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Donald Trump is guilty as sin, but will likely be acquitted. Will Americans learn anything from their flirtation with fascism?


How different would it have been if the Trump-inspired rioters who prowled through the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 chanting “Hang Mike Pence” had actually discovered where the Vice President was hiding, as they almost did — and lynched him that Wednesday afternoon as they wanted to do from that solitary noose hanging on the makeshift wooden gallows they set up on the west side of the building?

How different? Probably not much different.

Donald Trump would still have been impeached, but most of the Republican senators — who will be remembered forever more in U.S. history books as this century’s most cowardly and corrupt politicians — would still have acquitted him.

But that’s no longer the point.

A hundred years from now, when scholars look back at the insanity of these times, they will shake their heads in horror at how close American democracy after more than two centuries of life came to dying.

But I suspect they will also marvel at the country’s resilience and will take note of the steely determination of a majority of Americans, not only Democrats, to fight back from the brink.

The revelations from this week’s impeachment trial were quite breathtaking. From both video and text sources, the conspiracy led by the former U.S. president to reverse the democratic will of the American voter was described in dramatic detail.

But it wasn’t only an attempted overthrow of U.S. democracy. It was a violent, racist, vulgar insurrection triggered by Trump’s words and actions that — except for sheer luck — could have easily resulted in the brutal murder of Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others.

Yet Donald Trump, guilty as sin, will be acquitted. Why shouldn’t that matter?

There is a reason. His acquittal will be meaningless in the long term because it will be seen as an inevitable outcome of a dysfunctional political system.

In other words, it won’t matter because, as I suspect, it doesn’t matter. Public opinion polls are already suggesting that Americans overwhelmingly believe that he was guilty.

But what will matter, ultimately, is whether Americans learn from it by doing everything in their power to ensure that their country never again comes so close to the brink.

And that won’t be easy.

There was a reason why President Joe Biden was so determined this week to signal to Americans that he wasn’t focused on the impeachment trial. Instead, he directed his energies almost obsessively to the financial relief for the millions of Americans who are desperate for it.

Biden knows that, after four years of Trump’s inept and narcissistic rule, he has to show Americans that governments can work to help people. He needs to prove that his administration and Democrats in general can respond to the genuine feelings of despair and misery among so many Americans.

It has been in the interests of Trump, his allies and much of the Republican party that government, in their view, is ineffective government — largely aimed at making the rich and the entitled … richer and more entitled.

In an excellent essay last month in The New York Times, Ezra Klein wrote that “President Biden takes office with a ticking clock.”

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With the Democrats’ Congressional margins so thin, the threat of Trumpism returning — or something like it that “will be far worse next time” — is real unless Biden proves himself by next year’s midterm elections in November, 2022.

“That gives Democrats two years to govern,“ Klein writes. “Two years to prove that the American political system can work. Two years to show Trumpism was an experiment that need not be repeated … To stop it, Democrats need to reimagine their role. They cannot merely defend the political system. They must rebuild it.”

In Biden’s first effort to rebuild it, he is facing Republican backlash for his $1.9 trillion economic plan that is an ambitious program of direct payments to Americans, funds to improve pandemic treatment and subsidies to state and local governments to avoid the layoffs of police and health workers.

The Republicans say that $1.9 trillion is too much. Yet this amount was the overall cost of Donald Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 that largely enriched corporations and wealthy Americans — including many Republican lawmakers and Trump’s family and friends.

Yes, the political system in the U.S. is badly broken, but it can be fixed. And there were more signs this week that even, incredibly, some Republicans finally want to do just that.

Thousands of Republicans have been reacting to the storming of the Capitol and its aftermath by leaving the party, according to The New York Times.

An analysis of January voting records found that nearly 140,000 Republicans in the 25 states where data existed had quit the party, and the number of departures was accelerating in response to the impeachment trial.

For its part, the Reuters news agency reported that more than 120 former Republican officials held a conference call last Friday to explore the feasibility of creating a centre-right breakaway party that would run their own candidates in some races but would back centre-right Republicans or Democrats in other cases.

America’s diseased political system — bloated by special interest money, favouring the rich and incentivizing extremism — won’t be saved by any one dramatic action.

But if it takes January’s catastrophic flirtation with fascism in Washington to have knocked some sense into the American body politic, then history will remember this as a good week — regardless of how a disgraced group of craven Republican senators vote.

Tony Burman, formerly head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English, is a freelance contributing foreign affairs columnist for the Star. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyBurman





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