No Russian cyberspooks, no Chinese spies, no jihadi terrorists – no external enemies of any kind could have brought as much harm to the United States as its own self-inflicted wounds.
I spent last evening taking calls from friends around the world, including a senior diplomat of an American ally who asked me what I thought of the first evacuation of Capitol Hill since the British invaded in 1812. “I’m horrified,” I said. “So is the entire free world,” the diplomat replied.
There are belly-laughs in Beijing this morning. The Chinese government daily Global Times taunted:
... The world is watching ... the country that they used to admire descend into a huge mess. Chinese observers said this is a “Waterloo to US international image,” and the US has totally lost legitimacy and qualification to interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs with the excuse of “democracy” in the future.
[[ When protestors in HK occupied their legislature, US propaganda hailed it as a victory for democracy... when the same thing happens here it is declared domestic terrorism. ]]
It’s actually worse than the Global Times editors think.
If it were only a matter of Trump’s misbehavior, this disaster would be survivable. The trouble is that the popular belief in a vast and nefarious conspiracy has a foundation in fact: Starting before Trump’s term in office his political opponents abused the surveillance powers of the intelligence community to concoct a black legend of Russian collusion on the part of his campaign. The mainstream media, staffed overwhelmingly by Trump’s enemies, slavishly repeated this black legend until large parts of the population refused to believe anything it read in the newspapers or saw on television.
The leadership of the Democratic Party, its allied media, and the Bush-Romney wing of the Republican Party decided to play dirty to expunge an obstreperous, incalculable outsider from the political system. And in doing so, this combination, America’s establishment, destroyed public trust in the Congress and the media. It’s no surprise that two out of five Americans now believe that a vast conspiracy rigged the 2020 presidential elections.
The spectacle of a serving president inciting a mob against the US Congress to stop the certification of his successor held the world in morbid fascination. But the biggest problem isn’t Trump’s misbehavior, egregious as it is, but the eruption of popular rancor against the constitutional system that has made America a model of governance for the world. Leftist mobs last spring burned police stations and destroyed shopping districts in a rampage against supposed systemic racism, and Trump supporters desecrated the Holy of Holies of American democracy, the chamber of the United States Senate.
Behind the minority of violent actors is a majority that believes the system is rigged against them – whoever “them” might be. The Democrats say that the system is rigged against African-Americans, women, and other minorities, and the Republicans say that a global elite has rigged the system against middle-income Americans. “Rigged elections” has the same resonance as “systemic racism.” These by-words imply that disagreement is prima facie proof of villainy: To deny that there is systemic racism is to be a racist, and to deny that elections are rigged is evidence of complicity in a vast plot.
A quarter of Americans believe that Covid-19 was a planned conspiracy of one kind or another, according to the Pew Survey; just under half of Americans with a high school education or less believe this. One out of three believes that a “deep state” is trying to undermine Trump. I reject the first and believe the second: my colleagues at Asia Times and I have regular access to virologists in a number of countries with scientific credentials and no political agenda to pursue, and can sift scientific evidence and opinion. By contrast, I know personally enough of the actors in the so-called “deep state” to conclude that they are acting in concert to wreck the Trump Administration. I also know many of the writers who have exposed the “deep state,” including Andrew McCarthy and Lee Smith, to trust their bona fides. I denounced this conspiracy repeatedly in these pages, most recently in an essay entitled “The Treason of the Spooks” (Dec. 4, 2020). For details, see Andrew McCarthy’s 2019 book Ball of Collusion, which I reviewed in Asia Times, or Lee Smith’s The Plot against the President.
Sometimes there is a conspiracy and sometimes there isn’t. But Trump’s political supporters, bombarded daily by fake news about Russian collusion and other alleged misbehavior, have come to distrust any criticism of their president.
If Trump was right that the whole impeachment business was an extra-legal conspiracy on the part of his enemies, why shouldn’t they believe that the election was rigged? This is a lose-lose proposition. Assume that Trump is right, and the election was rigged. In that case the United States has become a banana republic and American democracy a twisted joke. Assume that he is wrong, and that nonetheless – as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) intoned to justify his refusal to accept the election outcome – 39% of Americans nonetheless believe that election has rigged, because their president told them it was rigged. In that case the public trust that makes democracy possible has collapsed. The people, as Bertolt Brecht observed after demonstrations against the Soviet puppet government in East Germany, have lost the confidence of the government, and the simplest course of action would be for the government to dissolve and for the people to elect a new one.
... Americans are frightened for their future, with good reason. They see enormous rewards accrue to a handful of tech companies, and stagnation and decay in large parts of the rest of the country. Donald Trump gave them a frisson of hope, and the Establishment reaction against Trump confirms the popular suspicion that a malevolent global elite has seized control of their country. Trump shamefully exploited this suspicion to direct a popular storm against the Congress.
The US is living off borrowing from the rest of the world. Its net international investment position fell by about $12 trillion during the past 10 years. And the federal deficit is now 15% of gross domestic product, the highest since World War II. What can’t go on forever, won’t (in the late Herb Stein’s famous formulation).