The reality-based wing of the Republicans must work with Biden

Has the “Make America Great Again” movement run out of steam?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: Police officers patrol a street leading to the U.S. Capitol on January 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The National Guard is expected to deploy more than 20,000 troops in and around the Capitol and many area businesses will remain closed for the period leading up to the January 20th inauguration of Joseph Biden as president. While there have been no specific threats to the Capitol, online extremist chatter has indicated that some people remain committed to disrupting events and protesting the election results.   Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
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On Wednesday, Joe Biden will become the 46th US President, but he is inheriting a political landscape more destabilised than at any time in a century and, arguably, since the Civil War.

This unprecedented, although long-festering, national rupture, along with the coronavirus and economic crises, provide Mr Biden a rare contemporary opportunity to achieve historic greatness. No recent US president has confronted such existential national challenges.

Yet he must traverse an exceptionally volatile minefield of bitter disputes, mutual incomprehension and unanswered – and possibly unanswerable – conundrums.

The paramount task, reforming and repairing the US political system, is probably unattainable in the context of present divisions. The creaky, sometimes barely functional and painfully anachronistic US political system has been exposed as vulnerable and ill-suited to modern democratic governance.

It is burdened with procedures and institutions that have become conducive to minority rule, legal vagaries that require honesty and good faith to function properly and the extreme difficulty of holding a president accountable. The guardrails haven't shattered, but they are alarmingly rickety and brittle.

The past few weeks demonstrated how realistically, with the connivance of a few well-placed state officials and federal judges, an incumbent US president could usurp an election while technically acting within the letter of the law, albeit in bad faith.

While many necessary reforms are obvious, they mostly require a set of political majorities to enact. So, they will probably have to wait.

Democrats also face a festering internal struggle between left-wing progressives and Mr Biden's centrists

Mr Biden's domestic agenda was salvaged by the Georgia runoffs that gave his party the narrowest control of the Senate. But his more ambitious economic recovery plans, such as a massive infrastructure overhaul initiative, will likely require some Republican support. Recent experience suggests that even national emergencies often don’t ensure Republican co-operation with a Democratic President.

The new president also faces a now solidly ultra-conservative Supreme Court poised to invalidate anything truly ambitious he secures.

Republicans will be guided by an increasingly bitter power struggle between diehard supporters and aspiring successors of outgoing President Donald Trump and much of the traditional party leadership increasingly eager to get rid of him.

The U.S. Capitol dome is seen past security fencing and barbed wire in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, as preparations take place for President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The US Capitol dome, secured and fenced with barbed wire in Washington. AP

The deadly January 6 mob assault on Congress instigated by Mr Trump and which resulted in his immediate and bipartisan second impeachment by the House of Representatives has provided a golden opportunity for them.

Unlike with his first impeachment a year ago, this time enough Republican senators may well vote to convict Mr Trump, strip him of post-presidential amenities and ban him from holding federal office again.

But it won't be easy. Mr Trump has effectively transformed his party into a kind of personality cult, as reflected by the 2020 Republican party “platform”, which merely pledged to follow his every lead.

Already his supporters are fighting back, attacking Congress from the outside, while inside it his House allies still trumpet the groundless myth of a "stolen election" and press to unseat Liz Cheney, the third ranking Republican in the house from her position of leadership because she voted to impeach the President.

Mr Trump remains immensely popular with the party base. But in the aftermath of the attack on Congress, his general public popularity has plummeted to unheard of depths for any sitting president, a mere 29 per cent approval.

Logic suggests the “Make America Great Again” movement has finally run out of steam. But millions of Americans have embraced irrational articles of faith such as the “stolen election” myth and even the fantastical conspiracy theory QAnon. So perhaps not.

Democrats also face a festering internal struggle between left-wing progressives and Mr Biden's centrists. It's relatively subdued at the moment, especially compared to the Republican internecine vendetta, but that probably won't last.

It's widely recognised that the US is culturally and politically divided between coastal and urban liberal areas versus mainly interior and rural or exurban conservative ones. These Americans inhabit separate and conflicting information ecosystems that produce increasingly irreconcilable narratives and perceptions.

Mr Biden wants to begin healing this schism. He knows he can’t get Americans to agree on much, but he seeks to restore basic trust among compatriots and in national institutions, and to re-establish a set of commonly accepted baseline facts from which even sharp political disagreements can be reasonably contested.

Yet as long as powerful actors believe they benefit from propagating falsehoods intended to produce discord, and from perpetuating the dysfunctional political structures that stoke such bitterness, real healing may prove elusive.

Americans are approaching a national schism so dire – and deeply rooted in deceptions that have been yoked to genuine, deep-seated fears about demographic, cultural, economic and technological transformation – that some form of "truth and reconciliation" process may be required.

There are several restorative initiatives that could, or at least should, be adopted. A major infrastructure project and other measures could bolster the middle class, especially outside major cities. A host of actions could reverse the unconscionable economic stratification between the super-rich and everyone else. Mandatory national service could act as a generational unity programme. But adopting any of these would be very difficult.

Reasserting the indispensability of truth is even more important, and yet far more daunting.

Truth can be ineffectual when people fear reality. Emotionally satisfying lies become appealing, and eventually delusion a way of life.

Ultimately, irrationality triumphs and up becomes down – Just as it did on January 6 when Capitol police officers were attacked and one murdered in the name of "law and order” and Congress besieged by insurrectionary hordes chanting "USA".

Truth must be shown to produce tangible benefits. Otherwise, seductive, poisonous lies will remain potent among the enraged and the fearful.

The reality-based wing of the Republican leadership must recognise that its only hope of prevailing against the blitzkrieg of unhinged lies besieging its party and country is to abandon obstructionism for now and to work with Mr Biden to demonstrate that truth can deliver significant results for most Americans.

Otherwise, the attacks on the election, the Constitution and Congress will be just the beginning.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National