uring this third lockdown I’m rewatching the West Wing with my daughter. At this rate we might get through all 156 episodes. I put one on last week, just after seeing ITV’s astonishing in-the-crowd coverage of the riot on Capitol Hill. The contrast between the fictional President Bartlet and the fact of President Trump is obvious. Even in what looks now like a golden age of Clinton and Bush, the West Wing’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, wanted to show what the presidency could be not rather than what it had become.
It’s become fashionable to say that American politics is utterly broken. The images of the looting of Congress by men (mostly) waving confederate flags and wearing bizarre buffalo hats, on the incitement of their Commander in Chief, makes that easy. Even more so does the concerted attempt to delegitimise the results of the federal election by the losing candidate.
But here’s an alternative theory. US democracy has worked. Faced with one of its most extreme tests, the Constitution did the job for which it was written two and a half centuries ago. Back then the founding fathers - a collection of city lawyers and rural landowners on the edge of the known world - tried to devise a system of government that would protect them from tyranny, and ensure something that even today in the world is all-too-rare: an orderly transition of power. Read their debates and pamphlets, and you can see that they had identified two huge threats to their nascent republic: the power of a demagogue and the rule of the mob. The checks and balances they wrote into their constitution has endured, aided by the extraordinary decision of their first President (George Washington) to voluntarily step down and by some judicious amendments since.
The Constitution could not prevent Donald Trump becoming President. Only the Republican Party and the American voters could have done that. He won the 2016 election fair and square, and it was a serious mistake for Democrats to challenge the legitimacy of that result. Yes, he got fewer popular votes than his opponent but he got more electoral college votes - the system that ensures the metropolitan coasts of America cannot dominate the rest. (British observers who think that’s an injustice should reflect that the same can happen here; and indeed did in 1974, when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister with fewer votes than Ted Heath).
Having got to the White House, Donald Trump posed an almost unique danger. It’s hard to imagine a personality less suited to the judicious exercise of awesome power than the biggest narcissist of the modern era, with zero experience of or appreciation for the constraints of political office. Yet the Constitution did its job, constraining the President until democracy did its job and the public removed him from office. Even now, for all the alarming stories of a rogue President in his final days rattling around the Oval Office with the nuclear codes, the truth is that Trump is a prisoner of the Constitution. If he were to try anything dangerous, it’s clear from the behaviour of the Republican Vice President and Senate Majority Leader this last week that he would be removed from office instantly - either through the invoking of the 25th constitutional amendment by his Cabinet or, if that failed, by impeachment.
Yes, there are questions about why so many Republicans, like Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, tolerated Trump’s behaviour for so long - and served alongside him. But perhaps we in Britain should be a little more understanding. After all, it was only a year ago that many sensible Labour politicians were campaigning to make Jeremy Corbyn our Prime Minister, sitting alongside him in his Shadow Cabinet.
We say now the likes of Keir Starmer should have refused, but look how the Westminster village ridiculed those who left to try to form an alternative party. Look too how Conservatives parroted the dangerous talk of those who threatened to break international law and bring a ‘hard rain’ on our system of government.
There will always be cults, fanatics and demagogues; political parties are always vulnerable to capture. That’s why we need constitutions, written or unwritten. That’s why we should value established institutions and the rule of law. That’s why we must do everything to preserve our independent judiciaries and impartial civil services. In the taming of Trump, America has taught us all an invaluable lesson.