Monday, February 01, 2016

President Trump - a symptom of a greater problem

The United States, despite its almost religious reverence for their constitution, is prone to periodic political crises which can be almost existential in scope. The civil war was caused by the constitutional ambiguity concerning slavery, which poisonous legacy still defaces American society today. In the twenty-first century the idea that there could be any legal justification for slavery seems self-evidently absurd.

When Al Gore polled half a million votes more than George W, Bush in the 2000 Presidential election, even democracy itself took second place to the Constitution since it was Mr. Bush who was elected, by virtue of carrying more states and therefore winning the electoral college. The consequences of the incompetent arrogance of the Administration of the 43rd President- from Iraq and Afghanistan to the response to Hurricane Katrina  are also still reverberating today. Trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost around the world because Mr. Bush and his cohorts in the "Project for the new American century" fully achieved their policy goals, but the consequences were not far short of disastrous. 

At the heart of the American constitution there lies a crisis that could have repercussions that could be just as serious as the civil war itself. This is not the argument over whether the question of whether the right to bear arms should be regulated or not. The horrendous death toll of guns in the United States speaks for itself, and the foolish attempt by the NRA and its supporters in the arms industry to ignore the question of "a well regulated militia" and simply permit unrestricted access to murderous weapons is what makes the United States uniquely murderous amongst developed nations. In the eyes of the founding fathers, I suspect that the gerrymandering of political districts would be seen as a far greater crime against the Constitution. Gerrymandering has not merely entrenched and polarised the political oligarchy of the United States, it is undermining the legitimacy of Congress in a way that could lead to a major political breakdown.

Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington and the others strove to find a balance in the three arms of the constitution: the executive branch -the Presidency- was checked and balanced by the legislative branch- Congress- and both were regulated by the judicial branch, and in particular, the Supreme Court of the United States. This system of checks and balances is generally held to be the key to the success of the constitutional order. Yet the fact is that the electoral system is now increasingly fixed: the level of wealth required in order to be elected to national office is beyond all but a very small elite that either possesses  such wealth independently or can raise it. Congress is now a cadre of wealthy extremists whose views only incidentally coincide with the majority view in the country. Life inside the "Beltway bubble" has more to do with money and political posturing than with finding practical solutions to the issues of the day. Unsurprisingly Washington, DC is extremely unpopular. The political legitimacy of Congress is increasingly challenged.

This matters, especially if the executive branch falls into questionable hands. Donald Trump is a man who, having inherited great wealth from his father, has expanded his wealth through highly questionable means with extremely dubious business partners. There is substantial evidence that he has had associations with organised crime. There is little doubt that his business methods are highly dubious. Yet, as we go into the first caucus of the 2016 electoral season, Mr. Trump is the front runner for the nomination of the Republican party. Of course there are many hurdles to overcome, but the political class of the US has been increasingly shocked to discover that despite their disapproval, he continues to lead in his race. Mr. Trump has advocated policies that would probably be unworkable and may even be  unconstitutional, but this has, if anything added to his popularity. Should he be elected and should he choose to implement these policies, it could be that Congress would be unable to oppose them- it would lack the political legitimacy to take on a genuine populist.

Of course the US has elected bad Presidents- such as Warren Harding or Richard Nixon- in the past, and has survived, but the fact is that a country that is so cavalier about its own democracy can hardly aspire to be a genuine role model at a time when so many challenges exist in the international order. Russia's tyrannical leader, Vladimir Putin, may have expressed admiration for Mr. Trump, but there is little doubt that he would exploit every opportunity to diminish US power and break the North Atlantic alliance. Mr. Trump's bluster about the use of force against peaceful neighbours like Mexico hardly suggests joined up thinking when dealing with the real challenges that the US faces- in the Middle East, Asia and across the world.

Many suggest that whatever Trump says is irrelevant, since he is unlikely to win the general election. Yet I beg to differ. Mr. Trump is already in the top five people most likely to be President of the United States. Supposing Mrs. Clinton was to face a return of questions about her conduct in office or the conduct of her husband. At the crucial moment it could be that Mr. Trump flukes a victory. 

The fact is that the United States is flirting with a leader who could be exposed to blackmail and subversion- and possibly that applies to both front runners. Still worse that leader could defy the constitution and likely get away with it.

The United States is on a knife edge- a blustering crook or a woman compromised by years close to the top. It is not a happy choice and it may be that without reform the system will no longer be able to maintain the order that has underpinned American creativity and power since the 1930s. Reforms to the constitution will be increasingly necessary in order to restore the democratic impetus- but in a self interested and narrowly isolated political class, it is hard to see where the power to enact such reforms can come from. 

Yet another existential crisis may be upon us. 

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