In exactly three days from now, Donald John Trump will fade into the grey silhouette of America’s presidential history. He may stage a delusionary grand exit and stride out through the front door of the White House. More appropriately, he could choose instead to sneak out through the back exit under cover of darkness. Either way, Mr. Trump is about to walk into the anonymity of powerlessness. Perhaps, the tattered ego of an amateur tyrant had no better exit rehearsal than the serial infamy of the last four years of American history. Trump’s retreat to his Florida estate or Trump Tower in New York may no longer interest front page editors of major US newspapers. Clearly, what is easily the most consequential and controversial tenure in the White House will come to an unflattering end in a matter of days or hours. This manner of exit would be in direct reversal of what the flamboyant ego of Donald Trump would have desired. But history is what it is.
In many ways, the untidy end of the Trump presidency was foretold. He is leaving in a slightly nastier storm than he came, having raked up clouds of disaster and turbulence all along a four year trail. I take it that in opting for Trump in 2016, the adventurous exceptionalism of the American spirit wanted to try something outside the humdrum correctness of normal Washington politics. The adventure and experiment has turned out a rather costly error.
Let us make no mistake about it. Trump never wanted to be like a normal American president. Instead, he aimed to be an American ‘strong man’ president in the mould of the dictators he publicly admired (Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung Un, Tayeb Erdogan etc.) But even in his preferred model of elected autocrats and tin-god despots, he scored poorly. He lacked the intellect to craft a coherent personality cult let alone develop a coherent populist agenda. In other places where autocracy and one -man misrule manage to be tolerated, Trump would not have made much news. His feeble attempts to encroach on the institutions of state would have been passed off as amateurish or covered up by conniving officialdom. But in America, with over 200 hundred years of democracy and institutional integrity, Mr. Trump was an embarrassing interloper kept perennially in check by resilient institutions no matter how desperately he tried to weaken them.
Strictly speaking then, on the scale of proper autocrats and recognized despots, even elected ones, Trump may pass as a mere apprentice. He cold not degrade American democracy to the illiberal tradition that we see in Russia and Hungary nor did he have the guile to graduate to elective absolutism. But in the eyes of his followers, he became something of a crude religious icon, which made him ultimately dangerous.
Invading the Capitol with hooded goons and ‘official’ mobs may not be so earth shakingly novel . We have seen that nearer home. Converting the army, FBI, the police, Federal Reserve, public account agencies into extensions of the presidential fiefdom are areas that Mr. Trump dared not venture into because of the integrity of those institutions. Elevating the first family into co-rulers and outlaws was much easier and fits into the familiar pattern of unchecked sovereigns. Converting the ruling party into a private populist movement of the president, his family and friends is a familiar trait of dictators. Similarly, a private craving for the outward trappings of absolute monarchy are natural temptations of leaders deluded into power obsession. Trump once openly expressed a desire to have military parades as massive as the annual displays in Pyongyang and Beijing or reminiscent of Tsarist Russia or imperial France.
The superfluous negatives of the Trump presidency come from a more fundamental source. He woefully failed to recognize and ran counter to the uniqueness of America as a nation. America has a quality which it shares with no other nation: it is a nation founded purely on a creed, an idea. At the center of that creed is freedom and democracy, a decisive departure from the stifling monarchism of old Europe from which America’s founders were fleeing. The men and women who fled Europe to found and embrace the new free world of America were all attracted by the central creed of freedom and democracy which America came to symbolize. Successive American governments have incrementally grown that creed by preserving, strengthening, respecting and upholding its defining values.
Donald Trump rode on the back of democracy and freedom to assume power only to subvert the American ideal. For four years, he privatized the institution of the presidency, sought to subvert the supreme court, to privatize the Republican party, blackmail the legislature especially senators and congress men and women who differed with his policies.
Methodically, Trump divided the nation he vowed to ‘make great again’ by appealing to base sentiments of race and nativism by using sustained falsehood. Under the guise of immigration control, Trump instituted a regime of reckless discrimination against immigrants and persons who did not fit into his narrow definition of what an American should look like. A vicious immigration control policy saw children held in inhuman cages and adults incacerated in sub human border detention facilities. In a nation built mostly by the labour of immigrants, armed officials knocked on doors to arrest and deport ‘illegal’ immigrants sometimes for routine paperwork infractions.
