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The Trump phenomenon is but an outward projection of the mass sentiment of the American people in our time Image Credit: Gulf News

Thursday, Aug. 3, 2:45pm. Outside the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Judiciary Square, an important civic centre in downtown Washington, office workers walk by on their lunch break, tourists in shorts, T-shirts and sneakers head toward the Smithonian’s Air and Space Museum on Constitution Avenue, city workers with hard hats dig holes in the streets and panhandlers hold up empty styrofoam cups waiting for compassionate pedestrians to drop the odd coin or two into.

Meanwhile, Donald J. Trump, former president of the United States, was being driven along the highway from National Airport to the courthouse, where he was expected to be arraigned by a magistrate judge.

Thus, the small crowd of demonstrators outside the beige-coloured court building predictably held anti-Trump signs, with some depicting the former president in an orange jumpsuit, the standard uniform worn by inmates in federal prisons.

Two of the less than half dozen or so Trump supporters in the crowd bravely held up signs that read “Trump or Death” and “ Free J6ers”, the latter a reference to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists who had already been indicted, convicted and were now serving time behind bars.

Inside the court, the judge asked Mr. Trump how he opted to plead as to the four counts in the criminal indictment brought against him. The former occupant of the White House and current presidential front-runner of the Republican Party, who sat at the defence table next to his lawyers, responded: “Not guilty”.

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A bedrock function

And that was that. After which he made his way back to the airport and flew home.

Yet, if you think that was another typical dog day afternoon in August in the nation’s capital. you’d be mistaken. It was rather a momentous one.

Donald Trump’s latest indictment — the third so far, with a fourth to follow, reportedly later this month — amounts to no less than an accusation against a chief executive who had betrayed his country while in office by attempting to undermine the constitution and to criminally overturn the results of the 2020 presidential elections in order to stay in power — or, as Special Counsel Jack Smith put it, by knowingly “targeting a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collating, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election”.

We’ll call that, in short, the subversion of the peaceful, orderly transfer of power through free elections, a process that has operated smoothly since the founding of the American Republic. And there has never been, in the entire history of that republic — a republic where the rule of law is king — an indictment that equals it in magnitude.

How this case plays out in a court of law — and the US legal system moves at a glacial pace — will be a test of America’s democratic mettle, whether, that is, constitutional norms will, at the end of the day, eh, trump partisan politics. But when that day comes and the case does finally play out, it will not be a day of reckoning only for the former president but, I say, for America itself.

In America today, that divide is deeper than ever

A divided people

Donald J. Trump. Call the man what you wish — and many of us in the business have used many sobriquets to call him by. Trump the Divider. Trump the Narcissist. And so on. But I say call him what he really should be called: the tycoon-turned-president whose actions mirror the irremediable polarisations at the core of American society today, a society more divided than at any time in recent memory, certainly since the Civil War.

To say that no advanced society in our time is more socially divided and more politically dysfunctional than the United States would not seem like an outrageous observation to many a social or political scientist whose research is focused on American studies.

Look, in 1968, the year when America seemed as if it were coming apart, when troops were in the streets of major cities across the country, riots in ghettos, assassinations (notably of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy), bombings, confrontations on college campuses and the rest of it, was dreadful, but all that pales before the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol, an event so unthinkable that it shocked not just America but the world.

Virtually every culture in the world, including ours, has a variant of the proverb whose gist is that the leadership a people have is the one that genuinely defines their bent of mind at that moment of immediacy in their history. Thus, the Trump phenomenon is but an outward projection of the mass sentiment of the American people in our time. Case in point: in 2016, Americans were a divided people who elected a divisive president.

The sad fact is that Americans are a truly divided people, lacking a trusted voice of moral authority that brings them together, as say Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela had respectively brought together the peoples of India, Britain and South Africa in their times of crisis.

In his inaugural address on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden promised to bridge the deep and bitter divide that had hitherto defined — and tormented — American society, pledging to look beyond Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, that is, beyond the harsh, embittered rhetoric that characterised America’s public discourse. Biden, however, failed to keep his promise. In America today, that divide is deeper than ever.

This is not about the United States of America v. Donald J. Trump, defendant, or about Republicans v. Democrats, antagonists. It is about a polarised America left adrift, never before in its history having so lacked unity of purpose.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.