Flawed public institutions can often be the only check on the brutal exercise of raw power, writes Joyce McMillan
On Wednesday, as Donald Trump’s impeachment trial formally opened on Capitol Hill, the Democratic congressman Adam Schiff began proceedings by quoting from the writings of Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the Republic currently currently undergoing a revival of fame and interest thanks to the hugely popular musical based on his life story. “When a man unprincipled in private life and desperate in his fortune,” quoted Schiff, “… despotic in his ordinary demeanour… and known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity, and to join in the cry of danger to liberty… it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion, that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind’.”
The passage was written – back in 1792 – to highlight the danger of irresponsible populism that stalks every democracy, and to indicate why, on occasions, the impeachment of a President might become necessary; and there are millions, across the world, who may well feel that the description fits the current President with uncanny precision. For all that, though, the impeachment process now taking place in the US Senate seems likely to result in the President’s complete exoneration, in the eyes of the law; simply because the Senate is controlled by a Republican majority who are not, under any circumstances, prepared to concede the guilt of their incumbent President, and likely future presidential candidate.
What we are seeing unfold in Washington, in other words, is a kind of pantomime of impunity; a high-profile demonstration of the truth that no matter what the facts of the case may be, Donald Trump’s achievement in winning the presidency in 2016, on a tide of fierce backlash emotion that startled and disorientated politicians and observers across the world, effectively puts him beyond the law. Nor, it seems, can supporters of democracy and the rule of law across the rest of the world afford to view these proceedings with any complacency; for the truth is that we are seeing an epidemic of impunity spread out of its traditional strongholds, into what were once among the world’s major democracies. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro openly flouts – and encourages others to flout – his legal obligation to protect the Amazon, and the rights of indigenous people there. Across the European Union, politicians are struggling to formulate a response to demagogic governments that – from Malta to Poland – increasingly seek to undermine the power of courts, parliaments and independent media to hold them to account.
‘A device of dictators and demagogues’
And here in Britain, there are not only signs of a similar culture of impunity beginning to take hold – from the general presumption that there will be no prosecutions over illegal overspending during the EU referendum campaign, to the continuing non-publication of the Commons Security Committee’s report on Russian interference in British elections – but, perhaps even more seriously, an increasing use of the same rhetoric which suggests that a single electoral victory, however narrow, is enough effectively to place the winner above the law. As it happens, neither Donald Trump nor Boris Johnson enjoyed the support of a majority of voters, in the elections that made them heads of government.
Yet not only are these leaders’ slender victories, won through the vagaries of old-fashioned electoral systems, deemed to put them beyond the law; they are also seen by their supporters as giving them the right to undermine, remove or simply ignore any institutions which seek to balance their power or hold it to account, whether courts and legal systems – openly threatened in the Conservative manifesto – or dissenting legislatures like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies.
Now of course, it goes without saying that this approach to government has nothing to do with any fully functioning form of democracy, which depends on the rule of law, on respect for minorities, and on dialogue and negotiation rather than diktat; it more closely resembles authoritarian government by heavily manipulated plebiscite, aptly dismissed even by Margaret Thatcher as “a device of dictators and demagogues”.
We reached this place, though, through long years during which the institutions of many western democracies did too little to earn the loyalty and respect of ordinary citizens, becoming too much the servants of a harsh and uncaring economic system that often left individuals and communities disillusioned and broken. The culture of impunity for the wealthy and powerful has only grown more marked since the financial crash of 2008; and where institutions betray their own duty to the common good, they are always ripe for overthrow by demagogues who claim that the very idea of constitutionality and law is corrupt, and should be overridden by a leader who himself embodies the will of the people.
The brutal exercise of raw power
From those hard truths, we can therefore pick out a few areas where those who want to come through this crisis of populism, and re-emerge again into a richer and more civil form of democratic politics, need to focus their efforts. The first is in understanding that however much our institutions may have failed ordinary people and communities in recent decades, that does not mean we can dispense with the institutions themselves; flawed and disappointing as they are, parliaments, courts and other public institutions are often all that stand between vulnerable people and the most brutal exercise of raw power over them, and we need to sustain them, and work to improve them, instead of turning on them in a nihilistic rage that only serves the Trumps of this world.
And secondly, given the lack of real majority support for these leaders of the right-wing backlash, we need new alliances to defeat these new forms of reactionary politics.
Tribalism has long been the traditional mode of politics across Britain, with parties that sometimes barely differ on policy fighting like ferrets over diminishing piles of social-democratic votes.
Now, though – if not through wise leadership from the top, then through pressure from below – that habit of tribalism must end, and new connections and alliances must flourish; if only because, in the current climate emergency, failure to work together may cost us not only our democracy, but our lives, and those of all the generations to come.