Has the American Constitution survived? Yes. It is intact after four years of Donald Trump, and can surely endure a few days more of this sleazy, shameless, self-obsessed fantasist.
Trump himself has belatedly changed his tune, declaring on Thursday evening:
“My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”
His new message is so at variance with his normal aggressive and provocative tone that it can only be understood as an admission of defeat.
The President has been forced to concede that his outrageous attempts to defy the election result in the courts have failed. So has the invasion by his supporters of Capitol Hill.
He now reproves those rioters for having “defiled the seat of our democracy”. His position has become so hopeless that he plays the statesman.
This tardy repentance should not obscure his record as a campaigner who got to the top by defying every rule of decent behaviour.
Trump is in some respects unique. He is the first President who never served either in the armed forces, or in some other federal office, before entering the White House.
He is also the first President to be a reality TV star, a genre in which the worse one behaves, the better one does in the ratings.
And he is the first President to master the art of using Twitter to set the agenda, communicate direct with his supporters, enthuse them in his cause and smear anyone who opposes him.
As he himself told Fox News in March 2017: “I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter.”
This vulgarian from the suburbs, with his horrible buildings, his use of the law to sue anyone unwise enough to enter into any business dealings with him, his utter lack of concern with the truth, his merciless contempt for upholders of civilised conduct, was for several decades an embarrassment to decent New Yorkers, before becoming an embarrassment to decent Americans everywhere.
The pictures which went round the world of the Capitol being invaded by his supporters were a monstrous embarrassment, and Trump was to blame for inciting this outrage.
It appears he will be the chief loser from this final attempt to prosper by behaving worse than anyone else. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes, the Trump spell has been broken.
But as Trump leaves the stage, it would be foolish to seek comfort in the idea that he was a mere barbarian, who for a short time managed by some fluke to capture the Republican Party.
Trump was more cunning than that. As a political opponent, he was persistently underestimated by naive Democrats, and indeed by naive journalists on America’s most famous newspapers, who supposed that simply by demonstrating he was a liar they could destroy him.
He defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by becoming the chosen instrument of revenge of scorned provincial America against the rich, condescending liberals on the East and West coasts who believe in abortion and same-sex marriage and racial equality.
The more distressing Trump’s behaviour became to those liberals, the better he pleased his supporters. The more uncouth he was, and the more racist in his references to Moslems, Mexicans and Barack Obama, the louder his angry and excluded voters cheered.
The Washington demonstrations this week are, one hopes, a final, pitiful gesture by those supporters, rounding off his presidency in an entirely fitting manner.
But it would be foolish to regard the invasion of Capitol Hill as the end of the problem. For Trump appealed to emotions and to a constituency which have existed since the foundation of the Republic.
Consider this passage, from a letter written in 1787:
“What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”
That was Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and from 1801-09 served as the third President.
This Founding Father, one of the greatest intellects ever to apply his mind to the problem of creating and maintaining the United States, was an admirer of the French Revolution, and his defence of revolutionary violence has been interpreted with disastrous literalness by terrorists such as the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 murdered 168 people by blowing up a federal building.
The generally elevated language and conduct of the Founding Fathers was not, unfortunately, maintained by their successors. The seventh President, Andrew Jackson, in office from 1829-37, was a vindictive brute with a genius for appealing to angry frontiersmen who felt looked down upon by the folks in Washington.
The promise to purify Washington is one of the oldest in American politics. Trump plugged himself into the anti-federal tradition, the deep-seated belief that the Federal Government wants to take people’s freedom away, seize their guns and trample on their cherished beliefs.
During the 2008 presidential election, I reported on a rally by Sarah Palin, the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate, in Chillicothe, Ohio, a charming old town which from 1803-10 served as the first capital of that state:
Mrs Palin attacked the Los Angeles Times for refusing to release a video tape of Mr Obama on which he may or may not have made some pro-Palestinian remarks: “If there’s a Pulitzer Prize category for excellence in kowtowing, the Los Angeles Times is probably going to win it.”
As Mrs Palin beamed her “would you believe it” smile and the crowd cheered her on, an angry man turned towards the press enclosure and shouted, “Do some investigation, media.”
Mrs Palin had touched on a grave matter, for as she told her fans, on the tape in question “some very derogatory things were said about Israel.”
To get some faint idea of the significance of the word “Israel” in American politics, and especially in Christian evangelical circles, it is worth quoting a conversation I had with one of Mrs Palin’s supporters. I asked this friendly and sincere woman if she thought Mr Obama was a Christian, to which she replied: “I don’t believe he is. Just the things I’ve been hearing about him, he’s a Muslim.”
Me: “But he’s not a Muslim.”
Friendly woman: “But the church that he was in, they were slamming Israel, and if you’re not for Israel that’s God’s chosen nation. If you’re against Israel you’re against God.”
I was reminded of the words I had heard earlier that morning while driving through the beautiful Ohio countryside, from a preacher on a Christian radio station who urged his flock to vote Republican and condemned Mr Obama as a Marxist, an apostate, a hypocrite and a viper.
On the subject of abortion, the preacher said in a voice of doom: “You can suck their brains out but it’s not murder because the Government has sanctioned it. It’s just butchery…mutilation…sin.”
Trump was a more skilful version of Palin, and has taken longer than she did to blow up. He will not be the last huckster who sets out to make himself the champion of angry, disregarded, unfashionable America.
Conservatives can rejoice that Trump is leaving the stage, but had better not forget his followers will be looking for a new leader.
Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Presidents.