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Can we begin to relax now that Joe Biden is taking over the US Presidency, and the Democrats control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, or does Trumpism represent a much more lasting threat?
Is Barack Obama, for example, correct that Trump was "not an outlier" but the logical end-product of long term thinking and tactics within the Republican Party?
The Princeton historian, Julian E. Zelitzer, has argued that as far back as Newt Gingrich (remember him!) the Republicans have embarked on polarising policies, ruthlessly bringing down the Democratic Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, in 1989. Moral conservatism has been linked to a vicious brand of character assassination, which was to be echoed later by the Tea Party and has become so familiar to us under Trump. Civility in politics disappeared and with it the readiness to negotiate and compromise.
In an attempt to interpret the apparent spinelessness of Republicans in standing up to Trump, Paul Krugman argued in an article in the New York Times on January 4 that they have capitulated to a form of “malevolent tribalism”, a pursuit of power at whatever cost to truth and reality. How else to explain their support for the endless and groundless challenges to the legitimacy of the presidential election or the ludicrous attacks, for example, on vice-president elect, Kamala Harris, as a Marxist and wild socialist?
The shocking scenes of the invasion of the Capitol have certainly reminded us of the socio-political cost of months and months of irresponsible demagoguery.
My friends in the US are reminded of the thuggery of National Socialism’s Brownshirts, the SA, and it is surely no accident that the most powerful condemnation of these outrageous events has come from Angela Merkel. It is worth remembering that after World War 1, Germany was awash with paramilitary groupings which could not cope with the new world emerging around them. Hitler’s NS was only one of them. Are the weapon-brandishing supporters of Trump so entirely different from these para-militaries?
Similarly the trumpeting of fake news, to which we have become so accustomed, has worrying similarities to Goebbels’ effective use of the “big lie”? And is the call to “make America great again” not eerily reminiscent of "Deutschland uber Alles"?
Without the capitulation of right-wing parties such as the DNVP, driven by illusions that they could control the National Socialists for their own ends, Hitler would never has clawed his way to power. One wonders what Republicans such as Mike Pence or Mitch McConnell are now thinking as they reap the harvest of their spinelessness. Moral theologians in the US like Prof Kathy Kaveny of Boston are studying this question of Republican complicity.
Historians are rightly highly suspicious of any glib identification of contemporary political movements with the unprecedented horrors of the Third Reich and certainly there are major differences here. The judiciary, despite Trump’s attempts to flood it with his nominees, has stood remarkably firm.
There is nothing remotely similar to Himmler’s SS in the populist support for Trump. Indeed he was such a one-man show that he made no attempt to build up organisational structures comparable to those of the SA and the SS. There may be some comfort to be found in that. There remain, too, powerful figures within the Republican Party such as Mitt Romney who are vehemently opposed to the collapse of traditional Republican principles and values.
We can surely also take comfort in the robust resistance of more than half of the population of the US to Trump’s gifted but poisonous rhetoric. It is fascinating to see the Martin Luther King heritage re-emerging in Georgia, and surely no-one can underestimate the utter determination of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Me Too movement. The cultural world of the US has been forever changed by them.
But do Biden and Harris have the skills, and will they have enough good luck, to win back hearts and minds in the midst of a raging Covid epidemic and the unbelievable damage done to decent people’s trust in the democratic processes?
More than 60million people put their faith in Trump, and now have to cope with the collapse of their false dreams, while facing apocalyptic environmental challenges, and nerve-wracking economic, technological and social change. The Democratic victory in Washington will be meaningless unless healing and renewal can take place at the grassroots. One thinks of the social workers, the health professionals, the teachers, and union leaders who will have to pick up the pieces, exhausted as many of them already are.
Angela Merkel’s fury at the harm Trump has wreaked is understandable. Let’s hope that her confidence in the continuing strength of American democracy is also justified. Perhaps those commentators who suggest that the old two party system in the US is finished are right, and that a new Republican Party will emerge, side by side with what remains of Trump’s “malevolent tribalism.” Only time will tell.
- Peter Matheson is a Dunedin historian.