PAUL KNOTT on the two paths that lie ahead for the US.
The American presidential election in November is a clash between genial Joe Biden and demagogic Donald Trump. But the contest is much more fundamental than the contrasting characters of the individual candidates. This election pits two political philosophies against one another: a cult of personality versus the constitutional democracy that has largely served the US well since its founding in 1776.
In a rare break from Trump’s prodigious dishonesty (the Washington Post has documented more than 20,000 verified lies he has told during his presidency so far), the Republican party he holds in thrall is candid about its intentions.
Instead of the traditional platform of policies to advance the public interest, the party has issued a short statement saying it ‘will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda’.
This declaration is a blunt endorsement of Trump’s cult of personality. It affirms the Republican party’s abandonment of any lingering policy process in favour of blindly backing whatever the leader decides to say and do.
It is difficult to overstate the dangers of the disintegration of a party that was previously a pillar of global democracy. Personality cults do not have a happy, or even benign, track record in power. During the last century, Hitler, Mao and Stalin collectively slaughtered at least 60 million people.
Even the less atrocious examples of the form produce long term outcomes that no developed democracy should wish to emulate. Life in Ataturk’s Turkey and Tito’s Yugoslavia was certainly tolerable, at least for those who did not fall foul of the regime and victim to persecution.
But they were followed by decades of military coups, political violence and corruption in Turkey and Yugoslavia’s horrific dismemberment.
The more immediate, manifold weaknesses of such regimes are already apparent in Trump’s America. The object of a personality cult must overshadow everyone else.
This requires the removal of any independent voices from government. Trump long ago sacked most senior officials with significant records of achievement in other fields, such as former defence secretary General James Mattis and ex-secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Trump’s government is now almost entirely composed of sycophants whose careers depend upon his continued patronage. Such figures prosper only by telling the leader what he wants to hear, not what he needs to know.
Sidelining objective expertise and different perspectives diminishes the quality of decision making, as demonstrated by the administration’s catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
In the course of rejecting impartial medical advice that he considers inconvenient for his political prospects, Trump has frequently denigrated experts like the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci.
Dr Fauci has scrupulously advised six presidents, from both parties. His family is currently receiving protection against the numerous credible death threats they have received.
This vindictiveness is in keeping with another anti-democratic feature of personality cult governance. Rather than respecting fellow citizens who have some views with which you disagree, anyone who fails to follow the leader slavishly is castigated as an enemy to be crushed. Aside from those of other political persuasions, Trump has poured vitriol on fellow Republicans like former presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. Worse still, he has inflicted this treatment on American war heroes such as Lt.Col. Alexander Vindman, who raised concerns about Trump’s attempt to extort Ukrainian president Zelensky, and the deceased Captain Humayun Khan, whose parents objected to Trump’s statements about Muslims.
The adoption of a personality cult causes the leader to blur the distinction between himself and the state, steadily creating a sense of ownership over the public realm.
Trump’s stunted sense of morality and lifelong history of financial chicanery meant the misappropriation of taxpayers’ money started quite quickly in his case. Trump’s insistence that his large presidential entourage and security detail stay in his own hotels when he travels (for which the public purse is charged top dollar) is one example.
It has yet to be revealed what is contained in the tax returns he is desperately trying to conceal from public scrutiny.
The l’etat, c’est moi sensibility is even more evident in Trump’s attempts to pervert the impartial rule of law.
In 2018, the president opined ‘where’s my Roy Cohn?’ in lament for the notorious lawyer who served him during his initial years in the real estate business. He had previously been the chief counsel to disgraced senator Joseph McCarthy during his ‘red-baiting’ witch-hunt of supposed communists in the 1950s.
Cohn was later disbarred for forcing a dying client to sign a will amendment leaving him his fortune.
Trump finally found his new Cohn in attorney general William Barr. Barr does Trump’s bidding by breaching the Justice Department’s formerly sacrosanct independence from the executive branch of government. He stymied cooperation with the impeachment hearings into Trump’s abuse of power on Ukraine and sabotaged the Mueller Report on collusion with Russia by pre-emptively releasing a misleading summary of its conclusions. Barr has also intervened to reduce the sentences of those like Roger Stone who have been convicted of committing crimes on Trump’s behalf.
In normal times, there are few countries in which the nation’s constitution is treated with such reverence as the United States. It was seen by Americans as the foundation of all the freedoms that Americans hold dear.
Yet the supposedly more tradition-minded ‘conservative’ side of the political spectrum is now conniving with Trump to undermine the constitution.
The president launches near-daily assaults on the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment. Trump has sent paramilitary style security forces to attack people exercising their right to peaceful protest, including tear-gassing citizens outside the White House to clear a path for a profane photo opportunity of him holding a bible outside a church.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that this unravelling of established norms and institutions is happening in the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country – a nation that has long seen itself as a beacon of freedom and democracy.
This is not a time for the usual ‘fault on both sides’ pieties either. The Republicans are the guilty party in this unfolding calamity.
Their self-abasement to Trump has been consistent throughout his term in office. They have repeatedly supported his attacks on Americans’ fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. They justify his diatribes against fellow US citizens. Nor have they found any fault with his disturbing deference to foreign dictators who wish the United States ill, such as Russian president Putin – even allegations emerged about Russia offering bounties for killing US soldiers.
This is because Trump did not start this assault on American democracy. Rather, he merely seized the wheel and accelerated in the direction in which the Republicans have been heading for many years.
Their story is reminiscent of the famous tale about legendary 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson. In keeping with ancient Mississippi Delta folklore, Johnson is said to have met the devil at deserted crossroads on a moonless night. There he sold his soul to Satan in exchange for the promise of a successful musical career.
Success duly followed – but ended abruptly with Johnson’s mysterious demise at the age of 27.
The Republicans’ crossroads moment came in 2013 when its national committee issued a report acknowledging its shrinking support (it had lost the popular vote by a significant margin in five of the previous six presidential elections) and advocating an inclusive strategy to broaden its appeal to young, female and ethnic minority voters. Instead of taking that route, the party opted to do a deal with Donald Trump.
The road taken by the Republicans involved abandoning any attempt to attract majority support from the voters. Instead, they opted to rely on constantly ratcheting up the anger of their base. This voting bloc has proven just large enough to cling to power by exploiting the iniquities of the electoral college system for electing the president, the outsized influence granted to conservative states with small populations in the senate (where each state has two senators, irrespective of its size) and the opportunity this presents to appoint judges.
The inevitable consequences of their cynicism are now apparent. Rather than participating in a contest of ideas on how best to tackle the nation’s challenges, the Republicans are reduced to inventing their own ‘alternative facts’ to rile up their base and, in effect, running against democracy itself.
The Republicans are engaged in widespread gerrymandering of voting districts and voter suppression. The steps they are taking include the spurious exclusions of people from the voter rolls, closing polling stations in areas where their support is low and, more recently, hobbling the post office in order to reduce mail-in voting during the pandemic.
The Republicans anti-democracy strategy is reaching new lows during this campaign. Rather than making proposals to address the nation’s problems if re-elected, much of Trump’s rhetoric is aimed at undermining faith in the democratic process by making false claims that it is rigged against him and indicating that he will not accept the results. His words and actions appear targeted at discouraging voter turnout and inciting violence by his supporters, a terrifying scenario that has already started to unfold.
Biden and Trump are the names at the top of the ballot in November. But the most crucial choice at this election is between saving American democracy and a descent into the hell of despotism.