As even his supporters and those who voted for him know, President-Elect Donald Trump has many flaws. The election is still a recent event, and so we still consider each of these flaws as reasons why someone might decline to vote for him. Everything is mentally catalogued simply as Reasons Why He Should Not Be President.
However, now he is going to be president (I don’t think the recounts will stop this from happening) I think it is worth sketching out a slightly better taxonomy of the Terrible Things About Trump, because the different types of awfulness and wrong-doing he exhibits have different implications for politics and the country. America is the oldest modern democracy and the exemplar for the rest of the world, so what happens in the USA concerns the rest of the planet too.
First, there are the character and personality flaws. The weird, thin-skinned temperament, the Tweeting at 3AM (at least he’ll be ready for that phone call, amirite?).
There are also flaws in his intelligence… And the related problem that he has little mastery of policy in all their complexities. The recent New York Times interview exposes this.
Then there are the ideological flaws. As his own statements on the campaign revealed, Mr Trump is clearly a racist and a sexist.
These flaws are of course related to each other. He is probably a racist because he is also stupid, for example. But they are nevertheless distinct flaws, because they are not mutually dependent on one another. You could have a difficult personality but still be intelligent, like Richard Nixon. Or you could have a likeable personality while not being interested in policy detail, like Ronald Reagan. Conversely, there are plenty of people who are not conventionally bright, yet still manage to be avoid being racist or sexist.
Donald Trump’s flaws are a threat to us all, in the sense that any one of them could result in his choosing to pursue bad policies. Together, these negative traits mean it is highly likely that he will preside over a period of reactionary and regressive measures that will make life worse for already powerless and marginalised people, while enriching and entrenching the power of the dominant classes.
But here is the important part: none of these flaws, or the policies that will result from them, are a threat to the Republic.
This is not to diminish the suffering that his polices will cause. I only point out that it will always be possible to reverse or mitigate the damage done, by voting in a different President in 4 or 8 years time.
Even if an ideologically similar Republican succeeds him, the same principle applies—the voters will always have an opportunity to change their leaders and ‘fix’ the damage at a later date. That even applies to any Supreme Court decisions handed down by Trump-nominated justices, although the time-scale for securing that change would be measured in decades.
Threats to the Republic
However, there are other aspects of Donald Trump that are conceptually different. They may appear to be simple manifestations of his wider unpleasant personality and style, but they need to be noted and addressed in a particular manner, because they threaten the very system of American government, and so are dangerous in a different way to his sexism, racism or militant capitalism.
In this category, I would put his historical actions for which he has not yet answered. He had been accused of both fraud and of sexual assault. Now he is President-Elect it is unlikely that he will face anything like the proper legal process that others who have been accused of similar actions would have to endure. His ascendancy has given him a kind of impunity.
This is, to my mind, a threat to the Republic, because the process that would normally preclude this state of affairs from persisting is impeachment. If it became clear that there were real substance to any of the accusations levelled at Donald Trump, then Congress would step in to ensure the President saw a form of justice.
But because of the peculiar fact that Mr Trump has been elected despite these charges, and the United States Congress is as irrationally partisan as two sets of football fans, it is now unlikely that the impeachment process would ever be invoked. Worse, if a Democrat-controlled Congress ever tried to get something going, the process would have little legitimacy.
Donald Trump has also engaged in lies against the political process which also need to be considered separately. His years of ‘Birtherism’, where he questioned whether Barack Obama was even eligible to be president, falls into this category. And this week he suggested that “millions” of people voted illegally. This is demonstrably false, but without a strong rebuttal from other people in power, it still tears at the fabric of democracy. Public acceptance that the election results are valid is vital. To tell lies that suggest otherwise is an act of political vandalism.
Next, he is hostile to the First Amendment and therefore to the Constitution. He has suggested changing the libel laws so that he be shielded from criticism, and called for those engaging in political protest he doesn’t like to have their citizenship revoked. He has questioned the legitimacy of non-violent protests against him, and those directed at his Vice President-Elect.
