Will the Trumps become a new political dynasty like the Nehru-Gandhis in India?
The rise and fall of powerful families in democracies around the world is a known phenomenon. From the Roosevelts and Clintons of the US, the Nehru-Gandhis of India, to the Shinawatras of Thailand — most democracies are characterized by the presence of prominent political families.
The Trumps are an emerging political family, especially given the crucial advisory roles that Jared Kushner, and now Ivanka Trump are playing in the Trump administration. In comparison, Nehru-Gandhis are a political dynasty in India that have governed the world’s largest democracy for over 60 years since its independence in 1947.
While political nepotism in democracies is as old as the very idea of democracy itself, Trump and Nehru have one more thing in common — both of them launched the political careers of their daughters. Nehru’s power move culminated in a political dynasty that spanned four generations.
Does Donald Trump have similar political aspirations and will he succeed like Nehru?
Will the “Trumps” become the “Nehru-Gandhis” of USA ?
Will Ivanka become the Indira of America?
It remains to be seen.
So far, all that the two daughters have in common are their initials and the strong opposition they faced in their early political careers.
However, there is no doubt that democratic politics has become “something of a family business,” as Donn M Kurtz puts it. Kurtz is right to have made such an inference. He goes on to say, “The family influence on political recruitment is not just an historical phenomenon but a current reality.”
Take my motherland for example.
India — The Flagbearer of Political Nepotism
For the past 70 years, Indian political landscape has been plagued with corrosive nepotism which is practised with impunity by a handful of political families, especially the Nehru-Gandhis. Not surprising then, that in a recent statement, a senior politician went on to say this about the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — “…the first family of India is truly the first family. India is obliged to them…”.
It is astounding how a few families carried out a silent coup and placed themselves at the focus of political power for over half a century. It is equally unfortunate that as a nation, Indians have silently accepted this political enslavement, which has held our aspirations hostage.
The explicit expectation that a nation of 1.3 billion people should be “obliged” to a “family” reeks of vain arrogance and worse, a sense of dynastic entitlement.
Why do conscious voters allow unabashed political entitlement to get entrenched ? And how does it succeed in catalyzing a deceitful and clandestine replacement of the ‘Democratic Rule’ by ‘Family Rule’?
These are questions that warrant both, a sincere personal contemplation and a vocal political conversation. Especially for the citizens of the United States of America — the greatest military and economic power the world has ever witnessed.
The Trump Dynasty
I am not for or against Trump. I am not a citizen of the USA. I don’t vote for or against the man and his ideas. The issue specific opinions that I have on his policies and their consequence, will take this discussion on a tangent and away from the crux of the matter — the ethos and ethics of democracy.
Tony Benn , British Cabinet Minister, had famously said, “ Every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat”.
Mr. Benn, had some rather “radical” ideas, and being born in the third-world and having witnessed the calamitous consequences of “utopian” leanings, we would probably have major disagreements on a variety of issues. But not on his statement quoted above.
Every generation fights for more or less the same things — Liberty, Freedom, and Opportunity. Nowhere are these abstract ideals more celebrated than in a democratic nation, where the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. It is these fundamental ideas of democracy that I hold dear and choose to fight for.
Political dynasties overcome transience of power and normalise hereditary succession. They seek to perpetuate and consolidate their control across all pillars of power — legislative, executive, judiciary and the media. This certainly is an anathema to the ethos and ethics of democracy.
It is not the case that the democracy in USA is under an immediate threat by Ivanka’s surging political career graph. This is not the first instance of political nepotism in the USA either. Ivanka is neither the first child, sibling, or spouse to be appointed to a political office despite a conspicuous lack of adequate credentials, nor will she be the last.
From John Adams to John F. Kennedy, political nepotism has been visible and prominent in the democratic governance in the USA. As a result of a huge political uproar against Robert F. Kennedy’s appointment to U.S. Attorney General, the Federal Anti-Nepotism Statute was legislated.
Technically speaking, the appointments of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, probably do not violate this statute as they do not hold remunerative positions with monetary compensations. This underscores the fact how familial domination of political power succeeds in circumventing the laws and consistently undermines democratic processes.
“The family continues to exert considerable influence on its members’ decision to enter the political arena.”
— Donn M Kurtz
Fundamental Transience of Power
I believe that the democratic ideals themselves serve as the most potent counter to political nepotism.
The expansion and consolidation of familial political power in post-20th century democracies emulates the intent and ambitions of monarchies, autocracies and the so-called proletarian dictatorships that preceded them. Yet, seldom do powerful families in modern democracies succeed in extending the longevity of short-term acquisition of power into dynasties spanning several generations.
The reason behind this inability, despite focussed and powerful efforts, is the fundamental transience of power. The entropy of this transience is exponentially heightened in democracies by every single vote cast by the individual voter.
Global democratic experience indicates that conscious and informed individual action is the antidote to the tyranny of dynastic politics.
Ivanka and Indira — From Political Nepotism to Dynastic Politics
But these developments must be seen in context of the rise of the Strongman Politics in the global landscape.
