The problem with coverage of this week’s anniversary of the events of 6 January 2021 is that too much of it was written in the past tense. True, the attempted insurrection that saw a violent mob storm Capitol Hill in order to overturn a democratic election was a year ago, but the danger it poses is clear and present – and looms over the future. For the grim truth is that while Donald Trump is the last US president, he may also be the next. What’s more, the menace of Trumpism is darker now than it ever was before.
This grim prognosis rests on two premises: the current weakness of Joe Biden and the current strength of his predecessor. Start with the latter, evidence of which comes from the contrast in how Trump’s fellow Republican politicians talked about 6 January at the time and how they talk – or don’t talk – about it now.
At the time, they were clear that the outgoing president had crossed a line, that he was “practically and morally responsible” for the rioters who had marched on Congress and built gallows for those politicians who stood in their way. Many of those Republicans had pleaded with Trump, sending text messages begging him to call off the mob. Now, though, they either say nothing – refusing even to show up for a moment’s silence in memory of those killed on 6 January – or they rush to apologise for having, rightly, branded that day a “violent terrorist attack”.
That’s because they fear Trump and they fear his supporters. In order not to rouse their fury, they have to mouth the new shibboleths: they have to accept the big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and accept that political violence is not to be condemned but indulged when it comes from your own side.
It means that Trump’s tactics, his authoritarianism, have not shamed or repelled Republicans – as some hoped might be the result of 6 January – but infected them. What was once the eccentric stance of the lunatic fringe – that Trump won an election that more than 60 different court judgments ruled he had lost – has become the required credo of one of America’s two governing parties, believed by two-thirds of Republican voters.
More alarming still, surveys show 30% of Republicans say that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Word the question slightly differently, and that figure rises to 40%. Not for nothing did the editor of the New Yorker this week ask if a second American civil war is coming.
You might imagine that all this should secure Biden’s position. Surely the majority of the US electorate will rally to the message he set out so trenchantly in a speech on Thursday taking direct aim at Trump and the “web of lies” he had spread to soothe his own “bruised ego”. Surely they will recoil from a Republican party that is breaking from the fundamentals of democracy. Surely they’ll turn away from the party of Trump and flock to the Democrats as the only reliable democrats. But that is not how it’s playing out.
Biden has the lowest approval rating of any US president at this stage of his term, barring Trump himself. He is trailing especially badly with the independent voters who decide elections. Polls suggest that Democrats will lose seats in November’s midterm contests, thereby losing control of the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate too. That will leave Biden paralysed, unable to pass any legislation at all without Republican approval.
Which is why 2022 is the make-or-break year for the Biden presidency. If it breaks, the ground will be laid for the return of Trump in 2024. Except this will be a Trump with fewer restraints than held him back before, one who now openly espouses the autocrat’s creed that elections are illegitimate unless he wins them, that he alone should hold office and that violence is justified to maintain his power.
Republicans are working hard to unlevel the playing field in Trump’s favour. Republican-run states are rewriting electoral law to make it harder to vote – curbing the early or postal balloting often used by low-income and minority voters – and handing Republican-controlled state legislatures extra powers over the running of elections. They want to remove one of the safety mechanisms that ensured the integrity of the 2020 contest: fair-minded election officials. To that end, they are setting about filling those all-important positions with Trump loyalists. Put simply, they want fewer people voting and their people counting.
Current Republican strength is a combination, then, of both the resilience of public support, despite the party’s submission to Trumpism, and its ability to game the system in its favour. But it is also a function of Biden’s weakness. It’s worth recalling here how shaky the president’s position was from the start, seeking to govern with a diminished, razor-thin Democratic majority in the House and a 50-50 deadlocked Senate. Despite that, he has passed some major bills and made some big, even transformative moves. As the former speechwriter to George W Bush David Frum puts it: “In 11 months, Biden has done more with 50 Democratic senators than Barack Obama did with 57.”
And yet, it’s not enough. Biden passed a vital infrastructure bill, but his larger package of social spending and action on the climate crisis is stalled. His poll ratings took a hit with the speed of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan after August’s chaotic US withdrawal. And his 4 July declaration that America could celebrate its “independence from Covid-19” now looks horribly premature.
You can make a strong case that none of these things is Biden’s fault. His spending bill is stalled thanks to two Democratic senators who simply refuse to get on board. (Given their politics, Biden probably deserves credit for getting them to back him as often as they have.) The withdrawal from Afghanistan was under a deal agreed by Trump; indeed, Trump’s exit would have come earlier. As for Covid, what could any president do when more than a quarter of the country – overwhelmingly Trump supporters – refuse to get vaccinated?
But politics is an unforgiving business. Voters are used to blaming the man in the White House, especially when they face rising bills and daily costs as they do now. To turn things around, Biden can start with passing that key spending bill, even if it means stripping it of some cherished, and necessary, programmes. Voting rights legislation, to block those continuing Republican efforts to load the dice yet further in their own favour, is also a must. One way or another, Democrats have to go into the autumn midterms with a record to run on. Defeat would not guarantee the return of Trump two years later, but it would make it much more likely. That is a prospect to chill the blood of all those who care about America – and democracy.
- Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
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