Americans have historically been fond of pounding their chests when proclaiming US “exceptionalism,” believing that what happens elsewhere in the world doesn’t happen here. That was until Donald Trump came steamrolling in. His supporters’ storming of the US Capitol on Wednesday was a perfect capstone to his tumultuous and torturous presidency. At his direction, the insurrectionists briefly had their way with a legislative body woefully unprepared to be physically attacked.
Mind you, when the Black Lives Matter movement came to town some months ago, legions of police and national guardsmen dressed in full battle gear lined the streets and monuments of Washington. This time, for some unknown reason (perhaps because of the skin color of most Trump supporters?), all the guardsmen seemed prepared to do was direct traffic, as they were purposely left unarmed. If the Black Lives Matter protesters had attempted to do what the Trump mob did, no doubt many of them would have been shot on sight. Instead, most of Trump’s supporters walked casually back to their hotels without being touched by law enforcement, even though their assault on American democracy is unprecedented in our modern history.
America Gets Rid of Trump, But Not Trumpism
It should therefore come as no surprise that much of the rest of the world has reacted with a combination of shock, horror and laughter. Indeed, such things are not supposed to happen in America. Could anyone blame the rest of the world for now referring to the United States as a banana republic? Over the past four years, US polity has exhibited many of the behavioral qualities of such a republic, including blatant tribalism, extreme partisanship and unbridled corruption. Trump has ensured that its electoral process has been reduced to a litany of lies, name-calling, finger-pointing and endless spinning. He has proven that he will literally do anything to remain in power — a true sign of a dictator in the making.
Such behavior has for many years been within the cone of possibility, given the depths of partisanship that has come to define the American political process. It just never descended to the levels it has during the Trump era. Now that most Americans have been well and truly shocked at the result and realize that it really can — and now does — happen here, it is time to put some guardrails in place to help ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. That will, however, require meaningful action on the part of lawmakers. Fortunately, since the Democrats now control the White House and the Congress, it may actually be possible.
It is up to them to do something about it. As a start, pass laws making it illegal for any member of the US government to brazenly lie, publicly incite agitation or promote violence. When it happens in the future, prosecute them. Approve laws that require every presidential candidate to disclose their tax returns and strip presidents of immunity from prosecution while they are in office. Place greater limits on what lobbyists and special interest groups can do in the halls of Congress. Only time will tell whether the Democrats have the courage to pass and enforce laws that prevent those promoting the enabling environment to continue to run amok without penalty.
America has dug itself into a very deep hole that will take many years, perhaps decades, to get out of. The question is, is it actually capable of doing so? One can now envision two terms to pass with a Democrat in the White House, but because the new Congress may squander the opportunity to do something truly meaningful, any good intentions may get lost in the ambitious legislative agenda Biden has in store.
But is there anything more important than preserving American nobility in the face of a crisis of confidence? The world needs an America it can believe in. America needs to invest real time, energy and resources in reestablishing the preeminence of truth and trust. It took generations to build it but just four years to destroy it.
Donald Trump’s tenure has proven just how low America can go, but it has also awakened the nation to the fact that if it veers just a little bit off course, the margins of error permit it to become just like so many other countries that never had the ability to proclaim exceptionalism in any form. If it can happen in America, it can certainly happen anywhere else. America must now prove to the world that it can pick itself up, dust itself off and stay on a path so many people in the world aspire to be on. It will take a Herculean effort on the part of President-elect Biden and the Democrats to do so. If they fail, it is arguable whether America can ever again claim to be exceptional.
*[Daniel Wagner is the author of “The Chinese Vortex: The Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on the World.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.