A day of infamy but also a clarifying one. The scenes at the US capitol building yesterday were both a wholly predictable and a predicted finale to Donald Trump’s wretched presidency. Predictable because it was obvious four years ago – at least it was obvious to those who cared to open their eyes – that Trump was a festering threat to America’s great democratic experiment. And predicted because everything Trump has said and done since losing the presidential election in November led inexorably to this final, shabby, shameful coda to his presidency.
For if you spend years lying to people and years telling them they are being cheated, you cannot feign surprise if they subsequently take you at your word and act in ways that could only – and even then only tenuously – be justified if you had actually been telling them the truth. The storming of the Capitol was not an aberration; it was the final proof of Trump’s presidency. The ruin to which all roads led.
And what a mortifying era it has been. A third-grade huckster somehow assumed the world’s greatest democratic office and, as was inevitable, disgraced it. Not the least of Joe Biden’s responsibilities to to oversee a cleansing fire to eliminate every last trace of Trumpism from the federal government. Once more, we may be thankful that the Democratic party was prudent enough to vote for an electable moderate rather than a nominee who might, despite everything, have lost to Trump.
This is where identity politics leads, however, and this is something all those who trade in it might care to ponder. That does not make every peddler of half-truths and imaginary grievances a mini-Trump, it merely places them on the same spectrum as this disgraceful president. It remains a warning, however; a glimpse of a cliff from which it is still possible to retreat. Not every American import is worthwhile.
Equally, those who too readily share Trump’s assessment of Boris Johnson as 'British Trump' might also, perhaps, dwell on the inadequacy of that charge. For all his failures, for all his shortcomings, indeed for all his manifest inability to perform the tasks ascribed him, the Prime Minister is not Trump and never has been. It debases our arguments to pretend otherwise. Here too, some perspective might be useful.
Biden’s presidency was not short on justification before yesterday but overnight it has cornered the market in that precious commodity. This is an opportunity and, perhaps, even a promise. Normalcy was reason enough for a Biden victory but reform has a fresh urgency today. For without reform, the American republic will not be renewed. Trumpism was always a whimper of decline, not strength; Biden’s task is to reimagine that American renewal.
To that end, the Republican party’s willingness to disgrace itself is ultimately an advantage, for it clears space in the centre of American politics where grown-ups may gather to mend matters. Biden has a freer hand than he did last week and he has greater moral authority too. If the Republican party – no longer the party of Lincoln – must be destroyed in the service of that renewal, then so be it. A sufficient portion of it is there to be taken anyway. A party which has space for Ted Cruz is beyond the pale in any case. Those who aided and abetted and excused and otherwise rolled the pitch for Trump should neither be forgotten nor forgiven. (That verdict might also be extended to Trump’s overseas admirers too. We saw you then and we see you still.)
It is, it should now be clear, over. Yesterday’s events were the last hurrah; a loser president leaves office on a losing note. But he, more than anyone else, has succeeded in marginalising his own keenest supporters. Until yesterday there was an argument for listening to and empathising with them. But they have torn down that case for sympathy or understanding themselves. For not everything may be accommodated.
The road to the presidency is so long and so haphazard that in a sense every president is an accidental one, for the journey to the White House depends on a greater measure of dumb luck than anyone cares to appreciate. But it may be that Joe Biden, a milquetoast president in so many ways and an improbable one in plenty of others, is also a fortunate one. Why? Because it seems possible that, in this crisis, the United States has stumbled upon a president unusually qualified for the moment in which he serves. Biden is a happy warrior but also a moderate one and it is this combination of attributes that America sorely needs now: a president who insists upon certain first principles of decency as an entry-level qualification but also one who is not by nature a partisan, less interested in his own victory than his opponents’ defeat.
After the inferno, there is the opportunity to plant again. Grow back, and grow back better. There are smaller challenges than that but also worse ones.