US democracy will survive Trump: The case for optimism

Opinion: There are grounds for optimism after the guardrails of American democracy held firm through to Joe Biden's inauguration as President, writes Stephen Hoadley.

The immage shows a close up of the white dome of the Capitol Hill building with a US flag fluttering to the side: Joe Biden's inauguration took place in peace at Capitol Hill just two weeks after Trump-supporting rioters stormed the seat of US democracy. Photo: iStock
Joe Biden's inauguration took place in peace at Capitol Hill just two weeks after Trump-supporting rioters stormed the seat of US democracy. Photo: iStock

Pessimism abounds about the perilous condition of American democracy. Commentators and headline writers proffer memes such as ‘broken and divided nation’, ‘the threat from within’. ‘democracy in peril’, and ‘on the cliff edge’.

Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the November 2020 election result was only the latest in a series of his outrageous breaches of long-standing courtesies, precedents, and laws, and his undermining of respected institutions. Trump, against all evidence to the contrary, asserted that he had won the election, and discouraged his officials from cooperating with the transition team of president-elect Joe Biden. He encouraged Republican loyalists to vote against certification of Electoral College votes, and then he stoked the mob that invaded the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Today on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021 Washington and state capitols were locked down and surrounded by fences and armed soldiers. Republicans smeared the election as ‘rigged’ and their right-wing supporters muttered about ‘taking back our country’, with violence not ruled out. The peaceful transition of power to a popularly elected new president appeared to be a distant dream.

American politics seemed to be descending to the depths of grievance, polarisation, corruption, disrespect and disorder comparable to the political systems of Belarus or Venezuela. Around the world allies lamented the erosion of US moral leadership, and adversaries were empowered in their authoritarianism.

I believe these views are unnecessarily gloomy. They neglect less-publicised aspects of a picture bigger and more positive than Donald Trump.

For example, the electoral officials of the 50 states and District of Columbia were efficient in executing the electoral process and steadfast in their certification of the results, regardless of their political party affiliation and Trump’s complaints. Sixty federal and state courts, and the Supreme court, many of whose judges were Trump appointees, were unanimous in rejecting the Trump Campaign Organisation’s suits alleging election fraud. The US judiciary upheld the Constitution and the law.

Further, the Electoral College in December and Congress in January approved the state-certified vote tallies even in the face of vociferous denials by a cabal of pro-Trump legislators and an invasion of the House and Senate chambers by a Trump-inspired mob.

The House of Representatives then exercised its prerogative under the Constitution’s Article II Paragraph Section 3 to debate, and approve, an Article of Impeachment of the president for inciting an insurrection. This was an unprecedented second impeachment of Trump. At the time of writing the Senate is obliged to conduct a trial but a date has not yet been set.

Inauguration Day has so far passed with minimal disturbance. The police, FBI, and national guard acted with discipline and effectiveness in preventing further attacks on public buildings. Behind them stood the regular military whose commanding officers expressed loyalty to the Constitution and the laws of the land and showed no inclination to engage in partisan wrangling or to approve the bizarre behaviour of their erstwhile commander-in-chief Donald Trump. Military take-over, so familiar elsewhere as a tempting but superficial remedy for disorder, was never in prospect in Washington.

Looking ahead, will Trump and his supporters pose a threat to American democracy even after Donald Trump leaves the White House? Commentators agree that ‘Trumpism’, meaning white-supremacy-inspired grievance politics and disdain for the Federal Government and the alleged ‘elites’ that dominate it, collectively called ‘the deep state’, preceded Trump and will persist after he leaves office. Its political locus is in the right wing of the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater’s and Ronald Reagan’s appeals last century and the Tea Party movement in the 2000s were earlier manifestations, and the 130 GOP congressmen and senators who challenged the Electoral College tally in January are its current core. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are two visible leaders among a dozen Trumpist aspirants.

Among Republican voters, a majority still approve of Trump’s performance in office and disapprove of his impeachment and conviction. A majority also believe that voter fraud was ‘widespread’, that the election was ‘stolen’ and that Biden’s presidency is illegitimate. Will this recalcitrance cripple the incoming Biden Administration’s reforms?

My view is more sanguine. Republican approval of Trump’s job performance has shrunk from 77 percent to 60 percent and is likely to slip further as evidence of his incompetence in distributing coronavirus vaccines to the public becomes known. Trump himself has been banned from Twitter and other social media platforms, will face court challenges, and may declare bankruptcy (for the seventh time). A dozen moderate Republican senators and representatives, and even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have distanced themselves from Trump and are working to return their party to its traditional ideals, free from Trump’s divisive cult of personality. So Trump’s political influence will wane, the numbers of his dedicated enablers and devotees will shrink, and most voters will return to policy-oriented political debate structured by the two responsible parties.

In short, the ‘guardrails’ of the Republic have held even though stressed by the turbulent political traffic that has flowed erratically between them for the past four years. The Constitution, laws, and institutions are intact. The public service professionals have performed their legitimate functions despite the self-seeking distortions induced by Trump and his political appointees. President Biden has put forward an ambitious agenda of reform policies to deal with the pandemic, the economic recession, environmental despoliation, climate change, immigration, international trade, global stability, and American credibility generally. His Democrat Party enjoys majorities in both legislative chambers so passage of necessary legislation is a realistic prospect. His appeal for healing and consensus in the national interest may attract support from moderate Republicans.

These are grounds for cautious optimism about the resilience of American democracy at home and status abroad in the coming years.

Dr Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom American democracy will survive Trump: The case for optimism 21 January 2021.

Media queries

Alison Sims | Research Communications Editor
09 923 4953
Mob 021 249 0089