RICHARD BUTLER. The showdown between principles and interests.

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.


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.

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7 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER. The showdown between principles and interests.

  1. Thanks for the technical stuff Paul. It is over my head but I will try to get a grip on the basics. We need to get these fundamental issues out of the too-hard basket

  2. Trump won the election fair and square with three admirable policies. First and foremost. to get some serious industry going in the mid-west and northern states where I grew up and where he won the Presidency. With American know-how, this should not be so hard. It should remain Trump’s top priority in the interests of the American economy and his own re-election.

    Secondly, to normalise relations with Russia, as the diplomats say. We all breathed a sigh of relief and it is common sense. Russia poses no threat to America but China does. Russia co-operating with China in the new Silk Road Project will put America in the shade. A closer relationship between Russia and the USA may not weaken Russian-Chinese relations but it is worth trying. High school history — Lord Palmerston and the balance of power.

    Thirdly, the Trump team said no more regime change in the Middle East. If Trump can get America out of the Middle East, talking nicely to the Russians and rebuilding its industrial base his sins will be forgiven.

    America’s problem is not Trump and the Republicans just as Australia’s problem is not Turnbull, Abbot and the Liberals. The problem is with the left-of-centre mainstream parties, the Democrats in America and Labor in Australia. The Democrats need to break their ties with Wall Street. Hopefully Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can work together.

    When the citizenship nonsense started I wrote to Labor members asking them to give the government all the space it needed to sort out this trivial matter, hold by-elections, prorogue parliament if necessary. To keep it simple, I added that the priority of Labor on forming government should be to increase revenue, increase Centrelink staff and treat people as human beings, not numbers on a computer. Winston Peters in New Zealand has just made a similar comment about putting a human face on capitalism.

    • Avatar paul frijters says:

      It is almost irritating how much we agree, Jerry. The proposed wall with Mexico is a classic workfare program that comes straight out of New Deal Roosevelt thinking. In stead of opposing it, the Democrats should promise a bigger wall, a green one with solar panels. And another one with Canada too.

      I agree about the revenue-is-crucial bit too (which is why I have been writing on VAT in the EU). The way to get tax out of the largest companies (foreign or domestic) is to abandon the idea of taxation based on reported revenue and profits. Tax based on reported streams can be dodged and gamed very effectively, and tax authorities cannot win the definition game. In stead, taxation for large entities should become based on estimated revenue and profits, with no legal right of appeal.

  3. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    I agree with 90% of this, very well done., Richard Butler. Predictably I part company with Richard in his still seeing grave problems in ‘Russian’ interference in US politics, whatever it is. Living in the US for much of the time, it would be hard not to absorb the ‘bilious’ general reactions to any mention of Russia. Prejudice is locked in and ingrained. But let me challenge a few of Richard’s implicit assumptions.

    Russia is not a political/ economic monolith. Yes, Putin has a very powerful bully pulpit. The oligarchic class listen respectfully to him.
    And sometimes take his advice. But many are corrupt – they learned it from Americans in the 1990s – early 2000s. They enjoy the freedoms inherent in the globalised market economy which Russia joined, to behave corruptly. We all do it – think Turnbull, Cayman Iskands, Adani, Crown Casino – but Russian mobsters and business leaders are better , more ruthless, at these games than most rivals. They are playing the system we taught them and playing it better than our equivalents do. It is no accident that these sorts of people gravitated to Trump , they saw him as like them. Peegate might have happened , and this potential blackmail scenario has a Russian Mafia ring to it – it is insurance to hold dirt on your business partners/friends. But none of this is about Putin or Lavrov or the Russian state. Russua is now a particularly freewheeling market economy . To see everything as about Putin is importing outmoded Soviet/era mental steteptypes to what is now a very different, complicated country and business culture with good and bad features. Americans need to wise up – the Russia they see and stereotype is not the Russia of today. It is a country of their imagination, a sort of fantasy Mordor. The real
    Russia is a work in progress.

  4. Avatar Simon T says:

    If Trump resigns or is impeached as a result of the Russian investigation or something else, let’s hope that the political establishment does not just declare victory and move on with business as usual. They need to try to address the causes of Trump – the (mainly economic) decisions over three decades that have left so many of his voters drifting sideways.

  5. Avatar Paul Frijters says:

    we probably share the same ideals, but we live in a different truth bubble, Richard. Trump’s first year has been exceptional if you look at the stats. The US economy has grown 3 percent, unemployment is very low at 4%, the stock market is breaking records, and illegal migration is down about 70%. Whether that is due to luck or policy is politically immaterial.

    The Republicans control the majority of the Governors and the states, and of course the houses in Washington. Hillary Clinton’s Russian connection now seem tighter and more poisoned than Trump’s, and the US has started no new wars. So on those socres too, Trump is doing well.

    Of course, the US elites are still winning the war against the 99% of their own population, but Hillary represents the same elites so no change there either way. And whilst there is real debate and innovation on the Republican side, the Democrats are imploding with their escalating and ridiculous identity politics, alienating themselves more and more from the majority of the population.

    In short, the Republican politicians have never had it this good and there is no real cloud in sight for them. Why should they be worried about the tweeter-in-chief who makes everyone else look reasonable and helps their agenda? They have him exactly where they want him. They’d be nuts to impeach him.

    As for the implicit notion that the Democrats, unlike the Republicans, have been principled these last 20 years: you have to be kidding me. Saint Obama’s bail out of the bankers is a textbook example of the insiders screwing over the 99%.

    Beware of wishful thinking!

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