The real lesson of Trump’s coup attempt that shocked everyone4 min read . Updated: 10 Jan 2021, 09:06 PM IST
Those gloating over the event should note that US institutions stood up to Trump and showed the strength of its democracy
As if 2020 hadn’t provided us with enough drama, 2021 burst onto our television screens on 6 January with a riotous mob rampaging through the US Capitol in Washington, DC, and disrupting the US Congress’s confirmation of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency, which finally occurred early the following morning. Egged on by current President Donald J. Trump, the US faces its worst constitutional crisis at least since the time of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, if not the 1861-1865 Civil War.
It is worth realizing that what happened in the US reflects a deliberately indirect procedure for electing the president, and, while it may appear archaic today, this was indeed the intention of the country’s founders who designed the system. While Americans, and the world, routinely argue that the US is the “world’s first democracy", it would be more accurate to say that the architects of its constitution conceived it as an oligarchic republic. Recall that the US started out with limited franchise, not “one person, one vote", and that, until 1913, members of the Senate were indirectly elected by state legislatures.
Likewise, according to the US Constitution, each state legislature decides its own procedure for selecting its members of the Electoral College, which elects the president. Initially, these were not decided by popular elections in most states. It was not until 1880, rather late in the history of the republic, that electors were chosen by popular election in every state. There is also a convoluted procedure following an election. Each state “certifies" its electors, and then on a date in January, before inauguration day, the US Congress ceremonially accepts each state’s slate of electors, thus confirming the winner of the presidential election that was held the previous November. It was on this particular day that the Trump-inspired mob staged its insurrection, which, had it succeeded, would have amounted to a coup d’état.
Compare this election procedure for the US president with the simplicity of the Westminster parliamentary system. On election night (or, in India, on counting day), when it becomes clear who has won the election, the transfer of power is set in motion immediately, and occurs within days, except in the case of a hung parliament, in which case it may take some time to determine who can command a majority and stake a claim to become prime minister. In the case of a decisive defeat of an incumbent government, in the UK, for example, the prime minister and his staff literally vacate 10 Downing Street, the official residence, and turn over its keys to the incoming prime minister the next morning. The drama that we witnessed in Washington, DC, this January could simply never occur under the Westminster system.
The shenanigans in the US capital evoked more than a dose of Schadenfreude in other countries whose apparent democratic failings are routinely criticized by American officials and by political commentators in the US. But, the truth is that Trump’s failure to overturn an election result that went against him via repeated court challenges, and through, at a minimum, his moral support for insurrectionists, is a testament to the strength of the US system, despite its well-known flaws.
While Trump may yet have a few tricks up his sleeve before his successor Joe Biden takes office on 20 January, and while it remains possible at the time of filing this column that he may even be forcibly ejected from office via one or the other constitutional mechanism, such as impeachment or the 25th amendment, what is beyond doubt is that the system worked, despite the severest test it has been put through in modern history—a sitting president who refuses to accept defeat and attempts to cling to power, whether by fair means or foul.
The smugness in China and Russia at American electoral foibles may be risible, given that neither country is a democracy in any sense. There has been a fair bit of smugness in India, too, as people watched events unfold in the US, and India is indeed a democracy, albeit with its own well- known failings. Let us recall, though, that the first (and thankfully last) time an elected prime minister was unwilling to give up power in the face of an adverse court decision, the result was the Emergency (1975-77), which was upheld by a supine judicial system and enforced by venal and sycophantic politicians and bureaucrats. Do we know what would have happened if Indira Gandhi had extended the Emergency, rather than calling an election in 1977? Or if she had declined to give up power once defeated? We are fortunate that the limits of the Indian system were not further tested by either of these hardly fanciful possibilities.
Ultimately, the strength of any constitutional republic—whether the United States or India—rests upon the quality of the institutions that are embedded within it and an adherence to the rule of law, not just in letter, but in spirit. In a strictly legal sense, constitutional scholars may continue to debate whether Indira Gandhi’s resort to emergency powers was legitimate or not. But, it was the acquiescence of a ‘committed’ judiciary that rendered the question moot.
In the US, by contrast, even judges that Trump had appointed refused to go along with his attempt to overturn the election result, as he himself frustratingly acknowledged; nor did his loyal lieutenant, Vice President Mike Pence, bend to his will. Therein lie the real lessons for other democracies.
Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist