Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Not my president

The victory of Donald Trump in last week’s US presidential elections is a defeat for an inclusive and post-racial America, writes Yassin ِِEl-Ayouty

Al-Ahram Weekly

What the founders of America feared has now happened. Those great men 240 years ago, all aristocrats and members of the educated elite, feared mob rule. So in the Constitution they built a firewall to prevent this called the Electoral College that was intended to filter the popular vote.

Though an attractive name, “representative democracy” is no guarantee that the winner of the popular vote in a presidential election necessarily wins the Oval Office in the US. What counts here is the winner of at least 270 votes in the Electoral College. In recent history, this happened in 2000 in the Bush vs Gore election. Despite losing the popular vote, Bush became president of the US. Now in 2016, Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Republican Party candidate Donald Trump is the president-elect.

On 8 November, I voted for Hillary. But in America’s representative democracy, the candidate whom I opposed, Donald Trump, cancelled my vote out. By comparison, when I, as a dual citizen (Egyptian-American), voted for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in 2014, my vote was tallied for the presidential candidate of my choice. This is because in a country like Egypt there is “popular,” not “representative,” democracy.

With Trump expected to be sworn in on 20 January as the 45th president of the US, America is a land of anxiety. Why? He has never held public office before. That is how a president-elect would normally get to such a position – through the gruelling practice of politics. Politics is essentially the art of compromise, but Trump has never practised that art.

Trump has worked assiduously, his own voice magnified by his troupe of surrogates, to inject doubt about the conventions of government into the elections. He has weakened trust in a sitting president, in the legislative and the judicial branches of government, and in the political parties, including his own.

Even before the results of this nasty campaign, he inveighed against the electoral system in the US, calling it “rigged,” not reflecting the popular will, needing to be closely monitored by his supporters, and driven by faulty polls and the “corrupt media.” He used the weapons of insults, smears, innuendoes and cruel sarcasm against anyone who dared to disagree with him. An expert in TV showmanship, he put fabrications ahead of facts, fear-mongering ahead of “trust in America,” violence ahead of reconciliation and bluster ahead of cool-headedness.

He repeatedly declared that “I love wars,” showed more respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin than towards his own president, threatened to wall off America against immigration, manifested outright Islamophobia, and promised to undo America’s alliances and treaty obligations. Trump has a manifest disconnect with the global fight against terrorism. His claim about his possession of a secret plan to fight the Islamic State (IS) group is laughable. His assertions that he knows more about strategy “than the generals” is lunacy, especially as he has evaded serving in any military role.

He regards tax evasion and avoidance as adeptness in using the law as a vehicle for manipulation. Keeping all the above in mind, to which we should add his disdain for women, his uncontrolled propensity for unwanted sexual advances, and his refusal to pay those who work for him in violation of his contracts, how can Trump lead the America of the 21st century?

The danger of the mobocracy which produced a Trump presidency cannot be over-stated. He can have his way for “America First.” But how can he be trusted with the US nuclear codes, with treating his political adversaries with respect, with the issues of climate change, the sanctity of treaties, free trade and bolstering international institutions such as the United Nations, about all of which he has invented stupid accusations?

“Making America Great Again,” his battle cry, implies that America has been on a slippery slope due to a dysfunctional system. Any system of governance is always in need of change because circumstances keep on changing. But how can President-elect Trump walk back from an ideology of “making America hate again?”

His unpredicted and unmerited victory was due to an electoral system in which he does not believe. It was also due to the rise of the poorly educated white population in the US industrial belt who blamed economic inequalities on the wrong party of the immigrants. The “browning” of America (by 2030, the white demographic will be 45 per cent) and the culture of fear were Trump’s daily tools, allowing him access to a cost-free microphone 24/7. The length of the Clintons’ exposure on the American stage for three decades entailed the negative cost of over-exposure.

UNCERTAINTY: An era of American history ended on 8 November 2016, and an uncertain era of anxiety has begun.

Through gerrymandering, the Republican Party, the party of war and foreign interventions, has built institutions at the state level. The result is that 38 out of 50 state governors are now Republicans and both houses of Congress have Republican majorities.

Since the passing of Judge Scalia, the US Supreme Court has been functioning without its full complement of nine judges. Votes of four to four mean non-revision of the judgements of the lower courts, or the de facto nullification of the Supreme Court’s role of judicial review. A Republican president, with the expected support from a Republican majority in the Senate, can name and appoint conservative justices, tilting the highest court in the land further to the right.

Trump can also undo the historic Obama signature legislative achievement of the Affordable Care Act providing health insurance thus far to nearly half of the 40 million Americans who cannot afford it. He has said he will cut income taxes for the top one per cent of Americans (the billionaire class) and has threatened to deport en masse 11 million undocumented immigrants before “allowing them to re-enter America legally,” thus tearing the fragile fabric of poor families whose adults have invested their energies in jobs not preferred by American citizens.

He supports the National Rifle Association (NRA) under the deceptive mask of supporting the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. There are 350 million guns in the hands of nine million Americans, annually causing 30,000 deaths by gun violence across America. He has pretended to be charitable to worthy causes such as the American veterans, when in fact hardly any contributions have been made, and he has threatened to sue all women (so far a total of 12) who have come forward accusing him of assaulting them.

Trump has called US President Barack Obama “a traitor” and threatened to institute a criminal prosecution against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for what he has fabricated as her “gross negligence” in Benghazi when the then US ambassador and four other Americans were killed by marauding Libyan militias. It was the Republicans in Congress who had refused to fund diplomatic security arrangements abroad, and the unfortunate death of the ambassador was due to his decision to travel from Tripoli to Benghazi where security was not up to par.

