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Americans need to stop blaming Trump, and take responsibility for their broken system

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So there was a Presidential debate the other day, and it went as expected, by all accounts. I didn’t watch it, and never had any intention to. I’ve taken a strong interest in US federal politics in the past 4-5 years or so, with the advent of Trump, but in watching cable news I’ve always had the remote handy so as not to have to hear anything coming out of Trump’s mouth, or the mouth of some of his acolytes. Trump’s presence and position makes me feel enraged, a feeling of actual violent loathing which has always come over me when I encounter bullies. This has nothing to do with politics, or at least political ideology. Of course bullying is a feature of politics. The term ‘authoritarian leader’ is generally a euphemism for a bully, and we all know who the current ones are. 

However, as a person who, if not philosophical, has read a fair amount on philosophy and psychology over the years, I try to use those insights to calm and divert. For example, there’s the issue of free will, which I won’t go into in detail here, but we’ve learned – from the Dunedin longitudinal study, for example – that early childhood shapes our character far more than most of us are willing to admit. This often goes unnoticed because most of us have had relatively normal childhoods within the broader social milieu, which also shapes us to a large degree. However, as a person who has been in fairly close contact with highly dysfunctional families and the children born of them, the long-term or permanent effects are clear enough. In the case of Trump I don’t want to speculate too much, but it’s clear from family members, long-term witnesses, and psychological and neurological professionals, that Trump’s seriously damaged persona was in place from a very early age. Many of those who’ve known him longest say things to the effect that you have to think of him as an eight-year-old, or ten-year-old, or pre-adolescent, and it would indeed be worthwhile if neurologists could gain access to his pre-frontal cortex, which of course will never happen now. Some argue that he has deteriorated in recent years, and of course I can’t respond to that in any professional way, but I’m certainly skeptical. The bluster, the attention-seeking, the endless repetitions, the perverse doubling down, and the complete inability to say anything insightful or thought-provoking, these all represent a pattern of speech and behaviour that hasn’t changed in the couple of decades since I first encountered him. Of course this behaviour is exacerbated when he’s under pressure, and it’s this pressure and scrutiny, rather than his age, that gives the impression of deterioration, IMHO. 

I’ve described Trump, only half-jokingly, as a pre-teen spoilt brat turned crime machine, but whatever descriptor you choose to use, it should be clear to any reasonably sane and insightful observer that he’s not normal – and that this abnormality has entirely negative features, such as extreme selfishness, vanity, incuriosity, vindictiveness, blame-shifting and solipsism, which tend to damage others far more than himself, and which explains the title of Republican strategist Rick Wilson’s book Everything Trump touches dies. But of course Trump himself bustles and blunders on, and on. Indeed in some business and political environments, these ‘qualities’ can be very beneficial to the individual endowed with them, as Trump’s business career, however ‘fake’, has shown. 

 It’s this environment that needs to be analysed with a view to cleaning it up, so that those people like Trump, and the greatest influence on his life, his father, are unable to thrive. Think of Vibrio cholerae in faecally contaminated water. Draining the swamp indeed. 

I have written before about the political reforms that are urgently required, though I recognise that many of them will never be instituted, until it’s too late. Business and judicial reform are also urgently required, and perhaps the silver lining to the Trump debacle will be some long overdue attention to these areas, when and if the nation survives this crisis. I’m reluctant to make suggestions in fields in which I have little or no expertise, but I’ll make some anyway. In doing so, I’ll claim the benefit of being an outsider, as I note that very few American pundits, in spite of their obvious intelligence and wealth of knowledge, make mention of them.

  1. Vetting

Americans love to boast that, in the land of opportunity, anyone can become the nation’s President. It’s great for inspiring schoolkids, but have they really thought this idea through? The USA, as many of its inhabitants love to tell us, is the most powerful country, militarily and economically, in the world. It surely follows that any candidate for the highest office in that exalted nation, that of actually leading it, in the manner of a CEO,  should be fully versed in its operations, alliances, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – as would be expected of any other potential CEO. Herein lies a major problem of democracy – populist demagoguery. Because of America’s direct election system, Trump could bring his circus cavalcade directly to the people, in the teeth of scorn from Republican stalwarts, most of whom fell in line with him over time. Trump had had no experience in any form of government, and the business cognoscenti knew very that Trump’s businesses were shambolic. So the warning signs were clear and obvious from the beginning of his candidacy.

Under variants of the Westminster system, used in every other English-speaking democracy, there’s an informal vetting system that, in a sense, flies below the radar. To become Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) you need to have already won a local election, and to have impressed your parliamentary colleagues as a worthy, articulate, responsible, collegial leader. It’s not a foolproof system of course, but by its nature it emphasises the team as much as its leader. As with a soccer team, the Prime Minister, the Captain, is just perhaps the most prominent member, and if she loses form, or ‘goes rogue’, she can be replaced without too much fuss. The team may be affected, but not massively disrupted. But consider the US situation, where the presidential candidate, or candidate for Captain of the soccer team, gets elected by the people because of all that she promises, in spite of never having played soccer in her life, knowing nothing of the rules, and after being elected, gets to choose her own team all of whom are just as clueless about soccer as she is. That isn’t far from the current American situation. The President, or Captain, needn’t worry about a revolt from within, no matter how poorly the team is performing, because they owe the captain their highly lucrative jobs, which they would never have gotten without her. 