Gradually, he cultivated a tribe of white supremacists, red necks and violent racists who felt entitled to the ownership of classic America. Under the guise of partisanship, Trump presided over a nation divided along racial, class and religious lines. The Moslem ban, the sponsorship of rabid Zionism and the blatant abuse and harassment of blacks were all aspects of an unequalled divisive governance strategy.
Donald Trump’s America has been a tragic devaluation of the relative security and social peace that had come to be associated with that country. Social unrest, riots and thinly disguised race riots became the order of Trumpian America. Rival gangs and armed fanatical groups emerged. Proud Boys, Q-A-Non, MAGA were activated to boldly disturb the peace only to be countered by Black Lives Matter in a contest for the soul of America. The police became the official enforcer of a divisive administration, sometimes executing young blacks in cold blood on the streets of American cities. By and large, a bigoted president that openly identified with white supremacist and extremist terror mobs became the greatest threat to national security.
The high point of this ill -fated strategy was the promotion of the falsehood that the presidential elections of November 2020 were rigged against him. This culminated in last week’s storming of the Capitol by a motley assemblage of officially enabled violent mobs.
In the aftermath of this brazen invasion of the citadel of democracy, the national security apparatus has snapped back into life in a bid to ensure that next week’s inauguration of a new president is not marred by another violent invasion of pubic spaces especially the Capitol, venue of the historic event.
As of the time of this writing, well over 20,000 fully armed National Guard and other combat troops are swarming all over Washington DC. The Capitol and most of official Washington is now a virtual fortress, cordoned off by 7 foot perimeter fence work and wearing the look of a combat zone. The total number of troops mobilized to secure the city and ‘holy places’ of democracy far outnumber the total number of US troops on active deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria put together. The National Mall which is the usual meeting ground of all Americans who troop out every four years to celebrate the inauguration of a new president as a festival of democracy, has been closed to the public.
The tragic symbolism of the massive troop deployment in Washington this week is a sad commentary on the sad state of American democracy that Donald Trump has created. These troops are marshaled not against a foreign force but instead against American citizens newly weaponized by the toxic theology of Trumpism. Even the optics of this warlike deployment – the Capitol as a war front- is in itself a humiliating derogation of the founding creed of America as a land of the free.
Under the violent threat of Trump’s vicious populism, the usual dividing line between friend and foe that defines every war is now blurred. Trump’s mobsters have come to view fellow Americans as adversaries. Perhaps there are concessions that need to be granted here in favour of Trump’s villainous brand of misguided conservatism. The over 70 million Americans that voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election represent a significant voice of endorsement for his viewpoint and policy slant. Perhaps these people love the unsightly wall of steel along the southern border. Perhaps they have benefited from the relaxation of corporate regulations that have made billionaires richer in America. Perhaps there are Americans who detest the fact that America is essentially a nation of immigrants and children and grand children of immigrants from Donald and Melania Trump to Kamala Harris, from Barack Obama to Collin Powell and from Henry Kissinger to Arnold Schwarzneger. Perhaps, there is a narrow definition of American nationalism that seeks to exclude Indian Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans all of whom have joined forces to make the United States what it is. Trump’s supporters need to have their voices heard but not through violent intimidation and rowdy mob eruptions that limit the freedom of the majority.
Yet the outcome of the 2020 presidential election represents a democratic rejection of this alternative viewpoint and its prime salesman. To ignore this democratic verdict and exploit the division of perspectives within a national dialogue and use it as an instrument for the weaponization of a mob is the greatest disservice of the Trump presidency to American democracy. Yet, this ravaging and rampaging populism has unfortunately become the hallmark of Mr. Trump’s legacy.
