Mon. Jan 24th, 2022

Elected legislators in the world’s leading democracy hid from their lives one year ago. Five people lost theirs. Not since 1814 has the seat of the American government been so fatally violated, and even then the perpetrator was a foreign state, not a home-grown crowd. The siege of the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters looks even worse today than on January 6, 2021. It is now known that only luck and quick thinking averted a greater loss of life. The extent of the involvement of the then retiring president and his employees is also better understood.

After failing to achieve as much as a peaceful transfer of power (the sine qua non of a democracy) the USA is faced with the question of how to avoid a recurrence. The first priority is to continue with the congressional inquiry in the events of that day. A certain kind of Washington wisdom says that nothing that it detects will persuade Republican voters, who lie to believe that their husband was cheated out of a second term. This is no reason to stop. The pursuit of truth is in itself a valuable project.

There are other ways to ensure a sick democracy. Election reform, which is currently coming to a standstill in Congress, will make it more difficult for state and local authorities to shorten the right to vote. A mixture of pressure and regulation on social media platforms can slow the spread of dangerous nonsense. The prosecution of those involved in the siege to the extreme of the law is also likely to have a deterrent effect. Not everyone who took part in that deadly event was a hardened revolutionary. Some have just assumed that they can have an exuberant and criminal day without result. The government must deny them of that idea.

These and other changes are needed. But to dwell on legislative or technical reforms is to avoid the bigger issue: a Republican party that has become increasingly alienated from civilized politics. If a majority of its voters believe the last election was stolen, it is partly because their leaders did not dare to challenge this sinister fantasy. Most Republican lawmakers voted not to certify the election of Joe Biden as president. The party also fulfills important electoral roles across the country with officials of a ominous Trumpist bowed. It is now far too easy to sketch a scenario in which a close Democratic presidential victory in 2024 will at best lead to a constitutional stalemate, and at worst, civil unrest.

Honorable Republicans still exist at a high level. Congresswoman Liz Cheney is one. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shows intermittent signs of moral clarity. It is not impossible that their lone stance against the humiliation of the American right wing will reach critical mass.

However, even that is no guarantee of being enough. The radicalization of a significant minority of Americans increasingly appears to have a life of its own. The party can fix its ways, deny Trump, incite his followers to respect unfavorable election results – and be completely ignored. Trump himself has slammed opponents for presenting “his” vaccines against Covid-19 to audiences who prefer alternatives to quacks.

A US president once advised against “riding on the back of the tiger” so that one does not end up in it. Republicans ascended the beast at least as far back as Newt Gingrich’s populist congressional leadership of the 1990s, if not Richard Nixon’s dog whistle campaigns a generation earlier. The party is now just as much a prisoner as a director of the forces it has unleashed. Yet the burden falls on him to at least try to ensure that January 6 was a one-off trauma, not a rehearsal. The republic must increasingly be saved from Republicanism.

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