There is a fine and often invisible line between political nepotism, and normalization of familial succession to political offices. With strong and popular leaders at the helm, political nepotism often paves the way for the rise of political dynasties.
This has been the experience of Indian politics and governance. When Nehru was a powerful leader, he appointed his daughter Indira Gandhi as an “unofficial assistant” during his “first” term as the head of the Indian state.
This is eerily similar to Ivanka’s appointment by Trump which should be a matter of concern. Because Trump, unlike Nehru, is not just a powerful and popular national leader — he is perhaps the most powerful leader in the world.
Indira’s entry into politics marked the beginning of a dark political era in India. She brazenly proclaimed, “Indira is India, India is Indira” and that truly reflects the state of Indian democracy under her “rule”.
She declared a national emergency, imprisoned opposition leaders, made drastic and disastrous amendments to the Indian constitution, and undermined the Indian Supreme Court. Indira brought the Indian democracy to its knees and to the brink of fascism.
Ivanka is not Indira, at least I would like to believe so. She may as well turn out to be a political leader with a great vision for the American people. But for that to happen she ought to first prove her political merit rather than ride on a wave of Trump’s popularity. Her father may be a powerful launchpad, but she is the one who has to do the flying.
It is now truly up to her to soar high or crash and burn. The American people are watching.
“Global democratic experience indicates that conscious and informed individual action is the antidote to the tyranny of dynastic politics.”
A Tale of Two Nations
Just like Ivanka is not Indira, USA is not India.
I sincerely doubt that the citizens of USA will be naïve enough to let any political family pull wool over their eyes and normalize familial domination of power.
In India, it was a consequence of systematic and thorough indoctrination into political fatalism that deceived the masses into believing that nothing will change and so nothing is worth aspiring for.
This was made possible by the evident paradox that is the Indian representative democracy — over a billion people enjoy some semblance of political equality bestowed upon them by the founding fathers, yet the higher echelons of power have forever been beyond their reach.
Those at the top project a mirage of democracy marked by political freedom for all. But to the less fortunate at the bottom, it is nothing more than an oligarchy with no avenues of access to the towering institutions of power.
The average American voter however is more enlightened and free of such ideological shackles. American society had unburdened itself from the despotism of foreign rule over two centuries ago and over time has found ways to balance the rigidity of conservatism with the new-found liberal avenues of individual mobility.
Which is why fierce debates on political nepotism are happening in the American media, and with an increasing frequency. The entire conversation revolving around Ivanka’s political rise did hammer home valid and necessary questions of individual merit of a political leader — as a party worker, a statesman, and a visionary.
“There is a fine and often invisible line between political nepotism, and normalization of familial succession to political offices. With strong and popular leaders at the helm, political nepotism often paves way for the rise of political dynasties.”
A Word of Caution
However, there has also been unnecessary vitriol and name-calling against the Trump family in this debate, which is rather unbecoming of responsible members of the news and media fraternity.
For example, in an opinion piece published in “The Guardian” the author calls Ivanka an “Idiot Princess”, which is unwarranted, unethical, and just plain wrong.
Argue on point and with facts, not with abusive rhetoric — it doesn’t serve any purpose except spew more political hatred in the societal ether.
Neither Donald Trump nor the members of his family are idiots. You can’t be an idiot and manage to be the leader of the free world. And if Robert Kiyosaki is to be believed, billionaires don’t generally raise idiots. Ivanka may be a novice politician and administrator but it is unfair to call her an “Idiot Princess”.
A Hope for Democracy
It is unlikely that Donald Trump will try to create a hereditary political fiefdom, and the current wave of political nepotism will probably end with his political career — in this term or the next.
The American people are very conscious of their rights and will quickly mobilise against the cancer of dynastic politics.
Political dynasties will perhaps never be normalised in the USA, because it is not acceptable to the societal value structure which is founded on the bedrock of individual liberty and freedom.
Thankfully, things are changing in India too. After the heated 2019 elections, the Indian National Congress headed by the Nehru-Gandhi scion Mr. Rahul Gandhi lost terribly. After much political pressure to take moral responsibility for the humiliating electoral defeat, Mr. Rahul Gandhi has stepped down.
This marks the end of a dynasty, in true political terms.
And this inevitable fate of the Nehru-Gandhis carries a lesson for the Trumps — Do not undermine the individual voter.
The will of the American voter will not be easily neutralised and it will be an insurmountable task for any political family in the USA to overcome the inherent transience of democratic power.
The American people would not hesitate to start a political mass movement against the undemocratic idea of “first family”, should the need arise. They would be willing to fight the despotic notion of “first family” with democratic ideals.
However, there should also be no room for personal and abusive attacks on political leaders and their families, for it is the undemocratic idea of “family first” that is to be fought, not its instantiations that pervade the political spectrum.
- Kurtz II, D.M., 1995. Inheriting a political career: The justices of the United States and Louisiana Supreme Courts. The Social Science Journal, 32(4), pp.441–457.
- KURTZ II, DONN M. “First Families in Japan, Mexico, and the United States: 1946–2001.” IJCS 42 (2001): 5.
- The American Political Family, Donn M. Kurtz (Author)
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