We have not men fit for the times
“The Objects before me are too grand and multifarious for my comprehension. We have not men fit for the times”
John Adams wrote these words he was discussing the challenge of winning independence and creating a new nation out of the thirteen American colonies. The men he referred to so dismissively turned out to be the Founding Fathers, a group who would shape the course of history and create the most powerful nation in the world.
These words have seemed pertinent this past year. Faced with deep civil strife and weaponised issues at home, as well as an uncertain and dangerous world order, who can possibly meet the demands of President of the United States?
While Donald Trump is a man perhaps reflective of the times, for some, but he is in no way fit for the challenges they present.
At home, Donald Trump is presiding over a Republican-dominated government that will seek to enact a regressive agenda across a range of issues.
The Trump Presidency means rolling back healthcare, putting health insurance for millions at risk with no alternative as of yet. Obamacare was by no means a perfect law, but it did lead to the lowest rate of uninsured Americans in history. The orthodox Republican solutions based on market principles, on the other hand, have left the most vulnerable without cover for decades. For the human reality of these arcane policy discussions is that millions of Americans will not have access to healthcare, or face the risk of bankruptcy to receive treatment.
It is unlikely that there will be any effort to resolve the broken criminal justice system that is breaking up families and recycling young African American men through the prison system. Trump has committed to a Nixonian 'law and order’ brand of politics, predicated on getting tough on crime at the expense of lowering crime. The sad fact is that, while crime is in long term decline the criminal justice system is simply not fit for purpose and riddled with unfairness: from the minority of racist police officers, to mandatory minimums that unfairly disadvantage the urban poor, to incentives for arrests and private prisons. The election of 2016 was the moment to make this change, but unfortunately the injustice of criminal justice will be allowed to continue.
In a nation built by immigrants, the wall Trump might build will likely be less damaging than the tempest of whitelash nativism that identifies those who are Hispanic or Muslim as an enemy. While Trump himself danced around the most invective language, his rallies were peppered with violently racist vitriol aimed at minorities. The anger he stirred up does not dissipate simply because Trump has entered the White House.
What’s more, the conservative coalition of VP Mike Pence will seek to defund Planned Parenthood, and overturn the Roe V Wade Supreme Court decision that gives women control over their own bodies. Pence’s cohort may also set their sights on a Supreme Court nominee ready to overturn the decision on gay marriage. After all, the new VP is of the evangelical cadre that believes in gay conversion therapy. These are the regressive views of the party Trump now leads. How personally committed the new President is to these issues is deeply questionable, buthe will appease his party by yielding to their uncompromising enforcement of certain types of Christian moralism.
Meanwhile, the economic future of America, and the world, is being based on the vain promises of a trumped up used car salesman. Trump believes he can use the bully pulpit of the presidency to force companies to keep jobs in America, yet widespread job retention would require an impossible level of bilateral negotiation, and tremendous government handouts. As for bringing jobs back, central to Trump’s pitch to the Rust Belt, the new President is playing with fire by raising the prospect of tariffs and import taxes. This approach cedes global influence to China, and overlooks the repercussions of high consumer prices that would hit all Americans, Rust Belt or not.
Worst of all, the election just provided an endorsement to a flagrant misogynist, a creaking wreck of a person who bragged about using his fame to assault women. Imagine all the Little Trumps of similarly over privileged young white men on college campuses for years to come. He is a shallow, narcissistic man, building his presidency on dogma and yielding social policy to the dictats of evangelical, predominantly white America.
The world’s lone superpower is confronted with violent change in the Middle East, an expansionist and calculating leader in Moscow, a warming global climate, and a digital revolution that threatens to completely disrupt global economics.
Trump’s invocation of 'America First’, the pre-World War Two movement that advocated isolationism, is alarming in the modern era. It portends an abandonment of collective security, international human rights, and progress on climate change. American retrenchment will open up a void of influence. The nations that might seek to fill this void or capitalise on its existence do not advocate for freedom of speech, human rights or democracy. 'America First’ may also prove to be a terrible blow to American 'soft power’, as the U.S cedes it’s historic leadership overseas to turn inward. Meanwhile, Trump has shown no sign that his electoral victory has thickened his skin; one can easily imagine the new POTUS overreacting to some international slight.
