America may not survive this debilitating nervous breakdown

The United States is in the throats of one of its most extreme nervous breakdowns. In what may seem like an extraordinary coincidence, two explosive manifestations of this pathology have occurred within days of one another. The congressional hearings on the events of 6 January in which a rampaging Trump army attempted to seize the presidency by storming the Capitol, and the Supreme Court decision which reversed the right to abortion, have merged into something that goes way beyond the familiar norms of culture war.

The terms in which these confrontations are being conducted go to the heart of what America understands itself to be and the legal agreement by which its disparate, displaced people live alongside one another. It is precisely that understanding and that legal agreement which the rest of the world – particularly the British who believe quite wrongly that they share America’s political culture – must understand if they are not to be drawn into this farrago.

The starting point for any explanation of why what is happening over there, will not (cannot) happen here is something so unprecedented in human history that the force of it is almost incomprehensible to most Europeans. Unlike almost any other advanced society that has ever existed – including other revolutionary republics whose philosophical roots it may seem to share – the United States was a conscious invention based on a drafted contract with the people who chose to inhabit it. The Constitution – which American school children are taught explicitly to regard as “a contract between the government and the citizen” – was not something added on to an existing historic national entity, or a modern departure for a country that had thrown off outdated conventions and repudiated its hereditary ruling class.

The United States as an idea – as a country – does not pre-date the Constitution. Its people have no shared collective memory, no rooted sense of an identity that precedes its institutions, no mythic belief in some Before Time that unites them in a way that makes all political arrangements transitory. This is why that sacred document – with all its litigious, anachronistic flaws – is at the center of every debate worth having in American discourse. It is both the great strength and the great weakness of that democratic tradition which is so peculiar to the United States.

It is this reverence for the institutions created by the Constitution, this belief that they are the embodiment of national identity which made the incidents of 6 January and last week’s testimony before Congress about Trump’s eagerness to join the rioters – even if they were armed – seem not just shocking but positively blasphemous. He is claimed to have demanded that his security guards take him to the Capitol to lead the insurrection (which they refused to do) with the words, “I’m the f—ing president. Take me to the Capitol.”

To all those peoples of the world who have lived through civil wars in which governments have been toppled, monarchies overthrown, and coups defeated by counter coups, this incident may seem rather tame. For Americans, who regard their institutions as the bond which makes them one people, it is staggering. But, at least, it should be. The fact that there remains a Trump constituency in spite of it (which will remain solid I am sure even if this testimony proves to be verifiably accurate) is an indication of just how far the divisions in the US have gone and how irremediable they might be . That’s the bad news.

The good news is that on that fateful day, thanks in no small part to the personal courage and principle of Trump’s vice president Mike Pence, the Constitution held. The institutions in which so much is invested with stood the demented assault of a mob.

This is the critical lesson here: under the American interpretation of democracy, institutions take precedence over any cohort of elected politicians. No piece of legislation passed by Congress, no decision by a state governor – not even the orders of the “f—ing president” – can defy the legitimate checks and balances instituted by those men whom Americans call the Founding Fathers. This is what you learn at school: the government consists of three branches – the legislature which makes the law, the executive which enforces the law and the judiciary which interprets the law.

The legislature (Congress) can refuse to pass laws which the executive (the president) proposes. The judiciary (Supreme Court) can declare laws that are passed by the legislature and approved by the executive to be unconstitutional. The individual states have considerable scope to create laws within their own borders but these must not be in contravention of rights which the federal government (as adjudicated by the Supreme Court) has accepted as guaranteed.

Which brings us to the reversal of Roe v Wade and the prospect of a good many states proposing to re-criminalize terminations of pregnancy even for those who are victims of rape and incest, which will most dramatically affect the destitute and the socially deprived – and this may apply not only within their own borders but to those who might travel across state lines to seek safe abortion or even try to procure medication by post. The sheer inhumanity of this is staggering and quite inconceivable in Britain. But it must not obscure the larger political comparison.

When there is a general public consensus that a thing should be done – the legalizing of abortion or of homosexuality are good examples – then a sovereign Parliament, has the power to act on this, and the thing is done. There is an overarching bond of common values ​​(and common sense) which allows governing to be, to a larger extent than Britons often appreciate, consensual and responsive to changes in public mood. In the US it takes iron-clad institutions to hold the line. It’s an open question how much longer they will be able to keep their grip.


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