As the US constitution was being drafted in utmost secrecy in 1787, an anxious citizen asked Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers, “Well, doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Without the slightest hesitation, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s words seem eerily prescient, if one considers that the Latin words from which the word “republic” is derived — res publica — means a form of government where the country is considered a public matter, not the private concern or property of the rulers.
More than two centuries after Franklin’s warning, Americans, blinded by hyper-nationalism, fear, suspicion and xenophobia, handed over the reins of government to an elected despot. The transformation of the nation’s highest public office into a personal fiefdom was not long in coming.
Since assuming the presidency, Donald Trump has relentlessly expanded his business interests and promoted his family and friends, without even the courtesy of a camouflage.
Even as he was tightening immigration laws including the H1 work visa, the controversial visa EB-5, was being offered to wealthy Chinese families who invested $500,000 in a business owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Jared, 36, who is married to President Trump’s daughter Ivanka, has no prior government experience, but has already accumulated a dizzying range of portfolios under his father-in-law. The satirical magazine, The Onion, recently ran the headline, “Jared Kushner Quietly Transfers ‘Solve Middle East Crisis’ To Next Week’s To-Do List.”
In an interview in February, President Trump called China the “grand champion” of currency manipulation. After a meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping at his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump appears to have a more benign view of the Chinese. Even if the volte- face was abrupt, it was entirely expected.
In a meeting marked more by bonhomie than wariness between two long-time rivals, Trump affirmed the “one China” policy recognising Beijing as the only official government of China, with the assurance that the US will not establish formal relations with Taiwan. China promptly awarded Trump a trademark with the added assurance that several pending trademark applications would be favourably considered.
The Trump administration’s links with Russia has led to another scandal. Media reports assert that, according to sacked FBI Director James Comey’s private notes, Trump had pressured him to drop the investigation into then National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s links with Russia. The issue is likely to snowball with legal scholars echoing the belief that this may constitute obstruction of justice by the President, an impeachable offense. Obstruction of justice was one of the charges in President Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment.
Challenges to Trump’s travel ban on visitors from predominantly Muslim countries are winding their way through American courts. In the Trump administration, the judiciary appears to be the only branch acting as a check on the executive and legislature — till now. The administration has made a mockery of trias politica, the constitutional separation of powers, ascribed to the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, and one of the core principles of the US Constitution.
In 2012, three years before Trump announced his candidacy for American President, retired US Supreme Court Justice David Souter was asked what he considered to be the greatest threat to the US. “I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion,” he said, “What I worry about is when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.
“That is the way democracy dies. And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”
The middle class, ravaged by technology-induced changes to the job landscape, reposed blind trust in Trump, overlooking his dubious record as a businessman and expansive campaign promises bereft of policy details.
Now barely four months into the new presidency, Trump’s virtual reality seems to have collided with ground reality. Faced with the real possibility of losing their health coverage, town hall meetings of Congressmen in Trump strongholds have angry constituents shouting down their representatives. At one such meeting in Iowa, Republican Senator Rod Blum was hissed, booed and rebuked for lying and asked, “Why should we trust you?”
Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great” may well come to be parodied as “Make America Mocked”. Late night talk shows have never had such unending fodder. The staff of The Onion complain that they are creatively bankrupt since Trump is such an effective caricature of himself.
The French newspaper Liberation had a photograph of a bewildered Trump next to the headline, “America needs a babysitter”. With almost hour-by-hour scandals, a frustrated White House staffer told The Daily Beast that he felt like running down the hallway with a fire extinguisher.
After Brexit, it is now Trexit. With a special counsel in place to investigate the Trump campaign’s links with Russia, gamblers on both sides of the Atlantic are placing wagers on the President’s exit. The political stock market PredictIt has seen a record volume of bets on whether Trump will be impeached.
Reacting to Comey’s firing and subsequent events, Indian American prosecutor Preet Bharara tweeted the dictionary meaning of “backfired”: An attempt to fix something in which the fixing actually makes the situation worse for you. Bharara, who was the US attorney for the southern district of New York, was fired by Trump, along with the Indian American Surgeon General of the US, Vivek Murthy.
With Trump’s many self-inflicted wounds, Republicans, impaired so far by cowardice and opportunism, may find their instinct for survival awakening. A few have publicly admitted to an attack of conscience.
Despite Trump’s propensity to shoot from the hip — at his own foot — he still has a significant number of supporters among Americans.
I cannot resist quoting a couplet which eloquently describes their deafening silence despite Trump’s brazen violations of political traditions, ethics and law.
Tum Apne Zulm Ki Intehan Kar Do,
Na Jaane Fir Koyi Hum Sa Bejubaan Mile Na Mile.
(You can test the limits of your tyranny. Who knows when you will find a voiceless group like us again.)
(Ashok Easwaran, a Chicago-based senior journalist, has reported from North America for over two decades. Views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)