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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Trump in the White House: will the great disrupter unsettle America's checks and balances?

The US system of government is built to limit the damage caused by the misfires of democracy, writes David Rothkopf

Donald Trump has begun his days-long trip to Asia. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Donald Trump has begun his days-long trip to Asia. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

If it was not for the abuse of power, the United States of America would not exist. If it was not for a deranged ruler living a gilded life imposing his will on those he ruled in order to exploit the many for the benefit of the few, there would have been no American revolution.

As a consequence of such roots, Americans have foreseen the threat of a Donald Trump-like leader for a long time. It is why the US system contains checks and balances to limit the damage caused by the misfires of democracy. Just one year after his election, those antibodies against abuse of power built into our system are now at work and may even cut Mr Trump’s term in office short.

That said, it reveals much about the challenges faced by democracies everywhere that Americans have been contemplating those who would abuse it for so long. Indeed, they have done so repeatedly from concerns expressed by the founding fathers through to Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 novel It Can’t Happen Here, featuring Trump-like populist presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip to a much less-well-known 1998 book called Achieving Our Country by Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty, describing a collapse in American politics and circumstances in which if “the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events … the super-rich will have little to fear.”

Shortly after the birth of the republic, in a letter written in 1792, one of America’s most famous founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, sketched out a version of Trump’s rise that was earlier this year, quite popular in American social media due to its uncanny accuracy. He wrote:

“The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion and bring on civil commotion ...

"When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in temper, possessed of considerable talents … despotic in his ordinary demeanour, known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty - when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity - to join the cry of danger to liberty to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government and bringing it under suspicion to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day - it may justly be suspected that is object is to throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

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One hundred and 28 years later, on July 26, 1920, the great American journalist HL Mencken offered a blunter prediction during the campaign that ultimately resulted in the elevation of Warren G Harding to the American presidency: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

As it happened, Mencken’s prediction was soon realised and subsequently Harding was revealed in office to be a womaniser who very quickly became enmeshed in scandal and corruption.

It is unsettling, of course that the acid observations of Mencken would be right not once but (at least) twice within a period of 100 years. But he understood, as did Hamilton, that democracy was as vulnerable to the predations of populist know-nothings as monarchies are to whims of rulers without a moral compass.

Seventy-five years after Mencken, American astronomer Carl Sagan made a prediction that is perhaps even more chilling than those of Hamilton or Mencken. He wrote in his book The Demon Haunted the World:

"I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."

Sagan saw the critical reasoning skills associated with science as the antidote for such a fate and that absent it, as he later said, America would be “up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along".

While Hamilton’s concerns were translated into a system of government including an independent judiciary, separation of powers and specific laws that are making it difficult for Mr Trump to achieve his objectives of institutionalising his breed of racism, greed, and misogyny, Sagan’s warning has yet to be addressed. While the concerns of our forefathers may translate into the reason America ultimately can withstand the election of a “downright moron”, if America and other nations are unable to forestall the numbing effects on citizens of steady streams of fake news, dumbed-down social media-driven political discourse, declining educational standards that discount civics, ethics or philosophy, and other factors weakening our ability to make wise collective judgements, then it will not be long before those like Mr Trump are not seen as aberrations to be contained and excised by democracy but rather they will become the norm that might ultimately destroy it.

David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow

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