After the failed impeachment process earlier this year, the American pundit Chuck Rosenberg said something that made my jaw drop. He said that removing a President from office is and should be very difficult. That the US is, fortunately, not like Britain, where the PM can be removed by a simple vote of no confidence by his party. I believe the exact opposite to be true. Of course, there’s a sense in which Rosenberg is right. Under the highly problematic US federal system, removing a President creates a crisis unlike anything created by the removal of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. Under the US system, this completely unvetted President gets to choose his own running mate, who is likely to be no more competent than the President, a very low bar in Trump’s case. Indeed the President gets to choose a whole team of sycophants to ‘run’ his administration, none of them elected by the people. So, yes, given this autocratic system, dumping the President is indeed a dangerous event. The  Vice-President, barring illness, must take over, in spite of never having been independently elected. Under the Westminster system, however, dumping the Captain allows other elected team members to put their candidacy forward, and the team, the whole membership of the right or left wing party that’s in power, gets to choose a new Prime Minister – again based on the qualities described above.

   2. Power 

Special executive powers, veto powers, power to shut down the government, power to select a team of unelected Secretaries (State, Defence, Treasury etc) – performing the role that previously elected Ministers perform under the Westminster system, as well as extraordinary power over the judiciary, including personally selecting an unelected Attorney-General with apparently unlimited power to over-ride judicial decisions as well as to personally determine the legal liability of the President while in office. These are the gifts bestowed upon the person of the incoming President by virtue of his winning a majority of Electoral College seats. Compare Prime Ministers, who must go to work within the parliament, leading the debates, under the constant scrutiny of his fellow ministers and colleagues, and within spitting distance of the opposing elected representatives. 

It seems obvious to me that an American President’s position, between elections, more closely resembles that of a monarch, only slightly hindered by a sometimes oppositional Congress/Parliament, than does the position of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. And now we see that the ‘monarch’ can even go a long way to manipulate the forthcoming election in his favour. As many American pundits are finally noticing, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Constitution is wholly inadequate for reining in a President who is not in any sense a gentleman, but will Americans ever be self-critical enough to enact clear-cut laws limiting Presidential power, forcing tax disclosure, setting clear and enforceable guidelines on emoluments, and ensuring a uniformly free and fair federal electoral system? Time will tell, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. 

3 Hero worship 

Sections 3 and 4 are less about the USA’s political system and more about its political culture, so will I suspect be much more difficult to change. 
Contrary to popular belief, Superman wasn’t born on the planet Krypton, but in Cleveland Ohio. Batman and his boyfriend Robin were born in New York, not Gotham City. Spider-Man, Wonder-woman as well as mere mortal heroes such as Rambo, Indiana Jones and John McClane were all typically American do-goodnicks and swamp-drainers, and no doubt classic presidential material. They seem to me to testify to a somewhat naive national tendency of Americans, a desire to place their trust in heroic individuals rather than teams, programs, policies and processes. Presidents are recalled by their numbers, worshipped by their admirers and reviled by their detractors, whereas in most other democracies, leaders evoke much milder emotions and are soon forgotten once replaced. Presidential elections are hyped to a mind-numbing degree, involving grotesque expenditures and apparently mandatory gladiatorial debates. All of this OTT razzle-dazzle seems almost designed for self-aggrandising con-artists like Trump, and it’s clear that he revels in the circus and the adulation. Much of his Presidency has been nothing more than a punctuated campaign rally. How to dial the nation down from all this hyperventilating claptrap? Possibly the Trump overdose might actually help. Once Trump’s dumped, a look around at how so much of the world is faring very well without American exceptionalism may lead to an extended period of good sense and sobriety – and a unity never before experienced, but which will be necessary to save the country’s reputation. 

4 Partisanship and Tribalism 

This, admittedly, is now a global problem. Social media, much of it headquartered in the USA, has led to huge increases in conspiracy theories, vaccine ‘hesitation’ groups, flat-earthers and other mind-numbing activities and belief systems. It’s becoming rare to find people reading old-fashioned newspapers with their diversity of takes on current affairs. The viciousness of Youtube political commentary is there for all to witness. People are throwing verbal bombs at people they’ll never meet, whose human lives of friendship, humiliation, suffering, struggle, anxiety and achievement they seem not even to know how to care about. We tend to see this trend as predominantly American, perhaps because we’re inundated by American media here in Australia and most other far-flung English-speaking countries. We constantly see videos of “ordinary Americans” apparently beset with certainty and contempt, however mask-like and brittle. It does seem like Trump has set this agenda, but many pundits also argue that the country has been polarised in this way for generations. The tragedy for Trump supporters is that they get so little in return for their adulation, and it seems the most disadvantaged and desperate are the most deluded. As I’ve argued from the beginning of this presidency, it’s highly unlikely to end with a whimper. The worst is surely yet to come. I’m certainly not wishing for it, but it may be the only outcome that can shake the country out of its ‘exceptionalism’, and towards a more realistic program of political (and media) reform and cultural healing. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2020 at 11:27 pm