‘Storming the Capitol is the finale of an unworthy presidency from start to finish’

08 Jan 2021

OPINION - Trump has turned out to be a president with a blatant disregard for the separation of powers and the US constitution. According to Peter van der Heiden, political scientist and lecturer in American politics at Radboud University. 'If Trump says he won, then he won. And this means the newly elected president is illegal – and the rule of law may, no, must be restored by the mob.'

Four years ago, I wrote about an attempted coup by a president who refused to accept the election results. Did I have the power to predict the future? No, not at all. The villain in my story at the time was not Donald Trump, but Yahya Jammeh, former dictator of The Gambia. And the disturbances in his faltering transfer of power were insignificant compared with the recent antics of the current American president, who wants to drag down with him the Republican party, American democracy and the unity of the country. Unprecedented in the history of the United States, but a fitting end to Trump’s presidency.

Strongman language

Of course, Trump’s term of office did not have to end like this, but it’s not that surprising that it did. From the moment when he descended a golden escalator to announce his candidacy, it was clear that we weren’t dealing with the greatest Democrat here. America was broken, according to Trump, and: ‘I alone can fix it’. Typical strongman language – the great leader who, as long as he was not hindered by democratic red tape, could and would solve all problems. In his inaugural address he sketched a US on the brink of collapse, ‘American carnage’. And from day one he has incited his supporters to distrust in particular people who are different (the Democrats, blacks, Muslims, Hispanics, etc.) and to support him unconditionally.

From day one he has incited his supporters to distrust in particular people who are different and to support him unconditionally

This Trump-fuelled distrust is at the heart of yesterday’s events in Washington DC. Since the elections in 2016 he has dismissed his opponents as un-American, as people whose name shouldn’t be on a ballot paper, but who should be in prison. There were calls for ‘Lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton, then ‘Lock them up’ about father and son Biden. Trump’s adversaries were not political opponents, but traitors and criminals, unworthy of America. This creates a climate in which people no longer just have different opinions, but deny one another the right to their own opinion. It is not for nothing that Trump and his Trumpists call their loyal following ‘patriots’. They are the true Americans – the others are worthless.

Mob rule

In this kind of climate, it doesn’t take much to trigger an explosion and Trump has never been afraid to light the fuse. There is no evidence for his continuous claims that there has been large-scale ballot fraud and that the election was stolen from him and his patriots. These claims have been rejected more than sixty times by various judges (including the Supreme Court), but for the hard core of his supporters this has little or no meaning. If Trump says he won, then he won. And this means that the newly elected president is illegal – and the rule of law may, no, must be restored by the mob. ‘These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots’, Trump tweeted – thus laying the blame for the disturbances with his opponents.

What do you do with a president who calls on his supporters to protest against the election results and to march on Congress? As this is exactly what Trump did with first his call to come to Washington on 6 January, and later with his speech to these demonstrators to fight the election results in Congress. Trump has turned out to be a president with a blatant disregard for the separation of powers (with the exception of executive power) and, perhaps even worse, for the constitution that he has probably never even read. In this he is backed by a large group of Americans (some of whom who stormed the Capital yesterday will face long prison sentences), and a fortunately declining group of Republican representatives. According to President-elect Biden, the behaviour of his outgoing predecessor was ‘bordering on sedition’, a serious offence for which Trump could be prosecuted after 20 January.

Impeachment?

Yesterday evening, Democratic representative Omar Ilhan tweeted that she was busy drafting articles of impeachment. Of course, there is not enough time to actually impeach Trump, although his behaviour yesterday and in the weeks leading up to it offer ample reason to do so. An impeachment, if followed by a conviction, would mean that Donald Trump cannot be elected again as president (or hold any elected office for that matter) and he can therefore say goodbye to his dream of a possible comeback in 2024.

The Republicans will no longer support him after 20 January – as made clear by his kamikaze reaction yesterday. It could result in a split, between a traditional Republican party and a, probably larger, Trumpist party – neither of which will, however, have a chance as long as the Democrats keep their ranks closed. In any event, history was made yesterday, with a violent and unworthy finale to an unworthy presidency from start to finish.

The book Weirdo’s in het Witte Huis (Weirdos in the White House) was published last year; Van der Heiden wrote this book about Trump and other ‘crazy American presidents’. 

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