Then there’s Russia. Putin’s government welcomes the Trump win, understanding that 'America First' likely means, to some degree, an American retreat from world affairs, giving Russia more room to leverage control over former parts of the Soviet Union. Baltic states now fear “green men”, disguised Russian troops used in the Ukraine, given the undeniable creep of the Kremlin into post-Soviet nations. Trump has packed his cabinet with figures close to Russia, most of all National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn. Flynn was more than happy to overlook Russian creep into the bloody Ukrainian civil war, and has ties to many Russian organisations. The world will rely heavily on men like Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio to check Russian actions in the coming years.
Furthermore, the Russian hacking of Democratic Party emails is absolutely unprecedented in U.S history: it would have appalled George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Trump conveniently sees no cause for alarm.
In the Middle East Trump supports a painfully simplistic view of conflict and peace. The new president flails with glib remarks that America should have 'taken the oil' from Iraq, sounding more like a drunk propping up the bar than an international statesman. His 'secret plan’ to defeat Isis, laughable as it was, has evaporated, and he has stacked his cabinet full of Iran-hawks. Flynn, for one, is believed to be an Islamaphobe who gives in to conspiracy theories about Sharia Law. Trump’s campaign fundamentally demonstrated he had no understanding of the complexity of the problems in the Middle East, and no interest in the plight of women and children being barrel bombed by dictators.
On the other hand, Trump is determined to antagonise Beijing. Sino-American relations will be crucial the twenty first century, and Trump’s vain show of strength, married with his estrangement from conventional relationships and international organisations, points to unstable, unpredictable world affairs.
America is in the terrible process of abandoning its moral leadership in the world. Donald Trump is opening the world to the strongmen and dictators, and pursuing short sighted, dangerous policies with the most crucial nations.
Yet despite the implications of Trump’s victory at home or abroad, perhaps the worst impact is on American history and culture. Never in American history have the people elected a man who acts like an aspirant dictator. There has scarce been a president less prepared for the burdens of the White House, or more ill-suited to the gravity of its office. Trump is a man not only unfit for the times, but unfit for America.
The Founding Fathers established a government they hoped would resist tyranny. Yet as Andrew Sullivan has argued, the state of American democracy may have degraded to the point where Plato’s prediction of democratic decay is vindicated.
Plato believed democracy was by its nature too prone to degradation, and that reasoned debate would be subsumed by a corrosive form of populism that would attack the foundations of the state. Discontent, when it came, would lead to civil anger. This anger would result in authorities being disdained, Plato argued. The erosion of established authorities and norms, Plato believed, meant the people would follow popular will, no matter how reactionary or ill designed.
This would make the democratic system vulnerable to the promises of ‘a tyrant’; Plato imagined he would be a wealthy elite, who claimed to speak for the common man, who would gather a loyal democratic group around him, assail his fellow elites under the guise of populism, and build a tyranny of personality over the mechanisms of the democracy.
Donald Trump is the American Tyrant.
Large swathes of the nation voted for Donald Trump: a man who mocked prisoners of war and the disabled, capitalised on racial divisions, and boasted of sexually assaulting women; a man born into wealth but lacking grace, who put himself over the national security of his country so he could emulate the politics of Putin, and who constructed lies to hide his own ignorance; a man who in almost every measure fails to live up to the standards of compassion, integrity, and reason set by the Founders; an utterly Un-American President.
In a nation that has battled totalitarianism for decades, it is grim forecast on the state of American democracy that the people elected someone so contrary to the ideals laid down by the Founders.
His early days in office have demonstrated his continued hostility to the press, those who are fact checking his pronouncements, and an active desire to use doublespeak to create his own truth. Those who refuse to accept his truth are roundly gagged, in the land of the free. The office, sadly, has not yet lifted this man to higher ideals, but given the smallness of his character a larger stage.
For those enraged by the Trump presidency, worried about their future, or embarrassed for their nation, now is the time to act. Mobilise, protest, hold Trump accountable to his words. In two years time there will be Midterms, admittedly with a difficult map for Democrats, but in four years time Trump can be removed from the White House. In the words if Edmund Burke, 'the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.