I have a long-standing fascination with the extreme political polarisation that I perceive exists in the USA. As an Englishman, I am no stranger to the tribalism that pits Tory and Labour supporters against on another (let’s set aside for now the spent force that is the Liberal Democrats). These are two sides which are far apart in terms of political ideals.
Of course “everything is bigger in America”, so during my travels there, I was left with a profound sense that there is a Grand Canyon sized gap between Democrats and Republicans. The ground which exists between these two tribes is not common ground, it is more like the Korean DMZ. So many of the Americans that I spoke to demonstrated antipathy for their political opposites, from contempt through to visceral hatred.
Just about the only thing which both sides should be able to agree on, is that the Trump Presidency has not been a smooth ride so far. Agreeing on who is responsible for the bumps in the road is another thing entirely.
As the Trump presidency lurches from one shocking headline to the next, a grimly predictable pattern can be traced. Media outlets which do not support Trump, report the latest shocking revelation of an action unprecedented in presidential history. This will be accompanied by apparently irrefutable audio, visual or documentary evidence. Democrats will do their very best impression of the tortured soul in Munch’s The Scream and howl in anguish that the office of the President has been brought so low.
At the same time, Republicans will be glued to Fox, consuming a narrative which frames things very differently, such that they will conclude that Trump is being unfairly maligned and there is nothing to see here.
While the people squabble amongst themselves, the US has always given the impression that American democracy can be relied on to sail forth, undeterred by choppy waters. The republic is based on solid models for government and judiciary; with political opposition safely speaking truth to power, with the protection of the impregnable shield of the rule of law. Or so we are told.
The rule of law and in particular, how the law applies to everyone up to and including the president, is something we have heard a lot about from Democrats. If we look at just a handful of the accusations levelled at Trump during his presidency, one could be forgiven for believing that a first-year law student could build a solid case against him. We are told that there exists an embarrassment of riches when it comes to examples of Trumpian impeachable behaviour. Indeed Ben Franklin justified impeachment for those times when an official had “rendered himself obnoxious”, which I admit made me chuckle.
Restricting ourselves to considering the two articles of impeachment which the Senate had to consider, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, it seems impossible that even the most slippery legal contortions could escape a guilty verdict.
I was sad to see America being forced to such an extreme measure, but as the process itself began, optimistic observers in Europe settled down to watch an orderly and just trial. These past few months, we have had plenty of opportunity to learn about “founding fathers” and the constitution (oh we hear so much about your constitution and its amendments). I imagine this historic document was probably written by some hero otherwise known for fighting off red-coats armed only with a rusty musket and his wooden leg.
But wait – a cursory reading of the rules regarding this incredibly important process reveals that it is far from black and white. A republican president is accused of serious wrongdoing and the republican majority senate conduct the trial? Ok, the senator’s oath promises to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution”, but Mitch McConnell said that “I’m not an impartial juror. This is a political process. I’m not impartial about this at all.” Sorry – what? He realises he said that out loud right?
Those of us naive enough to believe that republican intransigence would be swept away by shocking witness testimony were more than a little startled to learn that this would be a trial with no witnesses. One of the best quotes to be uttered during this non-trial came from John Barrasso (R) who was moved to say (without a hint of irony) “I didn’t hear anything new, at all”.
The game was rigged and everyone can see it. What possible faith can remain in such a broken system? The candidate with the least votes won (again). We are told he has broken the law but the system of checks and balances put in place to prevent an abuse of power is too comically flawed to stop the rot.
During the Cold War, successive US presidents would regularly expound on the utopia of American democracy. The USSR and her communist allies were painted as backward and evil. This source of pride has long since dried up and I am sure that Americans are desperate to restart the flow. Perhaps Uganda or Somalia can send “observers” to ensure the next election is conducted properly?
The impeachment process was a rare opportunity to demonstrate a non-partisan protection of the constitution, but instead we got something which could inflict more long-term damage to America’s reputation than anything Trump can do.
Major news organisations reported that many Americans believe that the result was decided long before last Wednesday’s vote. That is a truly shocking inditement and shows that there is not only a loss of trust in the president, but also in both the house and senate, who have failed to introduce order in an otherwise tumultuous political landscape.
Europe would certainly like to see the back of Trump, given that his is only one of her many current problems. Brexit is the gift which keeps on giving and 2020 is likely to deliver the next banking crisis (and for the record, I am going to stick my neck out and predict this one will be worse than 2008. More on that perhaps another time).
Trump’s America First approach has alienated Europeans who fear he is no longer committed to NATO and is likely to stir up trade difficulties. The frustration that Trump generates has surfaced on a number of occasions, including the leaked comments by the (now former) British ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, who described the administration as “inept” and the video showing European leaders and Justin Trudeau laughing at Trump.
For a really esoteric expression of contempt, there has been plenty written about how The Queen signalled a royal middle digit by wearing particular jewellery during Trump’s UK visits. The brazen wearing of gifts from the Obamas, Canada, and a broach worn by the Queen Mother at King George VI’s funeral, is likely to have gone well over Trump’s head, but it is the thought that counts.
It does not take an oracle to guess what the Russians make of all of this. Surely they are revelling in the unexpected discord which has descended upon the western countries which vanquished them in the cold war. A more chilling thought is that they are delighted that their efforts to sow chaos have reaped such staggering rewards.