Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Trump Era ends, as a Tragedy

It ends with Donald Trump deflated and disgraced, less a personal tragedy than a national disaster. Without social media at his fingertips, the American president appears a silent, brooding sphinx waiting out the last days of his reign. His most vocal followers promise more violence before and after president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

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By Kenneth Tiven in the US

“The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy, a total sham and a travesty. We should have a revolution in this country.” That was President Trump’s 2008 tweet about Mitt Romney’s election loss which foreshadowed his own 2020 failure. After two months of futile lies about how the election was rigged, Trump went for the revolution option, encouraging an insurrection with his angriest supporters attacking the US Congress. Within a week, it brought his second impeachment with a losing score of 232 to 197. It marks an ignominious exit into a very different ex-presidency than his predecessors have enjoyed. 

When the Capitol demonstration turned violent, killing five people, it was a step too far. The very politicians who were the intended victims of the insurrection decided impeachment. From fear comes anger, building up because the physical and emotional destruction so vividly represents four years of national decay under Trump’s presidency. The House debate on impeachment was limited to two hours. It followed a predictable path as Republicans found ways to criticise their own voters while minimising the president’s responsibility. Ten Republicans did support impeachment because Trump incited an insurrection that failed. The most surprising vote was not so surprising on analysis. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, just elected with 70 percent of the vote there, is the third ranking Republican in the House leadership. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is her dad. She has his aptitude for political calculus. She’s picked her side of whatever becomes of the Republican Party in the decade ahead. An open question is how many, if any, of the Republican Senators will do the same if there is a trial phase to the impeachment. The Senate acts as judge and jury in this matter.

 Is Trump clueless or just existing in a fantasy world? Making his first public statement since the insurrection, the president took no responsibility for his remarks that incited the crowd to attack. “People thought what I said was totally appropriate,” he said, claiming that racial justice protests over the summer were “the real problem”. The insurrectionist mob was very white and very middle class, not the working poor of the heartland, often thought to be his base. It seems that his lies, incubated in a digital-media fairyland, helped forge a common purpose from among strangers.

Usually a second conviction follows which bans him from any elective office in the USA. Right now, Trump is suffering a lifetime Twitter ban for incendiary and false statements. Facebook contemplates the same punishment for willful misinformation about the election. Without social media at his fingertips, he appears a silent brooding sphinx waiting out the last days of his reign. A wary nation wonders because his most vocal followers promise more violence before and after president-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on the Capitol front steps on January 20. Security will be ultra tight and it would surprise few people if it were moved to an “undisclosed location” at the last moment.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

That lie was spoken on January 20, 2016, at his inauguration, consistent with so many of Trump’s false assertions. His chaotic term leading the USA culminated in one of its saddest moments: the carnage of an insurrection with hordes of followers ransacking the nation’s Capitol on global television. Living in America through a pandemic with Trump feels like a catastrophe without end. Globally, America appears as the ship of Democracy in distress, sinking faster than lifeboats can be launched. Four years ago, when Trump took office, this magazine asked if it was the start of a second American Revolution. The answer is yes, but one that has failed to convince 330,000,000 people to accept an inherently fascist mentality. However, despite losing, Trump received nearly 48 percent of the vote, so the desire for authoritarian leadership remains to oppose the Joe Biden administration. For Trump, the second impeachment may become a perverse badge of honour, but for most Americans it is a well-deserved “going out of business” tag. Conviction could keep him from holding any elective office for the rest of his life.

“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Life often demands understanding the line between dos and don’ts. Trump spent a career in real estate and reality television crossing it, going bankrupt six times, borrowing hugely for whatever deal seemed to glitter at that moment. He dodged the Vietnam draft as a young man, looted his aging father’s estate, always avoiding jail time, while paying some stiff fines. Why is anyone surprised he incited his most aggressive supporters to attack the nation’s Capitol? His followers exhibited delight and entitlement as they followed his orders, behaving as he does in joyously disrupting traditions and beliefs that are an essential aspect of a Constitution and laws of the land.

Images of a mob desecrating a national Capitol are not unusual in some nations, but unexpected in USA. Yet, in reality, the seeds of this discontent have been germinating for decades. But how could the building have been so lightly protected when noise about this event had been circulating for weeks, claiming the tacit backing of President Trump. This is a key area for investigation.

Former foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum described it in blunt terms beyond what the Associated Press would have allowed him: “the world watched, stupefied, as louts in battle costume swarmed into the Capitol unhindered, trashing our representatives’ offices, pawing through their files, stealing computers with classified data, taking selfies and slapping high fives before filing out unhindered to ignore a 6 pm curfew. Grinning assholes smirked at TV cameras, flipping us all the finger. Video shows lone cops fleeing in panic, under assault or, in some cases, standing back in apparent approval.” More violence is anticipated even as law enforcement across America arrests people who so gleefully posted their pictures on social media as they stormed through, looting property and assaulting police. Their president told them: “We will never give up, we will never concede. Walk down to the Capitol… cheer on our brave senators and Congressmen … you will never take back our country with weakness.”

Multiple investigations will discern how inept security measures allowed a mob to function in a city which is theoretically security conscious. Thousands of people in the invasion of the Capitol will be identified and brought to justice for breaking several federal laws. There is no statute of limitations to save them; their boastful use of social media has left evidence making them that much easier to locate. A full-scale probe will pinpoint the attitude and lapses that led the Capitol Police unit to dismiss offers from other law enforcement agencies in DC. The Pentagon’s apparent refusal to immediately release and send National Guard troops on the afternoon of January 6 will be revealed as the Trump administration putting incompetent acolytes into positions of authority throughout the government. Now it ends with Trump deflated and disgraced, less a personal tragedy than a national disaster. Businesses and banks are distancing themselves. No federal pardon of any sort protects him from repaying massive loans his company owes, nor keep him out of state courts as prosecutors press charges for financial fraud and business misdeeds.

