Aside from Ukraine, the biggest event for the democratic world right now is the US Capitol riot hearings, led by the House of Representatives, into what was a determined coup against American democracy by the former president, Donald Trump.
We forget so quickly, but the rise and reign of Trump was a period when the whole Western democratic order was forced to look at itself in a cracked mirror. British historians may one day dwell on the oddity that we chose to distance ourselves from our near neighbours and lean more heavily on the US, at just the moment when that nation became radically unreliable. Its culture wars, its political divisions, its paranoia – these were the worst possible imports at the worst possible time.
Whether or not Trump now ends up facing criminal charges – which seems to be where the hearings are heading – the attempted insurrection in January 2021 contains urgent messages for British politics.
It reminds us that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance – hearing the lies, calling out the lies, staying focused in a blizzard of distraction. The hearings have already shown that even the most tightly drawn and thought-through rules are vulnerable to rogue actors. Democratic culture, this process points out, is not bred in the bone. It is thin, forgettable. And as soon as democracies no longer accept fundamental stories about themselves, they are vulnerable to takeover.
For anyone with a shred of historical sense, and affection for that great nation, the spectacle of the US desperately trying to heal itself in public is a moving one. On prime-time television, with only Fox News periodically excusing itself, the US is being reminded every night of the moment its system nearly fell over – of the lies and the conspiracy, of blood pooling on the marble floors of the US Capitol building, the police officers battered by the mob, of the vomit and the screaming – and in politics, of those who buckled and those who stood straight.
Congress has refused to “draw a line” or to “move on” from what took place on 6 January. What has been happening in Washington DC is an anti-distraction act of public remembering.
It has also been a bit of a heart-stopper. For the inquiry’s leaders, the fastidious, silver-bearded Mississippi Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson and the outspoken Wyoming Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney – an unlikely pairing – may fail.
That is, their painstaking laying-out of the plot, which culminated in that bloody assault, could yet be thrust aside by the electoral mudslide of a further Trump victory in 2024. Nothing in this is yet certain. Nothing here is safe.
President Joe Biden is unpopular and sinking. According to recent CBS News polls, a narrow majority of Republican voters think that finding out what happened on 6 January is unimportant. Some 56 per cent of Republicans thought the insurrectionists were “defending freedom” and 47 per cent thought they were exhibiting “patriotism”. There is scant evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election; even so, 60 per cent of Republican voters believe it was “widespread”.
None of this is to suggest that Trump will be able to make a successful comeback and run for president again. Some of the candidates he has endorsed in midterm primaries have done poorly, and Republicans seem to be getting fed up with his “stop the steal” whine. Two major US papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, have strongly criticised his obsession with a stolen election.
But the US lacks an agreed narrative about what happened. The eminent conservative, but anti-Trump, commentator Robert Kagan has said in the Washington Post: “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”
This matters to us but not because Boris Johnson is “Britain Trump”. I have never thought that. The Prime Minister is heedless, reckless, selfish, narcissistic and untrustworthy, but he is not a fascist. I don’t believe he harbours any dark desire to crush opposition, or to break democracy. On the day he finally leaves Downing Street he may very well be angry, but he won’t be summoning legions of far-right rioters to storm the House of Commons chamber. Nor will he sanction any discussion of hanging Jeremy Hunt.
Nor yet do I think, whatever the temperature on social media, that we will see Remainers and Brexiters fighting it out in housing estates and shopping centres. The crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol does contain, tragically, the potential for violence ahead. But across the rest of the UK, we remain far less divided than the US.
Owing to the great influence of American culture in the UK – from Netflix to food trends, and taking the knee to gender wars – we sometimes, complacently, think of ourselves as almost-Americans. It’s particularly true in politics. The West Wing was popular entertainment for British liberals – indeed, has any British political writer been as influential on our thinking about power and principle as the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin?
I consume US media ravenously. I feed on American political writers, from Joan Didion and Susan Sontag to the columnists of the New York Times. But the more I read, the more I realise how fundamentally unalike we are.
All that said, today the read-across lessons from the Trump revolt are real. It’s about norms as much as personalities. It is about the danger of not calling out political lies until it is too late. It is about office holders – ministers, senior civil servants, government lawyers, police commissioners – taking their formal responsibilities with total seriousness. It is about the rest of us consciously trying to think outside tribal boundaries, and valuing being part of a wider political community.
In London we have a less encoded political system than in Washington DC. It is now too informal. Peter Hennessy’s “good chaps” theory of government has been shredded. From the government’s attempts to seize control over the Electoral Commission to the rewriting of the ministerial and parliamentary codes, we must fight for those slim and rickety barriers we do have. I am becoming a little alarmed that the constitution – the rules of the game – are so little discussed by the opposition.
What, in short, the current drama in Washington DC reminds us of is the importance of looking after our own garden – of mending the fences, draining the sloughs. We all know these are wild times, under a wild leader. We all know that the economic situation is likely to deteriorate at least for the rest of this year. This will make politics rougher still.
When in need of a better government and national rebuilding, our first protections are the constitutional rules, civilities and accustomed public behaviour we have evolved. To accept a hierarchy of “what matters most”, with bread-and-butter issues trumping scrutiny of Westminster and Whitehall, is to accept – on our watch, in our times – a sloppier, less responsive democracy. We can’t do that.
Trumpism reminds us that democracy is not an innate human characteristic, appearing naturally in some fortunate temperate landscapes. It is a learned network of behaviours and taught rules, which takes effort and concentration. Losing focus on all that, and lazily demonising neighbours, allows rogues deep into the system. Democracy, it turns out, can unravel. Those hearings in Washington DC are a lesson every one of us needs.
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down