On a recent visit to Central Europe I heard a joke that was going around in those parts, as well as further East. The joke — such as it was — was that America spent so much time trying to export democracy in recent years that it forgot to keep any for itself at home.
The joke isn’t great, but it is telling. And it is a tale whose ugliest reverberation could be seen on Wednesday when supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC. After a year of protests, these protests — in support of the President — will join the many others from the last year whose images have gone around the world.
Of course the blame for Wednesday’s events reside squarely with President Trump, who, on election night as the results clearly began to turn against him, said: ‘This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election.’ I gasped like many others when I heard that line.
In the weeks since the election it has been incumbent on President Trump to prove that he won the election. This he has singularly failed to do. He and his supporters have asserted everything from specifics to generalities. The generalities have included claims that the election seemed to be going Trump’s way only for the result to then mysteriously go against him. Reputable observers have presented it as though there is something fishy about this, rather than something completely normal (speak to any British ‘Remain’ voter about their jubilation before the moment that the Sunderland vote came in). It is not just normal but commonplace for elections to seem to go one way only then for them to go another.
So it was incumbent on Trump to present evidence that there had been voter fraud. And not just the incidents of voter fraud which are perfectly possible to believe in numerous states — especially in a year in which mail-in ballots were such a strong feature. It was necessary that they prove that the fraud was on such a scale that Trump and not Joe Biden had won the election.
Over recent months Trump, his lawyers and his supporters went through every manoeuvre they could to try to prove that he had won the election. And there was much that was sinister in these claims. None more so than the claim that because President Trump had successfully replaced three members of the Supreme Court during his term in office that the Supreme Court would inevitably be coming out ‘conservative’ and therefore coming out for Trump. If this was the case then the United States would be nothing better than a banana republic, where a President appoints judges who do whatever they think he would like them to do.
Fortunately the US is not a banana republic and the Supreme Court last month rejected efforts to block ballots in a number of battleground states that went in favour of Joe Biden. In recent weeks and days the doors have been repeatedly closing for Trump. And even talk of the Trump ‘coat-tail’ effect has become evidently untrue. Republicans lost both Senate race in Georgia, and for their candidates — David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — Trump seems to have had less of a ‘coat-tail’ effect than a ball-and-chain one.
The one tool the President had left was to rally — to invite people, as he did, to rally most recently in Washington DC on 6 January. And now he has realised one of the problems of crowds — which is that once they are off you cannot control them. The organizers of Black Lives Matter learned — or should have learned — that lesson last year when their protests repeatedly degenerated into spates of looting, rioting and violence.
Now the world is watching the indignity of Trump supporters storming the US Capitol. The centre of US democracy has come under assault from a portion of the citizenry that has been willfully misled by a president who whatever his accomplishments in office seems intent on leaving office as a sore and sinister loser.
There is democracy left in America. But it is undergoing a serious stress test. The only way it can resolve is for the candidate who lost the election in November to concede that fact, talk down his supporters and withdraw from office for the sake of his country, if that little matter still remains for him.
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The article originally appeared on The Spectator's US edition.