Three reasons why the Trump soap opera is good for the world, and will ring in America’s finest hour
Charles R. Stith says Donald Trump’s isolationism will move the Franco-German leadership to steer world affairs, with China inspired to be a stabilising influence, as America’s constitution and institutions once again carry the day
It seems light years ago that Donald and Melania Trump were dancing the inaugural night away to I Did It My Way. Given his unorthodox presidential campaign, no song seemed more fitting. But, in the almost 200 crazy days since then, it is the opening line of his signature dance tune – “and now, the end is near” – that seems downright providential.
With the stench of Russian involvement in the 2016 election looming large over his presidency, it does indeed seem that Trump’s days in The White House are numbered. Whether it’s the charge of collusion or obstruction of justice, there seems to be enough to make impeachment inevitable.
Both the scope of the charges and the speed with which they have crippled the Trump presidency, make Richard Nixon’s Watergate pale in comparison. Never has a presidency spun out of control at such a dizzying pace.
The probability of impeachment aside, Trump’s halting attempts at governing have been no less staggering. Whether it is bashing allies, cosying up to dictators, denying climate change, or the conflicts of interest of his family and “friends” – it has been something to behold. Oh, and let’s not forget the tweet tirades.
We’ve gone from “no drama Obama” to all drama Trump, from a 24-hour to a 24-minute news cycle. The Trump presidency has taken soap opera to another level. It is like watching Scandal meets House of Cards on steroids.
Watch: Shades of Marvel as Trump touches glowing globe
While this is not the way to run a country, as a morality play it does have some redeeming value or value of interest. Like any morality play, there are some profound lessons to be drawn.
At an existential level, there are, at least, a couple. Any morality play worth its salt should contain at least one biblical truth. How about this one: “Beware of false prophets”. When an administration needs to appeal to “alternative facts” to justify a position or its existence, that says it all.
Watch: Kellyanne Conway introduces ‘alternative facts’
Another lesson, to paraphrase Lord Acton, is that the pursuit of “power corrupts”, to pursue power absolutely, absolutely corrupts.
While there may not be tapes, texts, or tales of Trump (or any of his surrogates that met repeatedly with Russian officials) uttering the exact words, “Will you help us win the presidency”, the message was clear. In light of the multiple meetings with Russians and the public comments by Trump and others, it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots. If Russia wanted an advocate in the White House, someone to roll back sanctions, a cohort in undermining Nato, someone who would look the other way in the face of Russian adventurism, Donald Trump was their guy. Ergo, it makes all the sense in the world that the Russians would do everything in their power to deep-six Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The “corruption” in encouraging a hostile foreign power to engage in such an intervention is, in a word, treason.
Watch: Fired FBI chief James Comey says Trump asked for part of Russian probe to be dropped
Beyond the existential truths reflected in this debacle of a presidency, there are some geopolitical lessons looming large as well, and here is where there might be a silver lining in this cloud.
The first is that the post-cold-war trend towards multipolarisation will become further entrenched. By both design (Trump’s isolationism) and default (the extent to which the Russian thing has preoccupied, and will continue to preoccupy, the Trump presidency), nations around the world are recalculating how to protect their interests. Angela Merkel said as much and the Chinese are doing as much, as they move to strengthen their hand in the Pacific rim region.
While the perils of what could become a more balkanised world are obvious, there are potential benefits as well. For example, there will be more pressure, not less, on countries like China to be a leavening influence, to ensure that the benefits of globalisation are not lost and the world order doesn’t descend into chaos. I would argue this is a good thing.
A second geopolitical benefit of where the world finds itself is that with democracy’s star player (the US) having taken itself out of the game, it puts pressure on the rest of the team to step up their game.
Since the end of the second world war, the world has come to expect the US to play the part of the pre-eminent defender of liberal democratic values, like transparent and representative government, and human rights. Clearly, this leadership, at least for the time being, will have to come from elsewhere.
Fortunately, it seems as if Germany and France will rise to the occasion. With Merkel’s hold on power in Germany and Emmanuel Macron’s ascent to power in France, we have two leaders who are well positioned and intentioned to provide that sort of leadership. Ultimately, it is a good thing that they are required to step up in the vacuum created by America’s absence.
The third bright spot in this debacle of a US presidency is that it is proof positive that democracy works. “Strong men” get trumped by strong institutions every time.
While a quick read of this tawdry tale of the incredible shrinking presidency of Donald Trump seems to suggest a very sorry state of American political life, there is another way to view the current state of things in the US.
Rather than this being one of America’s darkest hours, this might well be one of America’s finest moments. It’s not the Trump victory that will ultimately come to define this moment in history; rather, it will be that American institutions and its constitution carried the day.
Might doesn’t make right, right makes right. The checks and balances of America’s constitutional democracy are what will define its future, not this blip in its electoral history.
To have that lesson punctuated this way is difficult because the collateral damage could be great, in the short term. But, were it not for this institutional and constitutional heft, the costs would be even higher. While it would be a bit much to thank Trump for this object lesson, it does punctuate an observation by Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, it’s just better than everything else.” That is a truth worth applauding and hearing at such a time as this.
Ambassador Charles R. Stith served as US envoy to Tanzania during the Clinton administration. He is currently a member of the Africa Advisory Committee of the US Trade Representative and chairman of The Pula Group