Trump is not the problem, America is

Trump is not the problem, America is
Comment: Neither populists like Trump, nor protectors of elitist power are capable of addressing the democratic deficit in America, writes Robert Springborg.
7 min read
03 Aug, 2017
Trump's presidency is a symptom of deep malaise in American politics [Getty]
Trump deserves the demonisation to which most of the world's media is subjecting him. 

His dysfunctional administration, reflecting his narcissistic, duplicitous, seemingly paranoid personality, is further undermining the already fragile health and well-being of Americans, while also imperiling much of the world.

To the extent he has a policy toward the Middle East, it is rife with inconsistencies and inadequacies, as his floundering in the face of the Saudi-Qatari conflict, upgraded support for Saudi and Emirati interventions in Yemen, and his condemnation of Iran coupled with acceptance of Bashar al Assad's continued rule in Damascus attest.

Unfortunately, however, Trump's presidency is a symptom of deep malaise in American politics which will continue after his departure, rendering prospects for dramatic improvement in US domestic and foreign policies unlikely.

That malaise is best measured along three dimensions on which the performance of political systems is usually compared. They are the responsibility of government to provide public order and security; to foster economic well-being; and to include citizens in the national political community.

Americans are increasingly insecure, for good reasons and bad.

The appalling record of violence and death meted out by local police has terrorised Afro-Americans while also rendering whites residing in middle class neighbourhoods fearful of those legally responsible for providing law and order.

The absence of effective gun control has resulted in about 100 Americans dying from gunshots every day, almost exactly the same as killed in traffic accidents. Mass killings in schools, theatres and other venues are commonplace.

A steadily rising proportion of children must pass through gun detectors as they enter their schools, in which endemic violence is spreading. Gang warfare imperils communities from California to New York. There are very good reasons, in short, for Americans to feel threatened by their fellow citizens.

The federal government, whether under the control of Democrats or Republicans, has done little to address this violence and the fear it causes. If anything, Washington has exacerbated these rational fears by emphasising the threat posed by terrorism, especially of an Islamist nature.

Increasingly stringent controls at airports, ever more intrusion into electronic communications, and trumpeting of drone strike killings of jihadis, whether alleged or real, throughout the Middle East, have stimulated fears that are statistically irrational. Since 9/11 the chances of an American being killed by a lightning strike are many times greater than being killed by a terrorist.

So whether by neglect or design, the federal government is not performing its duty adequately to provide order and security to citizens, who naturally feel increasingly insecure.

Nor for more than a generation has that government overseen steady, broad based economic growth. Not only has the pace of growth slowed to a crawl, but the distribution of its benefits has become obscenely skewed in favour of the unfortunately not mythical one percent.

The great majority of young Americans have no realistic hope in their lifetimes of achieving the economic well-being their parents have had. 

On the third measure of government performance, that of including citizens in the national political community, the US is also a profound underachiever. The increasing separation of Americans on racial, ethnic, residential, vocational and other bases, is associated with the effective exclusion of a growing proportion of the population.

Political exclusion is reflected in the historically low rates of participation in politics, as measured most directly by voter turnout, which has declined to levels more characteristic of authoritarian than democratic polities.

Exclusion is also reflected by the retreat into identity politics of all sorts, with the growing assertion of sub-national identities challenging the very existence of a unified, national one. Rising homelessness, drug addiction, and underemployment attest to the despair associated with the failure to include ever growing proportions of Americans into the successful sectors of the national political economy.

The vital question then is why has the vaunted, "can do" American democracy failed adequately to perform these vital functions?

The appalling record of violence and death meted out by local police has terrorised Afro-Americans [Getty]

The proximate cause is political, while the underlying one is economic. American democracy is insufficiently democratic. Constitutional provisions result in gross distortions of the one person, one vote principle. A senator from Wyoming, for example, represents fewer than 300,000 citizens, while one from California represents twenty million.

Representativeness and effectiveness of the legislative branch is further undermined by the absurdly short two-year election cycle of the House of Representatives.

Congressmen typically devote more time to campaign fund raising than to legislating, overseeing the executive, or representing their constituents. The number of days in session of both the Senate and House have steadily fallen for a generation, as has the number of bills passed.

The electoral college, also enshrined in the constitution, has repeatedly produced presidents, including most recently Trump, who lost the popular vote.

State control over legislative districting and election law has dramatically reduced electoral competition between the two parties, while rendering ever more unlikely the prospects of a third party challenging the Democratic/Republican duopoly.

A senator from Wyoming, for example, represents fewer than 300,000 citizens, while one from California represents twenty million

The net result of the constitutional/legal impediments to more representative democracy is the concentration of political power in ever fewer hands, especially those that reach out most effectively to providers of campaign finance. The persistence of the Clinton machine in the face of repeated disgraces and defeats exemplifies the power generated by collusion between corporate wealth and political leadership.

The California Democratic Party is the largest and richest state party in America. It has converted California into what is in effect a one-party state, led by the "two Browns," Jerry and Willie, and their clients and associates, for more than a generation. One of those clients, Kamala Harris, backed by the "Willie" faction of the Democratic machine to become Senator, is now being spoken of as a presidential candidate.

The de-democratisation of America and the associated decline of governmental performance have bred widespread and growing political cynicism. It was that cynicism that caused voters to flee in droves from Hillary to Trump, from the non-responsive, elitest Democratic Party to the political unknown. Dubbed "deplorables" by her, voters excluded from the political economy and insulted into the bargain preferred a political Sampson who promised to pull the political temple down, the temple from which they have been excluded.

It was that cynicism that caused voters to flee in droves from Hillary to Trump, from the non-responsive, elitest Democratic Party to the political unknown

But this populist Sampson could not really serve their interests, consumed as he is with his own megalomaniacal ones. For their objective interests to be served that increasing proportion of Americans who have been socially, politically and economically marginalised would need to build political institutions, not entrust their fates to a populist demagogue only interested in their votes, not their welfare.

Unfortunately, the US is historically the least hospitable of the major democracies to bottom up political organisation, as reflected by the almost complete absence of successful, enduring third parties in its political history since even before the Civil War.

Trump, in other words, is unfortunately but a symptom of the profound, underlying problems that beset American democracy

If anything, the prospects for leftist political party organisation are even bleaker now, as the nation fragments into identity politics, cynicism induces ever greater political passivity and money becomes ever more important in the political system. 

The implication of this pessimistic analysis is that America's future will be in the hands of either populists like Trump or apologists for and protectors of the elitist power structure, which includes virtually any imaginable candidates from either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Neither type of leadership will address the democracy deficit, improve the general performance of government on those three critical dimensions, nor substantially improve America's policies toward the Middle East.

Populists like Trump are too self-centred, unpredictable, erratic and ill-informed to craft and implement effective policies for a region as conflict ridden and complex as the Middle East.

Representatives of the establishment can only arrive in power once they have accepted the fundamental tenets of US policy toward the region, which are support for Israel, bolstering of reactionary regimes deemed to be supportive of American interests, and concentration on counter-terrorism rather than on the democratisation and economic development of the region.

Trump, in other words, is unfortunately but a symptom of the profound, underlying problems that beset American democracy. They will continue to plague not only the US, but also the Middle East and the world, long after he is gone.   

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff