Commentary. Instead of a new start, this January 6 marks a return to the starting point of a downward spiral in which normal political back-and-forth is a distant memory.

Is American democracy truly in danger?

As if to underscore the paradoxical Groundhog Day in which the country seems to have been stuck for the past three years, the fateful election year 2024 has been ushered in by dueling speeches by Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the anniversary of January 6.

The upcoming U.S. presidential election is fateful because it offers the prospect of a rematch that almost no one would want to see again. Beyond their age issues, the clash between these two elderly contenders confirms what everyone is feeling: that the United States, the Western superpower, the “founding democracy” and “beacon of freedom,” has not managed to process the profound political, institutional and, one might say, anthropological crisis that brought it to the brink of the abyss, and a coup, three years ago.

Back then, Congress was stormed by the MAGA mob incited by the former president in an attempt to derail the inauguration of his legitimately elected successor. Now, the instigator himself is running again, having survived two impeachments, on trial for many charges, but, if anything, even more revered by his base for that very reason. And he is once again aiming his demagogic flamethrower at the norms and conventions of constitutional democracy.

He never really stopped doing that. From his “exile” in Mar-A-Lago, he has continued to bank on the aggressive victimhood that characterizes so many populist right-wingers around the world. He has never disavowed the Big Lie that the election was “stolen,” and the institutions have been unable to contain the subversive demagogue with impeachment, a tool offered by the Constitution for this purpose but sabotaged by the connivance of a radicalized GOP. Now Donald Trump is weighing on the country’s psyche as the toxic, irascible tyrant depicted in his mug shot. The insidious violence he has introduced into the nation’s discourse and public life, which he is constantly returning to in his bleak and unhinged rallies, looms like a subversive threat over the election campaign.

Biden is doing well to stress, as he did again in his last speech, that one cannot be for democracy and insurgency at the same time. Trumpists would be willing to do the latter once again as proof of their patriotic and Christian allegiance, since, according to a video he shared this week on his Truth Social app, “God Made Trump.” Apocalyptic proclamations are everywhere: in his response speech, Trump said that he was intent on redeeming the country “from hell.”

Instead of a new start, this January 6 marks a return to the starting point of a downward spiral in which normal political back-and-forth is a distant memory. Biden, put forward as a “normalizing” option after the Trumpist lurch, has hit many economic targets (inflation halved, employment at record levels, the GDP, stock market and wages rising), which in a traditional context would almost certainly be winners for an incumbent president. But in the current post-political, identity-driven topsy-turvy reality, he finds himself underwater in the polls. Nothing has worked to pacify a country that remains vindictive and furiously divided.

Not only is there no glimpse of possible mediation between the two sides, which find themselves in ethical, philosophical and “ontological” disagreement, but the “national divorce,” advocated by many MAGAs, is in many ways already consummated. Today, the United States is two countries. There is one America in which the termination of a pregnancy is allowed and one in which abortion is strictly forbidden on pain of imprisonment and there are semi clandestine organizations for the transportation of women from prohibitionist states to “free territories.”

One is a cultural soft power superpower, and the other is a nation where school textbooks are “corrected” to put together versions of national history purged of narratives deemed to be damaging to “patriotism.” The chill of censorship and McCarthyist inquisitions has descended on universities, as those in blue states cancel collaborations with universities in reactionary places. Red states are fortifying the international borders and sending undocumented immigrants like human shields into “enemy” territory.

The transformation of states like Florida and Texas into “dictocracies,” where the political agenda and also a new right-wing “cultural hegemony” is imposed by the state by decree, is a model that is potentially replicable in other nations where populist right-wingers take power. In the American formula, two atavistic currents in the country have come flooding back: secessionism and religious fundamentalism. In the past, similar conflicts between the federal government and “rebel” states have led to the deployment of the National Guard and civil war.

Biden, who calls January 6 “the day we almost lost America,” must be credited (unlike much of the press) for using correct terminology when he calls the Trumpist movement “semi-fascist.” In his speech, he once again framed the election as a choice between authoritarianism and the democracy he promises to defend to the end. The fact that this “framing” is an electoral strategy doesn’t mean it’s not true: the acceleration of the past six years has brought the U.S. to a juncture that until recently would have been in the realm of political fantasy.

However, Biden’s call for a rally around constitutional values assumes that insurgency can still arouse in every American the indignation one would expect in a democratic regime. It’s quite clear that this is not the case today: the most recent polls show that today only 62 percent believe in the legitimacy of Biden’s election (a year ago it was 69 percent), while 21 percent believe that the insurrection was “mostly peaceful,” and a quarter believe that the FBI actually organized it. It’s a striking demonstration of the corrosive power of widespread disinformation, which is only going to get worse.

As for Trump, charged with subversive conspiracy for his role in the events of January 6, 2021, he is denying any responsibility, while also promising a pardon for the insurrectionists, whose rehabilitation among Republicans and transformation into martyrs is now complete. The 1,240 cases brought to court, with 700 convictions and more than 400 detained resulting from the FBI investigation into the Capitol Hill insurrection, would thus be wiped out “on day one” of a Trump second term, which he himself announced he wants to begin as a “dictator.”

And the potential Trump 2.0 administration would follow a blueprint that has already been made public: Project 2025, drafted by the Heritage Foundation, is a detailed program for the rapid installation of loyalists in every key position in the state apparatus, the use of the Justice Department to prosecute political and personal enemies, and the use of the military to quell any protests. A government of payback, or, as he puts it, retribution.

Compounding on the already-precarious electoral process is the chaotic legal situation: Trump is facing four criminal trials, together with recent disqualifications as a presidential candidate (in Colorado and Maine) under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which precludes those who have attempted to subvert the constitutional order from holding federal office. In both cases, the appeals are destined to end up at the Supreme Court (which on Sunday announced that it would hear the constitutional disqualification cases in February). Thus, the door is open to interference by the highest court in determining the outcome of the election, which recalls 2000 and the victory awarded to George W. Bush “at the judges’ table.” This time, the court is unbalanced by three nominations made by Trump himself. His lawyer has publicly appealed to those justices that Trump “fought for” to “step up.” These are not exactly the preconditions for peaceful or fair democratic elections.

The crisis of representation is one of the most systemic weaknesses the country is facing. The electoral system is fragmented into 50 different and independent state political jurisdictions, vulnerable to ploys to inhibit access to the ballot box, manipulation of electoral districts and the intermediation of the electoral college replacing universal suffrage. The increasingly frequent outcome is that victory goes to the candidate who receives less votes in the “popular vote,” an undemocratic result. Since 2000, this has happened in two out of five presidential elections, always in favor of the Republican. Donald Trump is counting on exploiting this paradox for the second time.

If he still fails to win, he is ready for Plan B, just as he was in 2020. He is already building up a conspiracy theory against him, so that a defeat would be cast as incontrovertible evidence of fraud and a call to arms for patriots. Just like three years ago, he has used preemptive “denunciation,” pointing to an inevitable violent outcome in case of his defeat.

No matter what the outcome ends up being, even if the conflict doesn’t develop in unpredictable ways, this is unlikely to be the end of the clash to which the country is struggling to find a solution and which has made the U.S. into a democracy that is only partially functional – at a time when the fate of the world depends on what it does, whether we like it or not.

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