Donald Trump’s threat to American democracy was to undermine faith in democratic institutions by demonising the press, debasing political discourse and in general disparaging anyone who disagreed with him. He also stands accused of incitement, obstruction of justice, “high crimes and misdemeanours”, sedition, and treason. Well, no one is perfect. On January 6, Trump even exhorted his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” and begin “marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard”. The protests that followed were reminiscent of the four-month occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature by 100,000 labour activists in 2011, with one big difference: the Wisconsin police didn’t shoot anyone.”
Source: Salvatoore Babones for News Corp
Democracy more at risk with no brake on Joe Biden
It is true that one US Capitol police officer died in last week’s protests, but it’s not clear how. Given the very high political stakes involved, you’d think the American media would find out. Unless, of course, they prefer not to know.
And that goes to the heart of the real threat to American democracy in 2021: the complicity of the country’s dominant institutions in overriding ordinary checks and balances to ensure the success of their own preferred political program.
Whatever his faults (and he has many), Trump’s freedom of manoeuvre has always been hampered by a hostile press, an independent judiciary, civil society organisations and even an interventionist deep state.
But Joe Biden will take office next week with the unquestioning endorsement of all of these institutions, and control of both houses of congress to boot. Who, then, will hold Biden to account?
If democracy means the rule of the people, the essence of a specifically liberal democracy is the principle of limited government. But Biden’s Democrats are now seeking maximum government — not to implement their policies, but to destroy their opponents. They have demanded show trials of Trump and his supporters, an expansion of the Supreme Court so that Biden can appoint his own new justices and the admission of two new states (the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) to cement the Democrats’ control over the Senate.
They even propose stretching the Constitution so far as to hold a legally questionable impeachment trial for Trump after he leaves office, just so they can disqualify him from ever running for office again.
Biden’s supporters propose to change the structure of the American state to ensure their grip on power remains firm for a generation or more. And at this point, the only person who is in a position to stop the country from sliding into such a new, liberal authoritarianism is … Joe Biden.
It is always dangerous to trust the fate of a nation to one person, and doubly so if that person is himself being offered near-dictatorial powers to reshape the country’s institutions in his favour.
True, Biden is the leader who pledged “to be a president who seeks not to divide, but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States, and work with all of my heart, with the confidence of the whole people, to win the confidence of all of you”.
But that was on November 8, back when it was “the time to heal”. On January 6, he proclaimed that “our democracy is under unprecedented assault … (that) borders on sedition”. The next day, the occupiers of the Capitol were in his words “a riotous mob of insurrectionists, domestic terrorists” serving a President who “unleashed an all-out assault on our institutions of our democracy from the outset”.
When your opponents are “fellow Americans” who happened to vote against you, they might reasonably expect to lose some federal funding, pay slightly higher taxes and generally see their preferred government policies overturned. That’s politics. When your opponents are literally “domestic terrorists”, the sky’s the limit.
Back when Biden and the Democratic Party were calling for a return to normalcy in American politics, they could hope to achieve a bipartisan consensus. After all, the Republican Party leadership would be only too happy to return to the pre-Trump status quo. But now they have convinced the major media, social networks, digital platforms, the permanent bureaucracy and (most worrying of all) themselves that it is not enough to turn back the clock. They argue that new safeguards must be put in place to ensure the American people never again make the mistake of choosing a president like Trump. And they have all the tools they need to enact them.
Contrary to the received wisdom of the past four years, democracies don’t die because millions of people mysteriously fall under the sway of dangerous demagogues. Democracies die when a country’s political establishment serries ranks to suppress dissent. Or to suppress a tyrant, as they would have it.
Trump’s threat to American democracy was the same old threat, the threat of a power-hungry populist eager for the adulation of the crowd, yet another would-be Citizen Kane. Biden’s threat is much more insidious, and much more serious.
Trump was held in check by the very institutions he attacked. But with those same institutions now baying for the blood of Trump and his supporters, who will stop Biden from giving it to them? It takes a strong leader to impose limits on his own power, and Biden shows no signs of being strong enough.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts, which was named “best on politics 2018” by The Wall Street Journal.