There was a time, not that long ago, when the United States presumed to teach the world how it was done. When it held itself up as a model of a stable, predictable democracy. When it sent idealistic young avatars to distant parts of the globe to impart the American way.
These days, to many watching at home and abroad, the American way no longer seems to offer a case study in effective representative democracy. Instead, it has become an example of disarray and discord, one that rewards extremism, challenges norms and threatens to divide a polarized country even further.
The Republican uprising that led to the ouster of a House speaker for the first time in American history would be enough of a disruption. But the upheaval on Capitol Hill comes as a former president sits in a New York courtroom, already judged to be a fraud, while using increasingly violent language and pushing the limits of a gag order. At the same time, military aid to stop Russian invaders in Ukraine has been held up by a vocal G.O.P. minority in Congress, and another government shutdown looms next month.
The institutions that were already strained during Donald J. Trump’s presidency now face a series of profound stress tests. Can the courts maintain public faith and deal credibly with a former president running for his old job who has been accused of so many crimes it is hard to keep track? Can Congress get its act together enough to simply pick a leader, much less address vexing issues like immigration, spending, climate change and gun violence? Can the presidency in the hands of an aging traditional politician like President Biden be a tool to heal the wounds of society?
Mr. Biden, for his part, emphasized on Wednesday his commitment to trying as he vowed to work with whoever emerges as the replacement for the deposed Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy. “More than anything, we need to change the poisonous atmosphere in Washington,” Mr. Biden said. “I know we have strong disagreements, but we need to stop seeing each other as enemies. We need to talk to one another, listen to one another, work with one another. And we can do that.”
Not many others in Washington shared his optimism. And that certainly was not the message of his putative rival, Mr. Trump. Outside the courtroom in New York on Wednesday, the former president proved undaunted by the gag order as he attacked the judge who imposed it. “He’s run by the Democrats,” Mr. Trump claimed. “Our whole system is corrupt. This is corrupt. Atlanta is corrupt. And what’s coming out of D.C. is corrupt.”
The former president has long chosen provocation over peacemaking. But in recent weeks, he has escalated the violence of his rhetoric. He threatened to investigate NBC News for “treason” if he gets back in office, mocked the husband of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi who was attacked in their home, called for shoplifters to be shot on sight and implied that Gen. Mark A. Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be executed as a traitor. “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!” he wrote on social media in August.
Mr. Trump’s brand of burn-the-house-down politics played a role in this week’s meltdown among House Republicans, inspiring the far-right rebels who took down Mr. McCarthy. But the Republicans have been building to this moment since before Mr. Trump won the presidency. The ultraconservatives in their conference effectively pressured two previous Republican speakers to leave, albeit without the spectacle of the vote that formally toppled Mr. McCarthy on Tuesday.
Political parties, of course, sometimes devolve into internal struggles. The Democrats have their differences as well, although not nearly as drastic as those of the Republicans, and they have their scandals, including a senator indicted on corruption charges. Moreover, America has gone through other periods of deep divisions, as during the eras of McCarthyism, civil rights, Vietnam and Watergate, to say nothing of the Civil War.
What is different now, according to some scholars, is that Republicans under Mr. Trump have directly attacked the foundation of the democratic system by refusing to accept an election that they lost and by tolerating if not encouraging political violence, most notably the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol.
“A democracy on the verge of veering out of control is the consequence when one of the major political players in the democratic process won’t accept the basic rules of the game,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard professor who recently published “Tyranny of the Minority” with his colleague Steven Levitsky, a sequel to their seminal book, “How Democracies Die.”
The American public has been sour on the country for a remarkably long stretch. The last time a majority of Americans reported being satisfied “with the way things are going in the United States” in Gallup surveys was January 2004, nearly two decades ago.
That has taken a toll on American institutions. Fewer than half of Americans express confidence in the police, the medical system, organized religion, the Supreme Court, banks, public schools, the presidency, large technology companies, organized labor, the media, the criminal justice system, big business or Congress, according to Gallup, which last year recorded significant declines in 11 of the 16 institutions it tracks. Only small business and the military drew more than 50 percent support.
A separate survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in June found that 49 percent of Americans believe democracy is not working well in the United States, compared with 40 percent who say it is working only somewhat well and just 10 percent who believe it is working very or extremely well.
Among those presumably watching the tumult of recent days with some satisfaction is President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The state-run Channel 1 on Wednesday night reported with no shortage of schadenfreude that “Washington is on the verge of chaos” and the situation is “as scandalous as it is unpredictable.”
One of the goals of Mr. Putin’s election interference operation in 2016 was to sow dissension in the American system, according to intelligence agencies, and Washington has now managed to do that all by itself. “If Putin is following the chaos,” said Maria Lipman, a longtime Russian political analyst now at George Washington University, “he has every reason to gloat and to feel superior.”
Given the congressional spending fight of recent days that has jeopardized security aid for Ukraine, she added, “what he should truly care about is whether or not the U.S. support for Ukraine might wane in the conceivable future and weaken Ukraine’s military capacity.” There is no guarantee that Congress will approve billions more for Ukraine, and Mr. Putin is clearly waiting to see if Mr. Trump, who criticizes aid to defend the country, will beat Mr. Biden in next year’s election.
Robert M. Gates, the longtime Republican national security official who served as defense secretary for both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, warned in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine last week titled “The Dysfunctional Superpower” that both Mr. Putin and President Xi Jinping of China were interpreting America’s troubles in perilous ways.
Both leaders, he wrote, are convinced that democracies like the United States “are past their prime and have entered an irreversible decline,” evident in their growing isolationism, political polarization and domestic conflict. “Dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable,” Mr. Gates wrote, “practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets — with potentially catastrophic effects.”
And that was before the meltdown in the House of the past few days. In an email on Wednesday, Mr. Gates wrote, “The events of the last couple of days have only underscored how real is the dysfunction.”
Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.