Throughout his presidency, I have waited for the moment when Donald Trump overstepped the mark, causing him to alienate a large part of his support base. There were moments when I thought he had reached such a point, but I was proved wrong each time. But the events last week in Washington are surely that moment. His presidency is nearly over anyway, of course, but he is surely unlikely to come back from this.
Of course an astonishing number of Americans thought that the storming of Congress was justified, but the Republican coalition is still breaking up, and it is likely to reform without Mr Trump in control. You could tell Mr Trump was in trouble when he read out his statement disowning the protesters and conceding that he would hand over to the new administration. He normally doubles down; he does not do light-footed manoeuvre.
What happened? It was very clear from even before the election that Mr Trump would try to cling to power if he lost. His plan to do so amounted to a coup, but one that maintained some vestiges of legality. He thought he could mobilise Republican Congressmen and state administrators, and sympathetic judges to annul the state election results he didn’t like, and substitute more congenial ones. For the most part they did not cooperate (the Congressmen being a shameful exception), because Mr Trump could not provide them with any serious evidence to work with, and they had too much respect for the rule of law, or at any rate understood that the risks for them personally were far too high. His last chance was on Wednesday, when Congress was due to ratify the election results. He organised a march of his supporters on the Capitol. What was Mr Trump trying to do? Here it gets murky. His hope may have been to intimidate the law-makers into overturning the election results. He may simply have wanted a spectacular demonstration of the strength of feeling on his side to sustain the betrayal narrative, from which he could build his comeback. If you want to build a conspiracy theory you can easily find enough to work on. After he lost the election Mr Trump cleared out the senior appointees of the Defence department and put in complete loyalists. The Washington National Guard was under the control of the Defence department, but it had not been mobilised for trouble, as it had been for the Black Lives Matter protests.
But it looks as if there was no clear plan. Once the protesters got into the building they did not know what to do. This was the worst possible outcome for Mr Trump. The protesters engaged in vandalism and showed general disrespect for one of the United States’s most hallowed institutions without achieving anything more than a delay to proceedings. This was fine by those of Mr Trump’s base driven by a hate for those institutions and of revolutionary intent: the white supremacists, the QAnon conspiracy theorists and the wild fringe in general. But a large part of the Republican coalition prefers to see these people as a tiresome sideshow. For many conservative Americans, having somebody dressed in a bison outfit leading the way is not a good look. Funnily enough, if the protestors had been met by a robust police and National Guard presence, it would probably have worked much better for Mr Trump – they could blame failure on the “deep state”. The plan had not been thought through and it lapsed into farce, albeit a farce in which several people were killed.
That is very revealing. Many people claim that Donald Trump is a fascist. It is perfectly true that there are many common threads between Trumpism and fascism. The cult of personality, the demand for personal loyalty amongst officials, the disrespect for the rule of law and political convention. The tactics were fascistic too: the use of elections to gain a foothold, the cooption and then subordination of establishment conservatives, and the indulgence of mob violence from supporters. But there are big differences. Fascists concentrate power in a militarised state, subordinating all other civil and private organisations. They adore administrative competence (Mussolini wanted to make the trains run on time; Hitler built autobahns). They are also driven by a clear, if fantastical, vision of where they want to take their country. Donald Trump worked to dismantle the state, not build it up. He let private corporations run riot, including ones he did not like. He has very little regard for administrative competence. He was not a warmonger either – he tried to end foreign wars, not start them. His supporters were not organised into paramilitary formations that could drive through a violent coup. Some of his supporters were heavily armed, it is true, but there was something anarchistic about them; they viewed their weapons as an extension to their personal autonomy, rather than part of being a soldier for a cause. Once you take the narcissism away from Trumpism, there really is very little left.
Which is why the coup failed and Mr Trump has been humiliated. There were no storm troopers ready to enter the Capitol and neutralise opposing Congressmen. There were no leaders on the ground with a clear idea about what they needed to do.
Very soon Donald Trump will leave office. So much of his power, and self-esteem, derived from that office that it will be difficult for him to come back, especially after this fiasco. But his popular base is still there, angry at the turn of events and convinced that it is they who are the victims of a coup. The new administration faces many difficult choices. Joe Biden wants to be a figure of healing and reconciliation. But can he simply let the forces of darkness reorganise with impunity? Republican leaders face hard choices too. Their no-prisoners resistance to the Democrats has unleashed a tiger that is consuming them. Is it time to change tactics in order to capitalise on the fears that much of the American public has of left-wing radicalism?
And all the while the pandemic runs riot. What a moment to become President. But it will not do to underestimate Joe Biden.