Why January 6th 2021 will be remembered as a good day for American democracy

  • Populism thrives when it can co-opt mainstream politics, either directly or indirectly
  • Trump’s incitement to storm the US Capitol has made Trumpian populism unpalatable to the Republican mainstream
  • The Georgia Senate victory and Republican disgust enable Biden to repair the institutional weaknesses left by Trump
Why January 6th 2021 will be remembered as a good day for American democracy

The storming of the US Capitol by protesters incited by President Trump is more reminiscent of scenes in an emerging market disputed election than anything we might have expected in the United States. As George W. Bush put it, “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic.” Nevertheless, the United States is not, as the response of the mainstream Republican party shows, an emerging market. While Trump can deploy violence and intimidation in anger at the election result, that boat has now sailed. Joe Biden will become President, and every step that Trump takes to continue to frustrate that aim takes him, and his populist ideas, further from regaining power in 2024.

Populism thrives, especially in a two-party electoral system, when it can co-opt an existing political party, either from the outside by creating a fundamental threat from the extreme right or left that moves that party itself to the extreme, or from the inside by mobilising a constituency that can be radicalised. The mainstream of the co-opted party then believes that embracing populism is its easiest, or only, root to power. Indeed, in extreme cases, mainstream political leaders may believe that the alternative to embracing the populist agenda is chaos within, or even inevitable defeat of, their political party. Mainstream politicians don’t believe in the populist cause, but they enable it out of political expediency.

One of the most remarkable things about January 6th wasn’t storming of the Capitol itself, but what happened minutes before it, when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the many co-opted mainstream Republicans who have enabled Trump, described his vote to certify the election for Biden as “the most important vote I've ever cast”. McConnell argued that if Congress chose not to certify the election results, it would “damage our republic forever” as American democracy entered a “death spiral”:

“Every four years would be a scramble for power. At any cost. The electoral college, which most of us on this [Republican] side have been defending for years would cease to exist. Leaving many of our states with no real say at all in choosing the President. The effects would go even beyond the elections themselves. Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth and a shared respect for the ground rules of our system.”

For those of us who following developing markets, this scramble for power at any cost is all too familiar. Trump has pushed farther than the mainstream Republican party can follow him, and the storming of the Capitol just after McConnell finished speaking, and Trump’s subsequent defence of the storming on Twitter, will only serve to further heighten that fact.

Indeed, as I write this Republicans are gradually persuading their more populist colleagues to cease any further objections to ensure that they can certify the election as planned and show that the constitutional order of the United States is alive and well.

Not only is Trump damaging himself, but he is also damaging Republican populism. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who has positioned himself as the leading populist in the Senate and a potential 2024 Republican Presidential candidate, will now have to walk a much more careful line to remain acceptable to the mainstream Republican party and continue to connect with Trump voters. Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans will be more emboldened to resist Trumpism, whether espoused by Trump or Hawley, and defend their mainstream conservative values.

Events in Washington weren’t the only setback for Trumpism in the Biden era on January 6th. In what CNN political commentator Van Jones has memorably described as a victory of “Black joy” over “White rage”, Democrats have won the run-off elections for both Georgia Senate seats and now controls the Senate: the balance is 50-50, and as Vice President, Kamala Harris will have the deciding tie-breaker vote on procedural matters.

I have previously argued that the biggest risk of the Trump presidency is not Trump himself, but rather how by dismantling previous norms, Trump has created the path for someone much more pernicious to follow him. If Trump is Pompey, who is the Caesar waiting in the wings to exploit the crack the Trump has left in the US’s constitutional order?

Prior to January 6th, I thought that Biden would not be able to repair those cracks, and indeed that he might even exacerbate them. A 50-50 balance with a confrontational Republican party would prevent Biden from achieving meaningful change, and many in the Democratic party have argued for using Trumpian tactics against the Republicans, for example by expanding the Supreme Court to overturn the conservative majority that Trump cemented when he ignored precedent to appoint Amy Coney Barrett shortly before the election.

Biden may now have both the support from mainstream Republicans and the impetus that he needs to focus on repairing the damage to American constitutional norms by replacing conventions that Trump has broken with laws that would constrain a future Caesar. This is unlikely to be the last violence that we see from Trump supporters trying to overturn the election, and it would be easy to see each of these as a reason for deepening despair at the course of US politics. While they are certainly evidence of the continuing, and troubling, gulf of understanding in American society, they are also building the political capital to enable Joe Biden to repair America’s constitution.

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