My Take

Where are the checks and balances on the US president?

The Republican-dominated Congress is beholden to the White House, and the country is starting to look like a banana republic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 2017, 1:26am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2017, 1:26am

Kurt Godel was one of the most brilliant minds who ever lived. Regarded by some to be the greatest logician since Aristotle, he brought to every subject that caught his attention the full intensity of his phenomenal intellect.

On the eve of his swearing-in ceremony to become an American citizen, this Austrian Jew fleeing Nazi persecution studied the US constitution and decided he didn’t want to do it after all. He concluded there was nothing in this august document that would prevent a dictatorship. Only after some arm-twisting by his best friend, Albert Einstein, was he persuaded to go through with the ceremony.

I have never been able to find out what was or was not in the US constitution that Godel found so objectionable. However, the ascendency of Donald Trump has given us plenty to think about in light of Godel.

The much-vaunted checks and balances are really less than meets the eye in reining in the awesome powers of the US president. In a parliamentary system, you only need a majority to pass a no-confidence vote to get rid of a prime minister. No such procedures exist in the American system, where the president is, in many ways, restrained only by his own morality and character. It is not too far from Confucius’ doctrine of the rule of man.

The American people must rein in the worst of Donald Trump

Trump lost the popular vote but still won the election due to a quirk with the US electoral college system. The Republicans now dominate Congress. Along with the White House, this enables them to act like they have a national majority. It also means that the Republican Congress, far from being a check on Trump, is beholden to him.

After a phone chat with President Xi Jinping, mainland authorities quickly approved 38 trademarks associated with the Trump name. This seems to have shocked many Americans, but we Chinese know all about this sort of thing. As Trump correctly observed a while ago, the US president is not bound by the same rules on conflicts of interest applicable to everyone else. We had something similar with our chief executives, until Donald Tsang Yam-kuen changed the law. Look where he is now. But thanks to Tsang, our non-democracy has higher standards.

A Trump presidency may not become a dictatorship, but the US is starting to look like a banana republic.