Joe Biden has much to do after Donald Trump's proof of concept that white nationalism is a path to power in America – Martyn McLaughlin

America’s descent into darkness did not begin with Donald Trump’s entrance on the political stage, and it will not be easily arrested now that the curtain has fallen on his single act. The house lights go on, revealing shadows yet to banished.

The task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by Donald Trump will outlast Joe Biden's presidency (Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

The country Mr Trump promised to make great again is on its knees, torn asunder by a pandemic he wilfully mismanaged, browbeaten by escalating threats of violence he fomented, and bewildered by an existential crisis of democracy he and his enablers carefully cultivated.

He set out with the deliberate intention of destroying America and its grand institutions. He very nearly succeeded. If there is anything to be salvaged from the rubble, it is the realisation that the values he imperilled will only thrive for so long as there is someone to fight for them.

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When Joe Biden is sworn in as the republic’s 46th president, it will mark the beginning of an arduous rebuilding process. Even if he serves for a second term, the endeavour will outlast his presidency. He will not be able to repair every bridge at home, nor those which span the wider world, but he can shore up the piers which bear their weight.

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Exorcising a demon

Mr Biden’s half-century of service in public office has been built on a foundational instinct for where the political centre lies, and the emotional bequest of the personal losses he has borne lend him vulnerability and empathy, qualities that are refreshing in a leader. These traits make a good man, and once, they would have empowered presidents to reach across the aisle and earn the trust of adversaries. But in the turmoil of the present, they are insufficient for the task at hand. In due course, America will require a healer. First, it needs an exorcist.

Mr Trump, the once-omnipresent demon who simultaneously enchanted and bedevilled the nation, remains unknowable, his worldview as incoherent and incurious as the day he descended a golden escalator. A dreadful joke, they said. It was, although we misunderstood the target of its punchline.

He was not motivated by anything other than the assertion of his own dominance. That will not change as he is dragged from office, clawing the Resolute desk. The volume may be turned down, but the Trump show will continue to play out.

His departure and the momentary respite a quadrennial ritual of renewal affords an exhausted nation will invite ruminations on the legacy of his abnormal tenure, one designed to orchestrate a breathless cycle of strife and chaos. Only the future can confirm the full horror of its consequences. The present, however, offers an instructive guide.

Luck afforded Mr Trump the opportunity to impose a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, and his administration’s wholesale reconstitution of the federal judiciary has installed a powerbase of conservative judges, an ideological phalanx which makes for a formidable bulwark against the designs of a Democratic-controlled Congress.

The Trump Party

This methodical realignment of the nation’s branches of government, and the attendant blurring of their dividing lines, will define America’s roadmap for the future, and determine issues such as voting rights, healthcare, and criminal justice.

Yet Mr Trump’s greatest victory was not to bend those branches of government to his will, but show how brittle they are. Exactly a fortnight ago, 147 Republican members of Congress voted against the certification of Mr Biden’s election win. It was one of two shameful assaults on American democracy that day, though the focus on the literal damage caused by one has eclipsed the figurative destruction wrought by the other.

In that moment, a sizeable minority of the nation’s elected representatives openly violated John Adams’ vision of “a government of laws, and not of men” and the constitution its ideals helped shape. Gerald Ford invoked Adams’ maxim at his inauguration, promising a post-Watergate America that its “national nightmare is over". Were that all metamorphoses so swift and painless.

Those who inherit the scorched earth of a Republican party recast in the image of Mr Trump and his myriad pathologies continue to show fidelity to his fiction, despite the fact it left five people dead. The party includes many who acquiesced to his darkest impulses, and others who perpetrate their own; QAnon, a banner for odious conspiratorial fantasies which germinated in the darkest online recesses, now blossoms under the cleansing light of democracy, with two members of Congress among its adherents.

China and Russia’s growing influence

Some have found their intolerance emboldened in defeat, calling on their supporters to threaten political adversaries, while the likes of Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley – the privates in the GOP’s chimpanzee troop – imitate the virulent rhetoric of the party’s alpha male in service of their own insatiable ambitions.

Though lamentable, none of this is surprising. Mr Trump is no personality cult or aberration. He is a proof of concept. He first exposed, then exploited the white nationalism and nativism barely concealed in the Republican movement for decades, and his election was a reminder that a nation which enshrined fundamental liberties raised its foundations on systemic inequalities still seen today in places like Racine, Wisconsin, where African Americans make half of the median income of white residents, and are nearly 12 times more likely to be imprisoned.

There is no painless solution for a party which sacrificed everything it believed in for a man who believes only in itself. Until one is found, however, all of America will suffer.

Those of us looking on from afar see a nation compromised. The hazy concept of the free world, with America at its apex, has become so indistinct as to defy those who insist it is anything other than an anachronism, and while China and Russia have expanded their reach, the shining city has been left to flicker in the gloom.

Its beacon of hope burns a little brighter today, as a howling wind blows, threatening to fan its flame.

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