Can the US democratic system pass the big test up ahead?

If Democrats lose control of the House in next year's midterms, Republicans will end investigations into Donald Trump's role

US President Joe Biden at the 40th annual national peace officers memorial service at the Capitol in Washington, on October 16. The President and first lady honoured law enforcement officers who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2019 and 2020. EPA
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Democratic institutions don't amount to much if they can't defend themselves against concerted and co-ordinated attacks from within. Otherwise, they are just temporary, and remarkably weak, conventions, asking to be dismantled by the first effective politician with the temerity and ruthlessness to try.

The US democratic system is being tested in precisely that way for the first time since the Civil War.

In recent weeks, it has become all-too clear that, following the last election, former president Donald Trump, many of his close associates and much of the Republican Party, engaged in an unprecedented, extraconstitutional and often probably illegal, campaign to overturn the result, and thereby obliterate the American constitutional process.

This means, ominously, that large parts of the US political establishment on the right are now demonstrably comfortable with dispensing with the constitutional order and the rule of law in order to grab and hold on to political power.

That is not exactly news, although the extent of the attack on US democracy immediately following the election has become far more detailed and grim in recent weeks as new evidence has emerged. One report, by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats, points to a senior official from the Justice Department meeting Mr Trump more than once in late 2020. Emerging details flesh out a picture of an unrelenting campaign by Mr Trump and his allies to overrule the will of the voters. It is becoming terrifyingly evident that these coup-plotters and would-be autocrats are poised to get away with it.

Such an outcome would only reaffirm the validity and appeal of such an extraconstitutional strategy. It would encourage, if not guarantee, a second effort – a more organised and effective one – to sweep aside the US democratic system.

As things stand, those responsible for this assault have sustained no consequences and, in many cases, have been richly rewarded.

Mr Trump remains unchallenged in his control of the Republican Party, and received vast contributions. He is not just unscathed. On the right, he is supreme.

Barely a handful of Republicans continue to hold him responsible for the attack on the election outcome and the January 6 failed attempt to violently stop Congress from confirming Joe Biden's victory.

But most Republican leaders act as if that never happened or doesn't matter.

Charles Grassley, who at 88 is the oldest member of the Senate – there since 1981, no less and seeking yet another term – last week fawned before Mr Trump’s endorsement, declaring: "If I didn't accept the endorsement of a person who has 91 per cent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn't be too smart. I'm smart enough to accept that endorsement."

Mr Grassley has been very critical of Mr Trump in the past, but his statement makes perfect sense, assuming the only thing that matters to him is to win over Republican voters in Iowa and to stay in the Senate for another term, until he is a sprightly 95-years-old. The idea that anything else could possibly be relevant does not appear to have occurred to him as intelligent or rational.

This same logic has guided the traditional conservative leadership of the Republican Party, headed by Senator Mitch McConnell, virtually all of which has succumbed to Mr Trump purely because of his sway over their voters.

Apparently, the only thing of concern to them is that they may not win without his support and therefore they will bow to him. They do not appear to possess any values other than personal advantage.

The US is in uncharted legal and political territory, because no one has tried to subvert the system in this way

Yet if, as Mr Trump maintains, Mr Biden was only elected because of the biggest political fraud of all time, then the entire US system would be a heinous confidence trick. Calling this sentiment unpatriotic would be a huge understatement.

Not only did Mr Trump and his allies seek to get Congress to block confirmation of the votes, and state legislatures and officials to overturn local outcomes, and the Justice Department to falsely denounce them as fraudulent, when all else failed they unleashed the January 6 physical attack on Congress.

Yet nine months after the attack, and almost a year after the effort to overturn the election began, the House of Representatives is still just starting to try to uncover what happened. Its investigative committee has issued subpoenas to compel testimony from former Trump officials and other coup plotters.

That is good. But there is every reason to fear it will all be in vain.

American courts are notoriously slow and invariably play into the hands of obstructionists. Mr Trump has “ordered” everyone subpoenaed not to co-operate.

There will be a test case: Steve Bannon, former Trump campaign chief and White House strategist – who was later pardoned by the former president for allegedly embezzling $1 million from credulous contributors to a shameless "build the wall" scam – has therefore refused to co-operate. That provides a low-hanging fruit for the House.

Mr Trump is claiming all subpoenaed individuals must refuse to co-operate because he is invoking "executive privilege," a convention that holds that presidents need frank and open advice from their aides, which therefore need to be shielded from investigation. But courts have held this privilege from testimony and investigation does not apply to criminal matters.

Moreover, Mr Trump is invoking the privilege after he has left the presidency, which has never been attempted, and Mr Biden has declined it. Worst, Mr Bannon had not worked for the White House for years before the coup effort.

The US is in uncharted legal and political territory, because no one has remotely tried to subvert the system like this in US history, and perhaps no one has imagined it either.

Whether the courts will help the House enforce its subpoenas remains to be seen. And if the Democrats lose control of the House in next year's midterms, Republicans will certainly simply dissolve the Committees and end all such investigations because it involves their colleagues and leader.

That raises the prospect of no consequences for the culprits, except the aforementioned positive ones. If American institutions prove incapable of defending themselves against attacks from within, that invites a repetition of the assault, with far greater chances of success.

The cliche holds that “the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact”. More than nine months after the January 6 attack and the earlier campaign against the 2020 election, there is a growing fear it just might prove to be exactly that for American democratic institutions.

Published: October 19, 2021, 7:00 AM