Friday, January 12, 2018

America can survive even this

America can survive even this 

The Tablet: Editors
Share this story   
AddThis Sharing Buttons

As the Donald Trump presidency approaches its first anniversary, the key question remains: How well can the American system of government cope with the violation of all established conventions? By some measures it has not done too badly. The United States has certainly lost its leadership role among civilised nations, delighted its enemies and dismayed its allies. But life continues – though, as ever, the rich become richer and the poor poorer. The economy even prospers. The very institutional inertia that has frustrated previous presidents now turns out to have certain virtues.
It has been said that the American Constitution was framed by the Founding Fathers as a conscious attempt to avoid reproducing the apparent flaws in the British Constitution as they had emerged under George III. The principle of the “separation of powers”, with its checks and balances between the three branches of government, executive, legislature and judiciary, was one of their solutions. It was to be, as John Adams put it, “a government of laws, not of men”. In other words the arbitrary actions of a sovereign, especially an intermittently unhinged one like George III, would be constrained by judges upholding the law and Congress withholding funds.

The United States now has a similar problem closer to home. Donald Trump’s wild campaign battle cries like “Lock up crooked Hillary” and “Build a wall” have indeed been neutralised by constitutional checks and balances. Prosecutors cannot build a case against his presidential rival Hillary Clinton which would stand up in court. Congress has refused to pay for his quixotic scheme for a massive wall along the entire Mexican border. And his campaign boast that he would keep Muslims out of the United States foundered when the courts ruled it illegal.
Furthermore, as if unconsciously aware of a need to limit the chaos he can cause, he has appointed well- regarded military men – ex-Generals Jim Mattis, Herbert McMaster and John Kelly – as Defense Secretary, head of national security, and White House Chief of Staff. The “Nelson touch”, turning a blind eye to orders that are crying out to be ignored, is a respected military practice. Nor do military leaders willingly obey orders they know to be illegal, which may include an all-out attack on North Korea.
Meanwhile, the circus goes on. Rather than basking in the solid achievements of his first year, which are few indeed, President Donald Trump has become embroiled in a vitriolic slanging match with his former top adviser, Steve Bannon. The author of a sensational account of life in the Trump White House, Michael Wolff, has quoted Mr Bannon as saying that a meeting attended by Trump campaign aides and certain shady Russians was “treasonous”. His later half-apology was slapped down and the former chief ideologue of so-called Trumpism remains in the wilderness. But he has added fuel to the fire smouldering at the foundations of the Trump presidency, the allegation of collusion between his circle and Russia. There could be three more years of this. But based on the experience of the last 12 months, there is every chance America is robust enough to survive them just about intact.