RICHARD BUTLER. The showdown between principles and interests.

Nov 8, 2017

The conflict between principles and interests now afflicting the US polity is stark. Participants from all sides of the political mainstream know that Trump’s presidency is proving disastrous and that they will need to act to rectify this. For now, the Republicans are continuing to prefer the pursuit of their partisan interests to acting to rescue the system of principles and institutions vital to the Republic; which are repeatedly jeopardized by Trump and his rampant egocentricity.  Much is at issue for the US and globally.  

At the end of the first week of Trump’s presidency, I raised in these pages Pearls and Irritations 27 January 2017) the question of whether his election should be viewed as a sideshow to the overall result of the elections.

What we now know of the Trump incumbency could be seen as rendering that question somewhat moot. But it isn’t. His conduct has been woeful in so many ways and, understandably, has attracted massive and continuous media attention, leaving the impression that he is, indeed, the show. In fact, this is not the case, even though it’s what Trump wants – to be the only show in town.

The far more important reality is Trump’s conflict with all other major parts of the US political system; the Congress, the judiciary, the party he claims to represent and, not least, the media and other mechanisms for public discourse. A main conduit for this conflict, and major victim of it, is verity in that discourse. Trump’s continual lying about virtually every matter on which he expresses himself is unrelenting.

This is a crisis, a key indicator of which is the growing focus of analyses and ridicule of Trump and his presidency, which now routinely departs from the deeply embedded American tradition of maintaining respect for the presidency, which sometimes touches upon sacralisation of it.

It now appears that the time of reckoning is moving into view, even thought the solution remains to be designed. Even such a devoted Republican as Senator Lindsey Graham has acknowledged that the reckoning is approaching and he seems to think it should.

The first indictments issued from the work of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has opened up the possibility that his election victory will, itself, be shown to have been shaped by inadmissible actions.  Indeed, if the indictment of Paul Manafort is a guide, treasonous conduct may have occurred. Manafort is, after all, indicted not simply for the commission of financial crimes, but for conspiracy against the United States.

Michelle Goldberg, a leading columnist for the New York Times, has described Trump’s presidency as “a crime … obvious for a year”- another illustration of how far the abandonment of the usual caution and courtesy to the President and his office has been abandoned. (Michelle Goldberg: The Plot Against America, NYT October 30 2017).

There are means, written into the US Constitution, for removing a President: an impeachment resolution or action by the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet, under the 25th amendment. But it must be emphasized that while written in legal and procedural terms, decisions to use those means are anything but formal or matters of simple application of the law. They are, perhaps as they should be, inherently political. Ultimately, a political determination is required to be made by Congress.

This fact raises the core issue of the Trump presidency – the conflict between principles and interests.

Up to the present time, the Republican Party in Congress, with the exception of a handful of its members, has preferred to favour the latter. They are manifestly aware of the disaster that is Trump and his conduct. They know of the threat he is posing to fundamental institutions of the US system and one would like to think that, at least privately, they find him as distasteful and grotesque as do so many other Americans. They surely are aware too, of the disrepute to which Trump has exposed the US around the world.

But for now they are waiting to see developments in the domestic electorate, leading up to the mid-term elections next year and whether they can legislate, with Trump’s approval, a new taxation system. What they are proposing is cuts for the persons and entities they represent; corporations and, citizens who are already relatively wealthy.

If Trump were to falter with respect to those interests, they may discover that they have been standing by, for no good reason, watching a fire around the whole edifice of the US political system and move to extinguish it; hardly an elevated way in which to re-discover key principles of the US system.

Politics in all comparable countries, including our own, is demonstrating major public disenchantment with democratic institutions and the conduct of government and administration. There appears to be a deep public interest in principles of fairness, transparency, equity and probity and commitment to values, such as the preservation of the environment, not just the alleged health of the overall economy.

For so many people, the notion that the pursuit of narrowly defined material interests will always win over more fundamental and widely shared values, is precisely why politics as usual have become the source of cynicism and, often, despair.

That despair is what Trump tapped into, and Hillary dreadfully failed to address persuasively. It saw him elected, leaving aside the idiosyncrasies of the US electoral system. (We, of course, have our own.)

The idea that, as President, Trump would act on inequalities and other sources of despair – those conditions that he described in his inaugural address as constituting the “carnage” in the US – was the grossest swindle of them all.

But his base still likes the way he speaks, abusively, towards the system; the swamp he promised to drain. They still seem to ignore that they’ve put the fox in charge of the chicken coop, although their numbers are declining. A further decline in support for him will be another encouragement for Republicans to re-discover principle.

The other side of politics in the US, the Democrats, also know the unalloyed facts of Trump; his unfitness for the office he holds, the dangers he poses to the Republic itself, his personal vanity and instability, as displayed daily in his tweets. But they seem to be relatively immobilised, perhaps by their own identity crisis and, of course, their astonishment over and culpability for having lost an election to such a snake-oil salesman.

It is becoming urgent for both side of US politics to step up to reassert the principles of the Republic, because they are more important than any specific, immediate interests and because it is only within the context of those principles that those interests can be durably pursued. Such action would also resound globally.

The investigation of Russia’s role in the US elections is a deeply serious matter, leaving aside the ugly noise of the new McCarthyism sloshing through the US public discourse, where the mere uttering of the word “Russia” is bilious.

It must be expected that Mueller’s investigation will identify shocking and corrupt behaviours, all around. This may well help generate a political decision to remove Trump. But it can also be expected to illuminate the level of corruption in the systems in both Washington and Moscow: providing a kind of Tony Soprano meets Don Corleone moment (your choice as to which of these characterization best suits Trump or Putin).

The notion that the coincidence of corrupted political systems, in which people have lost faith, and growing inequalities provides an irresistible opportunity for demagoguery is persuasively argued by Mike Duncan, author of “Before the Storm – The beginning of the end of the Roman Empire”. He sees Trump as a classic demagogue, produced by the coincidence of these factors, but interestingly doubts that he is more than smoke and mirrors.

Former Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg, nailed it when he said recently “Brexit is the single stupidest thing any country has ever done… apart from the election of Donald Trump”.

And this is the point. The US is not alone in encountering a truly serious reaction to the failure of its political system to work for the bulk of the people.

So, the UK got Farage and Boris Johnson, now British Foreign Secretary and their lies. The US got Trump who, among other insanities, wants to massively expand the number and quality of US holdings of nuclear weapons.

Richard Butler AC, former Ambassador to the United Nations, New York, Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.

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