A self-inspired coup to stay in power brings punishment and ridicule. Trump, who practises deny, deflect, or denigrate leadership can only blame himself, but won’t of course. The slogan “Make America Great Again” contrasts with launching an insurrection against one’s own government. He took no responsibility for an ineffective response to a pandemic with a death toll of more than 350,000 Americans. Those leadership deficits and the impact on the economy derailed his re-election plan. His catalogued list of lies and indiscretions guarantees lasting status as the most mendacious president in American history. All of this amplified by a double impeachment consigns him to last place among all the US presidents.

America is getting a government composed of quality people with expertise leading to optimism about the years ahead. But pessimism is based on this problem: the 72 million people who voted for him as a leader, despite knowing he was a defective human. It is down­hill from here for Trump. The Professional Golf Association (PGA) had no problem deciding to cancel its championship tournament scheduled for 2022 at Trump’s Bedminster New Jersey golf course. Ouch! That hurts his image and his pocketbook at the one place he seems to enjoy a golf course of his own.                                                                                                        

“My whole life what I­’m going to say, I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics! Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”

It was hard to explain the integrity failure by Republicans who backed Trump’s claims about a rigged election. Dozens of lost court cases explain that his habit of stretching truth is extensively documented. Dozens of first person books about Trump make it clear he does not believe in the Constitution or the responsibilities of being president. Yet for everyone who left his government in disillusionment, there appeared to be two more people who believed more fervently. British Lord Acton in the 19th century said: “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and it works in the 21st century.

Trump’s partisans who gathered outside the White House on January 6 before marching 2.5 kilometres to the Capitol believed they were absolutely following presidential orders, amplified by his personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani who had just told them Trump needed “trial by combat” against the Democrats to win the election (he had lost). While Trump promised he would march with them, he lied, returning to the White House to watch the insurrection on television. He neither made an effort to stop it, nor ordered law enforcement to contain it for several hours. Why the insurrectionists were allowed to walk away unhindered by arrests or interrogation is unclear. Trump is said to have complained bitterly to staff about Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to interfere in the certification of the Electoral College results that sealed his losing and Biden’s winning.   

The underground river of hate, racism and economic despair beneath the surface of the USA predates Independence. It overflowed in the Civil War of 1860 and again in 1876 to end post-civil war reconstruction. Today, the internet and social media have enabled it to flow in the open, more virulent than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has been an accelerant, not just a death funnel. A goal that you accidentally score against your own team without intending it is called an “own goal” in sports. These moments exist in politics when there is an action or remark that has the opposite effect from what you intended.

This has been a consistent theme for a president interested in being the leader of only his supporters. His use of social media to spread disinformation, often outright lies, is a critical part of his life. The Twitter suspension of his account for life has angered his followers. While the First Amendment of the Constitution protects free speech, it doesn’t force corporate behaviour to spread it. Trump’s intemperate remarks to that Washington crowd of angry supporters crossed a line. The second worst own goal speech this year is his call to the Georgia secretary of state ordering and then begging him to “find 11,000+ votes” even though the official Georgia vote for Biden had already been sent to the Electoral College.

In the next few months, the new Democratic controlled government has many issues, but some new ones to consider require subpoena power and sworn testimony. A republic’s political system must answer questions which have on going relevance to an insurrection:

  • Who controlled information that should have alerted all branches of law enforcement?
  • What advice was not passed on to the Capitol Police?
  • Where were the agencies that provide surveillance of domestic terrorists?
  • When the magnitude of the event was clear why did law enforcement agencies do so little, so late?
  • Why did the Capitol Police fail to stop the demonstrators in contrast to federal police responses to Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer?
  • How did law enforcement agencies fail to recognise the president was the provocateur in chief with his repeated efforts to overturn the election?

The abandon ship mentality is in full swing. A growing number of allies have given up on Trump, from media owners like Rupert Murdoch to Republican governors in the states. Early cabinet resignations include Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, both original members of his Cabinet. Rather than trying to persuade him to do the right thing, officials with access to Trump are simply hoping he does no further damage before his term expires. It will be several months before we know if the Trump Administration was truly the place where reputations went to die. The events of the past weeks, combined with control of the Senate, have given a jet-assisted boost to the incoming Biden administration. It has vowed to deal with racial issues impacting America, amplifying the long postponed admission that ignoring the traitorous implications of the civil war has cost this nation its implied greatness. The pandemic and the economy, however, are the first issues to be solved.

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The former Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, an action film icon, released a sombre seven-minute video critical of Trump and the mob, which he compared to the Nazi Kristalnacht attacks he learned about as a child growing up in post-war Austria. It was a deeply personal account of how his father and others had been emotionally damaged by participating on the Nazi side in World War II. Trump flags predominated at the Capitol takeover, but one large Confederate battle flag was waved like a pennant at a ballgame. Columnist Charles Pierce writes:

“If you want to know why the movement to remove memorials to the Confederate States of America and the people who served it is important work, you should wonder no more. It is because they do not represent the dusty past but the dark cancer at the heart of the living present, one that has to be excised lest it kill whatever future the republic has.”

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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