We must, however, go beyond the narrow confines of the myopia of the Trump era to reflect on the general challenges which it has thrust on global democracy. The questions are many. For instance, does democracy have a way of punishing an errant leader when his policies threaten the very survival of democracy itself and even the very nation? Ordinarily, the electoral process and the fact of periodic elections is the opportunity which a democracy has to pass judgment on and punish an errant leader. While Donald Trump fiercely marketed his ultra conservative nationalism, the 2020 presidential election delivered a clear verdict on his performance on the job. All the institutions of democratic America- the people, the state electoral circuits, the state courts, the Supreme Court and the electoral college mechanism- all returned a verdict of ‘failed’ on Donald Trump. Even after his mob invasion of the Capitol, his overt incitement of mob violence on the Capitol and the legislative branch has earned Trump a second impeachment, a historic first in American history.
Corporate America has followed suit with damning sanctions ranging from ostracism, social media blackout to business blacklists and withdrawal of credit lines, support services and patronage for the Trump organization. The lesson is clear: democracy as a system, the state that it supports and the capitalist economy that underwrites the costs of the system have a combined lever to punish those whose actions threaten the entire system. Trump is abuot to feel the weight of the consequences of his politics of bad manners.
The weapon of congressional impeachment by the House, while deserved, is clearly insufficient to bury the threat of Trump to the stability and security of the American political system. He has grown a dangerous but substantial support base. That base habours beliefs and groups that threaten the future of America as a diverse society. Even out of office, the possibility that a publicity hungry and egotistic Trump will continue to fan the embers of his decadent nationalism and racism will remain alive. In that mode, he could become a veritable source of political headache for the incoming Biden administration and the Democrats.
The ultimate remedy is to proceed with a Senate conviction of Trump which will disqualify him from future contests for political office as well as strip him of the benefits and immunities of a former president. That Senate conviction, followed by a series of criminal prosecutions for his numerous infractions, should settle the Trump factor in the future of America’s politics. Such a line of action would also be in the interest of a reformed Republican party by clearing the path for more decent aspirants to vie for the presidency in future election cycles.
The response of corporate America to the Trump misadventure has demonstrated a significant aspect of the political economy of democracy. Capitalism thrives best in an atmosphere of credible democratic practice. When democracy goes toxic and unleashes the forces of instability and insecurity, it poisons the market and constricts opportunities for profit. The high priests of the free market must also be advocates of free and fair elections as well as supporters of responsible behavior by those who the political system throw up to run the affairs of state. The larger issues such as freedom of free speech, fair competititon and regulatory fairness are all contingent on a fair and stable democratic space. Donald Trump has tempted the captains of industry to spell these out in rather stark terms unlike before. If indeed he was a proper capitalist, he should have seen the present dire consequences coming.
The impending obliteration of the Trump effect will perhaps be most pronounced in the international space. The emergence of Trump was the deadliest blow to the liberal international order instituted at the end of the Second World War. The bedrock of that order was the establishment of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions of mutual economic assistance and a whole gamut of multilateral mutual assistance programmes and agencies. Trade (WTO), healthcare (WHO), cultural and scientific cooperation (UNESCO) and nuclear non- proliferation and NATO were all guaranteed by the post war world order.
With time, the liberal international order attained a consensus around the contention that liberal democracy and its supporting base of free markets was the most beneficial system for the advancement of the welfare of our common humanity. The beacon and guarantor of that world order was the United States whose power, influence and global leadership in war and peace was axiomatic. Trump’s emergence saw a reversal of this logic and a shrinkage of the United States from some of its global leadership responsibilities. He withdrew the US from WHO, WTO and shredded most strategic multilateral and bilateral trade agreements between the United States and its allies(TPP, NAFTA etc). He reduced the presence in and contribution of the US to NATO. The gaps he created emboldened Russia and China and considerably weakened Europe.
Joe Biden now has his work well cut out both domestically and internationally. He needs to heal the wounds of a divided America at home and restore confidence in US credibility and leadership abroad. He needs to rescue America from the death grip of an unrelenting virus and salvage most of its citizens from the imminence of poverty and destitution. The shining city upon a hill is now almost a squalid hamlet in a valley of death!
Trump’s sunset is America’s opportunity to embrace a sunrise under the experienced hands of Joe Biden.