What can we learn from 'Anarchy in the USA'?

·8-min read

In the wake of last week's chaos in Washington, the Republican Party has been plunged even further into existential crisis. As the world watches the unravelling of the most powerful nation on the planet, RFI asks what lessons can be learnt to prevent European democracies from going down the same road.

Since reality TV star Donald Trump's meteoric rise to the most powerful presidency in the world back in 2016, cynicism and populism have settled into mainstream politics in many democracies around the globe, including Europe. With only days to go before the transition of power in the US, the fragile nature of western liberal democracy has been exposed, as we are reminded that the privilege of democratic rights cannot be taken for granted.

The US Republican Party, the GOP – the party of abolition and of Abraham Lincoln – has been fragmented by a president who weaponised a grassroots support base that no longer adheres to the values of mainstream conservatism, and has been misguided and cajoled by conspiracy theories and lies into the belief that their rights have been eroded and that they are the real victims of a society controlled by something called "the liberal élite."

What was witnessed on Capitol Hill last week was just the latest peak in the roller-coaster mandate of President Trump who holds a messianic grip on his core of fanatical supporters.

So how can the Republican Party rehabilitate in the impending post-Trump era, and reclaim the credibility and integrity it once held among the conservative electorate?

RFI's David Coffey put that question to Nicholas Dungan, president of the Cogitopraxis consultancy and Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council.

"The problem is that these people who are have been elected as Republicans are beholden to a base, which is something that Trump has created. So if we contrast this, for example, with what happened in France, where Macron basically blew out the old left and the old right, instead, Trump did a hostile takeover of the old Republican Party.

"So we also need to understand that in the United States, the parties are basically political labels. There are only two of them. And there's no other real alternative. So it's not the highly fragmented system, which we have in some European countries.

"This existential crisis is a crisis within the Republican Party and within the United States as a whole... This is a severe crisis of values. And that is not going to be repaired by the next Biden administration. When Biden says 'This is not who we are,' when we see the storming of the Capitol, that's not true. It is exactly who certain Americans are. Otherwise they wouldn't have done it.”

So, indeed, the question remains whether Trumpism is going to continue to be a daily part of American politics, even after the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden on 20 January.

As the grassroots of the GOP now include QAnon followers, conspiracy theorists, the birther movement and Tea Party radicals, who can lead the way for the Republican Party and fill the void once Trump has gone?

"We just don't know", says Dungan. "He had all of these people like Mitch McConnell and others, who were subservient to him for four years, they're not going to do that again. But they don't have a natural leader, either. And any natural leader who comes out as a Republican, moderate, legitimate institutionalist – in other words a Republican version of Joe Biden – wouldn't have the following of these radicalised people. So the party is split, the country is split. And we're looking at a crisis of leadership in the United States."

Following the events of last Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Trump appeared in front of a teleprompter in the aftermath of the riot, and gave an address that was not dissimilar to a hostage reading from a script that was given to him by his captors.

But he did offer assurances that there would be a smooth transition of power between now and the 20 January inauguration. Within hours, the president was back on Twitter, again stoking the vitriol of his support base, continuing his unfounded claims that the November election was rigged.

Businesses abandon 'Toxic Trump'

Many people are asking, who is keeping the president in check over the last days of his mandate.

"Nobody knows. And I've talked to people in Washington about this in the last 24 hours. And this is why I think we may very well be looking for purely technical reasons at the 25th amendment, Section four. Because here's the problem: impeachment doesn't work. Impeachment is not a way to remove Trump from office or from being in power between now and 20 January."

So with mental health concerns coming to the fore, and the nuclear codes still in his possession, there are genuine fears Trump could crack. And the cracks are showing in the foundations of the Trump Organization.

The Trump brand, the cornerstone of his business empire, is now toxic. On Monday, the PGA of America cancelled the 2022 PGA Championship event which had been scheduled to take place on a golf course owned by Trump in New Jersey. The Marriott Hotel Group has pulled funding from any Republicans who have backed the claims that the 2020 election was rigged. And the Trump Organization's biggest lender, Deutsche Bank, said it would no longer have any dealings with the group.

Evidence of these fissures had been visible for some time, according to Dungan.

"Trump has been trying to sell the Old Post Office Hotel, the Trump hotel around the corner from the White House, for a year. And there are no takers. So his business is in big trouble.

"He could run out of places to live and run out of cash. There was some speculation that he won't be able to stay as much at Mar-a-Lago [resort in Florida as he would like. That he could go to Bedminster and so forth. But the fact is the guy's options are narrowing. This is Shakespearean. This is classic.”

Macron 'knows nothing' about the US

Following the riot on Capitol Hill, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of shared values with the United States. But according to Dungan, Macron doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“These are not shared values, the values that Europeans have, the image that Europeans have of the United States, is the image that they want to have of the United States. But it's an image which is an illusion in their own mind.

"And they don't know the US. Macron knows nothing about the United States. He's never spent any time there.”

In the run-up to the 2017 election, France's traditional "Les Républicains" and the left wing "Parti Socialiste" completely collapsed, and their support-base evaporated overnight, paving the way for a former Rothschild banker, Emmanuel Macron, to cobble together a centrist coalition.

With elections in France only a year away, can Macron maintain his centrist position?

According to Dungan, "Macron needs to be extremely cautious. This is a time when caution is not what is needed. Boldness is what is needed. I think his political future is very, very tenuous.

"I don't see anybody credible in opposition. But then nobody saw Trump coming. And nobody saw Brexit coming. The fact is, first of all, the French are always discontent about virtually everything that is happening. They think the country is going down the tube.

"It's true that the French tend to vote in the national interest and not just single issue voting, like we see in the United States and increasingly in the UK.

"Macron's problem is going to be that everything that has gone wrong with the Covid-19 crisis, and everything that's been put on hold in terms of reforms, are going to be held against him, because the French system is so incredibly centralised.

"We will not be out of this Covid crisis until the very time of the French presidential elections. So it's going to be very difficult to have a campaign. And there will be there will be right-wing candidates from the traditional right, who basically will say 'this guy is a social democrat in disguise' or 'socialist' in disguise."

Win-win for autocrats

In the end, one can reflect during the final days of the Trump administration that the authoritarian leaders that Trump cozied up to – Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Erdogan and Xi Jinping – have all come out better after four years of his tenure as president. They're happy, as US credibility on the world stage has been massively eroded.

"Xi Jinping and Putin have gained credibility in the sense that the US is lost. Biden will try to restore that, but everybody now knows that these things can happen in the United States. That is not good for the US, and it's not good for the world.

"We need to be realistic about the fact that it is a genuine problem and not something that's going to be waved away by one election. If you go back to the storming of the Capitol...this is not an organised political movement. It is a social movement of discontents, malcontents, who...don't believe in the democratic system.

"This is not the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) – these guys were very unorganised, they didn't torch anything. They destroyed very little. They could have done much more damage to life and limb, and the elected representatives of the US. They seemed so surprised to be in there. They didn't even realise why they were there."