In a series of articles in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election – a contest that will reverberate around the world – Henry McLeish will discuss the personalities, issues, policies, dreams and a political system that has been shaken to its foundations by the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
Here he asks whether Republicans will ever break free from Trump’s grip on the party and if Democrats will learn the lessons of defeat in 2016.
Twelve months from now, nearly 200 million registered American voters will have the opportunity to reject or re-elect the 45th President of the United States, Donald J Trump.
Love him or loathe him – there is no common ground on this issue – Trump has become a towering, turbulent and troubling figure in global, US, EU and UK politics.
Attacks on London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, an apparently close bonding with PM Boris Johnson, support for Brexit and a radio phone-in with Nigel Farrage, including an attack on Jeremy Corbyn, are testament to the President’s capacity to meddle in UK affairs.
The political upheaval in the US is not just a bump in the road. Trump is unique, a political earthquake whose tremors are being felt everywhere.
This is the President the founding fathers feared and why they shared a common belief, in Philadelphia in May 1787, that the draft of a new constitution for the new nation should ensure that oppression, foreign interference, authoritarianism, corruption for personal gain and privileged government for the few should be avoided.
This has an eerily topical ring to it as the House of Representatives opens up its formal impeachment probe into Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the US President was looking for dirt on Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden. Over 230 years on from framing the US constitution, the US political system is still consumed by the same fears and concerns.
Much of the debate around Trump has focused on his character weaknesses, his crude and coarse language, his erratic decisions, unpredictable behavior, obsessive lying and his total lack of interest in policy-making or understanding issues.
Obediant, fearful Republicans
But the more serious charges against him – anticipated by the founding fathers – relate to his contempt for the constitution, the integrity and independence of the institutions it seeks to protect and the checks and balances which were believed to be vital to ensure a functioning democracy, effective and ethical government and a political culture acceptable to evyerone. Trump challenges all of this on a daily basis. And in doing so he cuts a figure above the law.
America is a deeply and bitterly divided country, struggling to contain the social and cultural damage caused by race, poverty, religion, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and astonishing levels of inequality of income and wealth.
This state of affairs predated Trump, but he has become the cheerleader for division and has deliberately exploited every issue in US society to feed his own brand of populism, economic nationalism and authoritarianism: so far, compliant, fearful and obedient Republican lawmakers have stayed quiet.
Trump, the brand and businessman, believes countries should be run like companies in which customers substitute for citizens, the market for democracy, wealth defines worth, greed is good and people serve money instead of the other way around.
The President has taken matters further by turning the White House into another piece of real estate in which all the family and business interests can continue to prosper. He is the head of his own parallel universe. The more he veers from the “normal”, the more his base is drawn to him.
To carry this off, Trump has to be super tough. This is where his no shame, no guilt, no empathy, no respect and no humanity approach kicks in as a perfect foil to any notion of taking responsibility for anything.
A unique presidential lifestyle of tweeting, golf, political rallies, phoning friends, watching Fox News and issuing endless executive orders allowing him to bypass the Congress fills the daily routine. None of this appears illegal or corrupt but it must pose serious questions to the electors.
Democrats share blame
Any comment on the US presidential election has to reflect on how polarised and poisonous politics has become. Viewing US politics from the UK can be misleading and distorted. Behind the perceived image of the power and prestige of Capitol Hill, the imposing presence of the Washington Mall, the historic decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, and the glamour, intrigue, history and drama of the White House, there lurks a different and less attractive country divided against itself, where institutions are failing, the Congress is dysfunctional and poorer communities are left without hope or help: the “land of the free and the home of the brave” has an increasingly hollow ring to it. This is the reality behind ‘modern’ America.
The run-up to polling day will have all the hallmarks of a typical presidential election, with the Republicans and Democrats fighting it out to occupy the most important political office on the planet. But this election will be far from normal. Trump is the election. Preserving the rule of law is the big issue.
The outcome matters to Americans but it also impacts on the international order and, post Brexit, if we ever get to that point, will have an important bearing on the future of the UK.
Yes, the 45th President has created a continuing political storm just by being Donald Trump, but he has also helped to expose the inherent contradictions and vulnerabilities of a political culture and a political system that is deeply flawed and no longer works for the majority of Americans.
The US constitution, built on capitalism and Christianity, is being tested to destruction and the lofty ideals of the signatories to the constitution are being trashed.
In a perverse and politically painful way, President Trump may have given the United States and its people reasons to think again about the nature of their country and the kind of society they want to live in. The question is whether the US can grasp such an enormous opportunity to rethink its future.
This raise two obvious questions. Is the Republican party able to break free from their cult-like dependency on Trump and start to rebuild their crumbling reputation and regain a conscience?
Is the Democratic party willing to accept some of the blame for the election of Trump because its vision of progressiveness left so many people behind, never to be part of the American dream, who in turn, have become angry and resentful and opted in 2016 for someone like Trump, who would help himself but not them?