A country and democracy on a knife-edge

America is on a knife-edge. The US midterm elections starting tonight our time are more portentous than any we have seen in a lifetime, even in the country’s whole history.

We tend not to notice these elections in Australia. The presidency is not up for grabs; just countless lower level political offices across the country, from senators and representatives in the Congress to state governors and other lesser state positions such as secretaries of state and attorneys-general.

Until now Americans too have seen the midterms as unimportant compared to the four-yearly vote for the presidency, next happening in 2024. In 2020 nearly 67 per cent of eligible voters turned out to vote; for midterms a turnout of just 40 per cent is normal. 

But nothing is normal any more, due to one factor: Donald Trump’s apparent stranglehold on the Republican party. The 45th president’s refusal to concede defeat two years ago has left his country in turmoil, his party looking like a grotesque throwback to 1930s fascism, and vital democratic conventions under real threat of being overthrown.

To recap: From early in 2020, with opinion polls consistently showing rival Joe Biden well ahead, Trump began messaging that the election was being rigged by his opponents, and that postal votes could be corrupted by the US Postal Service and should not be counted.

On election night in November 2020, Trump prematurely declared victory in two key states, Pennsylvania and Georgia, before millions of mail-in ballots had been counted. The same night he claimed overall victory. Three days later it was clear he had lost both those states, and all major news outlets named Biden the clear winner.

Multiple legal suits by Trump advocates across the country gained not a single endorsement from any federal court or the Supreme Court. Then Trump got on the phone to Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, pressing him to “find” over 11,000 more votes. Having prudently decided to record the conversation, Raffensperger refused.

In early January 2021, when the Senate was to register electoral college votes, Trump persuaded thousands of battle-ready supporters to march to the Capitol and “make” vice-president Mike Pence, who presided over the process, ensure a result in his favour. Pence avoided the mob and completed the formal process that would put Biden in office.

A second Trump impeachment for inciting that attack, plus continuing investigations into his “find the votes” phone call, financial irregularities in the Trump business empire and, most damning, an FBI raid that recovered top-secret government documents he took from the White House have all failed to stall the Trump re-election juggernaut ahead of the midterms.

Nearly two years after the breach of Capitol perimeters and the ransacking of chambers and offices leading to several deaths, the impact is still being felt in every corner of a shaken country. 

Yet Trump remains firmly in charge of the Republicans ahead of the 2024 presidential race. At the weekend he told reporters he was “very very very” likely to stand. He would then be 78, but Biden (80 this month) has proven age is no handicap.

In that 2020-21 period, as the January 6 House Committee investigating the Capitol uprising has forensically shown, Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat broke every written and unwritten rule in the democracy playbook. With no evidence of electoral fraud, he still claims he was robbed. 

In these midterms Americans are being asked to vote in Congressional seats and crucial state leadership positions for Republicans empowered to change the state’s voting outcomes if they don’t like them. Some have already said that’s what they’ll do.

Republican victory in the midterms will strengthen the push in many states to reverse hard-one personal rights and freedoms including abortion rights, gay and trans rights, laws against race and gender discrimination, and historical truth-telling.

For an experienced US politician to believe sincerely, without any evidence at all, that their leader was robbed of victory would be so delusional as to be insane, yet that is the present public position of leading US Republicans including many standing for office. They’re not insane – not yet – but they’re leading their country en masse in that direction.

The world needs Trump to be permanently barred from public office, and his party to be jolted back to the responsible conservative position its supporters once took for granted.

Congress, the Department of Justice and the wider judicial system have so far failed to stop Trump. These midterms are the world’s best remaining chance to prevent another, likely much more damaging, dose of his conspiracy- and race-fuelled version of hell.

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