Trump’s presidency will undoubtedly reflect the deep chasms in American society, the decline of conventional norms of governance in Washington, D.C., the absence of the citizen’s trust in law and order measures and institutions, including the FBI as a neutral investigative arm of the department of justice, and the resurgence of the torture of individuals suspected of terrorism, thus upending the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty by court of law”.

Even the appointment of top experts to make up for the lack of expertise of Trump in governance will prove to be a futile remedy. Trump’s span of attention is very short; he digresses instinctively; he failed three times in debating with Clinton; he gets bored with details; and he has repeatedly declared that he relies only on his gut feelings.

Snakes have the natural capacity of changing their skins, but not their nature. “Healing wounds,” declared by Trump upon securing 278 Electoral College votes (to Clinton’s 208), will be an impossibility for Trump, a racist who has befriended the stalwarts of the Klu Klux Klan. Even Trump’s battle cry of “Make America Great Again” is plagiarised. Its original author was James Fallon, a reporter on the Atlantic magazine, and the title of a book published in 1989.

Yet, there may still be a ray of hope in this USA, the United States of Anxiety. In the Senate, the Republicans have 54 seats, not the majority of 60 needed to overturn important items from Obama’s legacy. Neither the so-called Obamacare, nor the right to abortion (Trump has threatened women seeking abortion with punishment), nor existing treaties which are already the law of the land, can be easily overturned.  

In her concession speech after the election results were known Hillary Clinton urged her supporters to “continue to fight for what is right.” She added that “we must defend the American dream, which is big enough for everyone.” So the battle for the soul of America is not at an end. But the message of Trump’s victory to the outside world is that America has turned to the right and inwards. So should other states, looking for an American global role, seek their salvation from within? “A strong state” is the logical answer to the so-called Trump Movement.

It is catastrophic to see Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, be replaced by someone who was publicly challenged by a gold star father, Khizer Khan, a Muslim whose son, an American army officer, was killed in Iraq. His words addressed to Trump shall live for a long time. “Have you even read the US Constitution,” he asked Trump.

Trump’s elevation to the presidency of America is akin to the peasant rebellions of mediaeval Europe. The periphery, for long neglected, is rising, avenging its neglect by the centre. In multiple cities in the US, anti-Trump demonstrations have broken out. By the thousands, people have marched through the streets from coast to coast. Their slogan is “Not My President!” This is a reverse echo of the chants of those who could not accept a black man, Obama, to be their president, and an early sign of a deeply divided nation.

Calls are now filling the air, calling on the Democratic Party leadership to step aside. Its ineptness in ignoring the backwoods where “the forgotten” either voted for Trump or stayed home on elections day will undoubtedly be punished.

This now looks like a form of “American Spring,” in which the millennials, the minorities, the women and the African-Americans are lashing out at both Trumpism and the old guard of the Democratic Party.

What makes America America is not only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To these, one should add underlying but vibrant concepts such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, equality before the law, no formal state religion, no official language, no king, freedom of movement, openness to immigration, civilian control over the military, freedom of the press, freedom of choice, an independent judiciary and enforced respect for privacy. Above all, American means the peaceful and orderly transfer of power.

This entire fabric of what makes the US an attractive place to live and prosper will be severely tested by Trump, a racist and a xenophobe. An unqualified, narcissistic, lying bully, against whom a popular majority voted on 8 November will be sworn in on 20 January 2017 as the 45th president of the United States. This is a magnification of the failures of democracy, a term which has no precise definition in any legal dictionary.

TURNING POINT: 8 November 2016 marks a huge turning point in American history. It is the date on which a con man and a charlatan was made president-elect.

His elevation to lead a great and powerful country was not through a popular vote. It was through a dysfunctional system which delegates votes to grand electors who can direct them to their choice and not the popular one.

Trump’s victory is a defeat for an inclusive America, a post-racial America, and an America which by its own Constitution must separate religion and state. It is a defeat for an America whose strength has been partly due to immigration and partly due to innovation. Regardless of the present feverish attempts to make Trump act presidentially, he will always be what he has been for his whole 70 years of life – a rich man with no social conscience.

So, America, from now on, you have no claim to advise the world on what democracy is, or how human rights might be observed, or how to run national life. The US New Yorker magazine wrote after the election that “the rest of the world is now at leisure to stand back and ponder the astounding dereliction of the American presidential elections.”

Mr Trump, like the millions of Americans now planning to demonstrate against your presidency on January 20, 2017, I shall chant “You are not my president.” You have no faith in the principles undergirding the US Constitution; your presidency has happened through deceptive promises to the masses who fear for the future; and your gutter language about “a rigged system” has made the teaching of national civics and respect for the law a real challenge, for it was an idiosyncratic system which made of you, a billionaire who defied every norm, a president-elect.

The America which I have inhabited for 64 years has never elected to the presidency a person like Trump. This shocking development has come about for a host of complex reasons. Not the least of these is that Obama’s soaring favour with the American voters could not be transferred to Clinton. The Latino-Black coalition exists in name only. One third of the Latino vote went to Trump, as a result of the alluring promise of jobs. The threat of a wall on the Mexican border did not scare them off. And sizable numbers of African-Americans did not vote. A non-vote, in effect, was a vote for Trump.

Now the only ray of hope for the de-Trumpisation of America is in Trump’s impeachment for any illegal act made by him as president or in his voluntary resignation. Trump’s removal, if it happens, would come at a much cheaper cost to America than the threat of civil war.

The writer is a professor of law at New York University and the author of The Transformation of Egypt through Revolution (2015).

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