The great American fall

In the US, imprisonment is not a barrier to running for president

It is said that when America sneezes the world catches a cold. If Donald Trump becomes president, then the world would get pneumonia. Ukraine shivers at the thought of the US withdrawal, China braces for hostility, Iran for war, Palestine for abandonment, the Middle East for confrontation, Africa for insults, environmentalists for climate cold-storage, the west for browbeating and the whole world for endless disruptions. An American diplomat told this correspondent, “The world worries, but Americans worry more. We are so polarised. If Trump wins, we anticipate civil war.”

Polarisation predates Trump, but he has deepened, widened, legitimised and weaponised internal divisions. Republican senator Mike Rounds says, “Trump recognised the anger brewing in American society and seized on it for political gain, but it is a dangerous path for the nation’s leaders.” The January 6 attack proves Trump’s violent words beget violent actions. The battleground for boorish behaviour is now the Republican Party, or rather the “Trump Rump” that has captured the Grand Old Party, driving out respectable Republicans like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney. “There’s been a coarsening of political discourse in America,” laments Romney.

The foot soldiers of this coarsening are Trump loyalists and first-time representatives who introduce into the US Congress Trump’s winning strategy of “threats, lies and insults”. The ousted, pro-Trump speaker, Kevin McCarthy, kidney-punched Republican opponent Tim Burchett in the corridors. Burchett spat at McCarthy angrily, “You’re a bully. You’ve got no guts. What kind of chicken move is that? You’re pathetic man!” The use of abuse “is getting worse and worse”, despairs Democrat Debbie Stabenow.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Markwayne Mullin, a first-term Republican senator and Trump ally, challenged labour leader Sean O’Brien to a fistfight during a Senate hearing for calling him a “clown” and a “fraud”. Leaping to his feet, Mullin taunted his rival: “Stand your butt up.” Republican Representative Darrell Issa rebuked Trump acolyte and first-timer Marjorie Taylor Greene for lacking “maturity and experience”. She insulted him with the P-word made infamous by Trump. Said Democrat Joe Manchin, “It looked like a third world country or a banana republic. We are the superpower; people look to us for leadership!”

Analysts say this roughneck behaviour is inspired by Trump’s 2016 incitement to cheering supporters: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. I’ll pay the legal fees.” Loyalists should get a second opinion from Trump lawyer Rudi Giuliani, now stranded with $1.4 million in unpaid legal fees.

While the world (Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu excepted) worries about his possible re-election, Trump gazes inwards, vowing vengeance in his second term: “I am your retribution,” he thunders. Slamming the “threat from within”, Trump promises if re-elected, he would go after those who engaged in the “witch hunt” against him and “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”. Disturbingly, “vermin” is a loaded word used by Adolf Hitler to dehumanise and exterminate Jews. Trump’s words are troubling because of the US’s history of internal bloodletting that includes atrocities against indigenous people and African-American slaves, Japanese-baiting and McCarthyism.

Are Trump’s comments off-the-cuff barks or dog-whistles calculated to incite his loyalists to attack? His opponents don’t care; they have had enough. They pray his court cases will land him in jail before the elections. But Trump’s luck is legendary. In the US, imprisonment is not a barrier to running for president; he could even govern from jail. Wonder if this is allowed in a “third world country”.

Pratap is an author and journalist.