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Free speech is essential to any democracy but it has a particularly revered place in the US system. Weakening the protections that Americans enjoy in this regard would be a shift in power towards the rich and the elites at the expense of everyone else. It is un-American and wrong, and for the President-Elect of the United States to be engaging in such behaviour implies that the American soul is darkening.
The next Bad Thing is his willingness to deliberately confuse his personal businesses with his governing. Other presidents put their assets into a blind trust for the duration of their term. By contrast, Mr Trump as simply put his kids in charge, which leaves open a huge space for corruption and conflict of interest. Worse, he has included his daughter Ivanka Trump, who will be running his businesses, in political meetings with foreign leaders.
Nepotism laws prohibit Ivanka from taking a formal role in the White House. But Trump is choosing to send a clear signal to Japan and the world — when you deal with Ivanka, you are dealing with someone who has my ear as president.
Let’s suppose one of Trump’s companies would like to open a hotel in Japan and is seeking permits. Would the Japanese government deny them and risk the ire of the President of the United States?
Ivanka Trump also spoke with the Argentine President Mauricio Macri, when he made a congratulatory call to her father. Reports that the call included a discussion of Donald Trump’s business interests in Argentina have been denied. But none of this smells good.
Perhaps we should not worry that foreign governments can buy the President. Perhaps he has already been bought? The US intelligence services are clear that Russian attempted, successfully, to swing the result of the election in Mr Trump’s favour. And there are also accusations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian groups in this project. That another country—one that is ultimately an economic, military and ideological rival to the USA—has done this should be a source of concern for the next Commander-in-Chief. Instead, he has welcomed it. The Russians have been rewarded for their chutzpah. This sets the most terrible of precedents for the future. Foreign governments simply should not have such influence over how any country is governed, let alone the World’s Policeman, the exemplar of the Rule of Law, and our beacon of liberty.
So unlike his personality, his intellectual softness, and his prejudices, which merely (‘merely!’) result in bad policies, Donald Trump’s lies about the legitimacy of elections, avoidance of the Rule of Law, his attack on free speech, his conflation of his businesses with the presidency, and his acquiescence to Russian influence, are all threats to the system of government itself. They break America in ways that cannot necessarily be fixed by a simple change of leader, because they break the way power is weilded and, crucially, how power is checked.
These considerations should inform how Donald Trump is opposed.
That is not to say that we should forget his racism or overlook his sexism. Rather, it simply means that we do not forget the other stuff. Racism seems as though it’s the very worst thing about Donald Trump. But in order to combat it we need, first, to preserve the trappings of democracy that make such opposition possible: free speech and the rule of law. It may seem odd or even elitist to prioritise these over, say, a particularly vindictive immigration policy, but it may be that we have to. Donald Trump is a master of the Dead Cat strategy in politics (in which, to distract us from something, the politician will cause outrage in some other way—throwing the proverbial dead cat—and thereby change the news cycle). Damage to the structure of our democracy often happens when there are ostensibly ‘bigger’ political stories to distract us. These other news stories are often not more important, just more sensational.
Being aware of the different types of Trump terribleness also allows us to make specific appeals to specific audiences. If people overlooked racist rhetoric during the campaign, they made not be particularly receptive to complaints that the President(-Elect)’s polices are racist. But they might be receptive to warnings that that constitution is being critically undermined, or that Russia is playing America for a fool.
A final thought: as I consider all this, I find myself becoming more angry with the Trump-enablers in Congress, than the man himself. He will not be held to account for prior corrupt business practices, or his using the presidency to enrich his family. He will not be prevented from torturing or deporting. When his administration fails to enforce the rule of law (for example, as it protects minorities) he and his appointees will not be properly made to answer for such transgressions. They are unlikely to keep him in his place, which is below the Constitution and within the law. When they do not, there must a co-ordinated effort to remove them from office via the ballot box… before the ballot box itself is broken under Trump’s authoritarian foot.