Treading in the footsteps of Hitler, Trump has desecrated the temple of American democracy.
In a beer garden scene in Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie of the stage musical Cabaret, set in Germany in the 1930s, a blonde teenage boy stands among the tables and sings in a pure, clear voice of sunny meadows and stags running free in the forest.
As the camera pans down from the young man’s face to reveal a uniform and a swastika armband, and the lyrics turn to glories ahead, charmed diners rise in ones and twos to join in. First an accordion, then brass and drums join a rising crescendo of voices. Everyone is utterly enraptured.
The scene is short but mesmerising. It grabbed my attention when I first saw it years ago, and has never left me. The pull of a group, the fear of not belonging, the power of a charismatic leader are all embodied here.
Regular German citizens in those times felt the nation under Adolf Hitler was in excellent hands. And so it seemed to many Americans early in Donald Trump’s presidency, impressed by his anti-Washington rhetoric, his election win, his strongman persona and a growing economy.
The neat, clean and confident Germany of that Cabaret scene lay in ruins 12 years later, with millions killed in a savage war and its Führer dead, victim of his own megalomania. Trump’s dream lasted just four years, cut short by COVID-19 – a dark cloud for the world but a silver lining for American democracy.
Trump was unlucky to be hit by a pandemic in his re-election year, but he made things worse by not taking it seriously, a failure he shared with populist leaders elsewhere. The shocking attrition rate in the US breached his aura of invincibility and killed his re-election chances.
But the death blow to his reputation was entirely self-administered. “Will be wild,” Trump tweeted ahead of his “Save America March”, and he was not wrong. But the invasion of Congress, stoked by Trump’s rambling speech to avid supporters, was his political suicide.
“We won this election, and we won it by a landslide,” he told his cheering, jeering audience. “We will never concede; you don’t concede when there’s theft involved… You will have an illegitimate president… and we can’t let that happen.”
“After this… and I’ll be there with you… we’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going… to try and give [senators and representatives] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
In his speech Trump regurgitated the same claims about voter fraud that formed the basis of 60-odd legal suits by the president’s lawyers. All were thrown out by state and federal judges – many of them his own appointees – because there was no evidence to support them.
The president didn’t go with his people to the Capitol as he said he would. Instead he was whisked away in a bulletproof car to a secure White House, where he watched events unfold on television.
It was well known many days ahead that the rally was happening. But amazingly Trump’s riotous mob was able to advance with relative ease through the Capitol’s front entrance and force its way into the Senate and House chambers, vandalising their contents and terrorising elected officials and others who worked there, before they were finally removed.
Trump claimed later that he “immediately” deployed federal reinforcements, but they arrived well over an hour after the breach, when the damage had already been done. The thing is, a government’s response to a riot is bound to be half-baked when its own commander-in-chief instigated it.
Reading the text of a Trump speech, including the one that led to this first breach of the Capitol in over 200 years, you wonder how it could inspire anyone. But watching it you can feel the cult leader’s extraordinary self-belief working on his audience. The rapt crowd wants what he says to be true, and so it is.
Trump leaves office in eight days, but this story has a way to go. After the riot House speaker Nancy Pelosi said he was “unhinged”, and Harvard psychiatrist Lance Dodes diagnosed a delusional psychopath who will become increasingly unstable in post-presidential life. But none of that absolves him from responsibility for the desecration of the Capitol.
Of all the options for his premature departure – resignation, Article 25 suspension, or congressional impeachment and conviction – only the latter stops him from standing in the 2024 election. For many, especially Republican senators who fear for their party’s future under Trump, that would surely have a lot of appeal.