds buy his big lie that the election was stolen and as many approved as deplored the mayhem unleashed at the citadel of their country’s democracy. Mr Trump has done far more damage to trust in America’s system of government than Vladimir Putin’s battalions of cyber-agents have ever managed.

By despoiling his high office so basely, he has also made it that much harder for the values of liberty to prevail in the vital global contest to combat resurgent despotism. The latest audit of pluralism and democracy from Freedom House comes to the baleful conclusion that the world is becoming less free as dictators tighten their grip in some regions, while elsewhere wannabe despots stretch and unravel the fabric of democracy. Mr Trump is not solely responsible for this dismal trend, but he has helped to exaggerate it by demoralising those struggling for civil liberties and fair elections while emboldening their opponents. America’s claim to be a ‘‘beacon of liberty’’ has always been contestable. Under him, the idea became risible.

The violence on Capitol Hill was watched with horror in the capitals of liberal democracies and with glee among the rulers of Russia, China and Iran. Many of the world’s most unsavoury regimes seized on the grisly finale to the Trump presidency to justify their own autocracies. Beijing was gifted another opportunity to depict democracy as a recipe for anarchy. Teheran gloatingly took it as evidence of ‘‘how vulnerable and fragile Western democracy is’’. From Moscow came the snickering contention that ‘‘American democracy is obviously limping on both feet’’.

We must hope that this is the final service that Mr Trump will render to the world’s autocracies after four years of offering them encouragement. From Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to Viktor Orban in Hungary to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, authoritarians recognised themselves in his behaviour and from that drew strength. The Trump presidency has emboldened autocrats the world over to believe that liberal democracy is in decline and tomorrow belongs to them. It is not just America that has suffered a terrible price for the Trump presidency. The cost is being paid in lost liberty around the planet.

  • Andrew Rawnsley is chief political commentator for The Observer.



View all

Universalism is again taking over countries that have been protestant. The protesters will continue to fight conformity to a world unity organisation bent on creating an imaginary perfect Earth.


The best one can say about this piece is it represents one man's (blind and twisted) opinion.

Based on factual events. The mob was loose. Hell, the mob may not have been blind and twisted, but they smeared excreta over the walls. Fact.

If you regard this article as one man's opinion, then you are part of the problem.
This is primarily a record of facts.

Hard to forget that Andrew Rawnsley took the opposite view on the Brexit vote. The UK electorate gave a mandate through a referendum and 3 elections while Mr Rawnsley cheered on wealthy individuals who took action in the courts, he cheered on the unelected House of Lords and all attempts to thwart democracy. His newspaper made copious print on the Russians being behind Brexit but could offer no evidence when taken to court.

It's hard for you to forget, in Trump apologia irrelevance.

View all





Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter