Bringing the Trumps, and Trumpism, to a fair accounting

Nov 11, 2020

Donald Trump has  often spoken the language of retribution — and intention to use the processes of government to lock up his political enemies. He could hardly be surprised that his own administration’s malfeasances will come under close scrutiny once his power to frustrate them lapses.

Trump’s very impeachment (unlike those of his successfully impeached predecessors, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson) was for abuse of power. The charges had some substance even if his indictment (and acquittal) were partisan affairs. Trump has interfered in the justice system, including the military justice system, and sacked officials who stood up for the law against arbitrary government. His disrespect for institutions and norms of government, for processes laid down by law, and his disregard for conventions about nepotism, conflict of interest, transparency and stewardship in the public interest make him a rich target for his enemies.

Even some Republicans hope to shake loose Trump’s hold over the party. They don’t think “we waz robbed”. They do not want him to carry the party’s standard again. Even less do they want a Trump dynasty.  Trump did not invent, even if he perfected, all of the ingredients of Trumpism; many of the modern bastardries of hyper-partisan legislative leaders were rehearsed during the party’s earlier flirts with racism, the tea party, isolationism, and economic and cultural nationalism — including the breach with neoliberal free-market ideas.

Not all Republicans become activists in the cause of social conservatism. Power for them is not about an anti-abortion agenda, fighting culture wars, repudiating immigration and foreigners, or inventing law and order campaigns. They want practical power to affect outcomes. The exercise of power is harder, not easier, when the focus is on insubstantial message-politics rather than the management of the economy, defence, health, education and welfare.

But if there is to be any real accounting for the Trump aberration in politics, it will never have real credibility if nemesis is in the hands of pure partisans, obviously more out for revenge than justice. So tribal has become American politics — and so wide the chasm between people on either side — that there are few neutrals trusted by all.

While the US has, in many respects, a better parliamentary committee system than Australia does — and with the staff and the numbers of politicians able to serve on them — these are not ultimately fair instruments of detached review. They are invariably partisan, and their findings are accordingly much discounted.

Legislative committees can serve useful purposes of bringing issues and facts to public attention –sometimes through unwilling witnesses. But politicians are not trusted as fact-finders, or as judges and juries. Even when Americans create something analogous to a standing or special royal commission, the tendency is to staff it with people identified by their party connections. Increasingly even senior judicial figures cannot win regard for proper detachment from the political interests of those who appointed them. This is an own-goal for those who chose judges not for their learning and general dispositions, but for their known prejudices.

Tribalism has affected the appointment of special prosecutors. Think Kenneth Starr. In the US, the secretive processes, a bit like a grand jury, are not well adapted to fact-finding or the allocation of blame. Too big a focus on prosecution, moreover, is often at the expense of hiding, for too long, evidence of systemic wrongdoing, and the need to attack it not with a few convictions but by general action by the executive and the legislature.

Australia pioneered the statutory authority — independent bodies charged with long term plans such as railway building, and energy generation. They were focused on the overall task, not short term politics. The stimulus was railway building, initially here (as in the US and Britain) inept, corrupt, wasteful and plagued by nepotism, crooked tendering and other improprieties.  In due course similar sorts of bodies electrified Australian cities and towns, developed water and sewer schemes, gas pipelines, and, if with less success, established a national broadband network. Standing anti-corruption bodies descend from this idea.

America has failed to go far with the idea, in part, I suspect, because it is a foreign one. There are some independent statutory officials, including an equivalent of an audit office, and bodies such as the FBI. Before Trump, it was unusual to have it suggested that an FBI director worked at the whim of the president; indeed, under J. Edgar Hoover, it sometimes seemed that the president served at the whim of a blackmailer with his own political constituency. Likewise, there are Americans with long histories of public service, at both the administrative and executive level who are sufficiently detached from politics that their work can command general respect.

Yet America may be the worse off for lacking a ready equivalent for a body such as a royal commission or an  ICAC. A real ICAC, that is, on the NSW model, rather than the Mickey Mouse version proposed by the Morrison government. The Washington gap is not intrinsic to  the republican, rather than the Westminster, system. Nor from different concepts of the separation of powers.

The start-off point would be a chief executive willing to stand apart from bodies with inquisitorial powers, and a duty to bring abuse of power to account. And with some focus on de-emphasising the tribal.

I suspect we would all like to see Donald Trump, and some of his officials, banged up for a long time for some of their most egregious abuses of power.

But it would probably pass the American pub test only if the exposure, the disgrace and the trial was enough to shock the average ex-Trump voter from North Carolina or Tennessee,  perhaps because of edited highlights on the Oprah Winfrey show. Best of all with Joe Biden not delivering a daily commentary, least of all by twitter.

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