thehighhorse
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thehighhorse

The Two Dons

In the opening scene of Francis Ford Coppolla’s film, The Godfather, undertaker Amerigo Bonasera petitions Don Vito Corleone to arrange the murder of two teenage “boys”. They had beaten up his daughter after she resisted their attempts “to take advantage of her.” He had gone to the Police “like a good American”. The judge sentenced the youths to three years in prison, but suspended the full sentence, allowing them to walk free from the court. Bonasera said to his wife: “… for justice, we must go The Godfather.”

It being the day of his daughter’s wedding, the aging Don has already given several personal audiences to guests and there are more to come, so he is just a little impatient. Bonasera has known him for a long time, but has never before asked for his help. Now Bonasera asks him to do murder, not in a spirit of respect or friendship, but for payment. Don Corleone delivers this rebuke to the undertaker.

You never think to protect yourself with real friends. You think it’s enough to be an American. All right, the Police protects you, there are Courts of Law, so you don’t need a friend like me. But, now you come to me and say Don Corleone, you must give me justice.

Eventually, Bonasera bows his head and murmurs: “Be my friend.” to which the Don replies. “Good. From me, you’ll get justice.”

In his address to the Republican Convention accepting the party’s nomination to be its candidate for the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump spoke of how some of the country’s most powerful special interests “have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit”.

I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.

Maybe great poachers do make the best gamekeepers. But, is it better to trust in America or to rely on a powerful friend? America offered its people process. Donald Trump promised them results. Don’t look to America’s institutions or its laws for justice, a fair shake in life or, indeed, anything else. Look to Mr. Trump.

Certainly, in office, Mr. Trump has been impervious, if not to all “rules”, but to established norms and conventions applicable to office holders, whenever their observance might be inconvenient to him. He has not disclosed his tax returns. He has appointed family members to key positions in government and he has dismissed others simply from personal vindictiveness. He flouted requests from Congress to have White House staff testify before government oversight committees. He remains active in the running of his private business and, indeed, uses his office to promote his business and to generate direct revenue for it. And the content of his public utterances is determined by personal and political convenience, without regard for distinction between truth and falsehood.

But, the Donald’s greatest political achievement is the hold he has established over the elected members of his own (and it is that, now) Republican party in the Senate and the House of Representatives, because of the intense and unqualified loyalty that he has established towards himself among Republican voters.

Bonasera went to the Police about his daughter because he thought America had been good to him, to which point Don Corleone replied:

Then take the justice from the judge, the bitter with the sweet, Bonasera. But if you come to me with your friendship, your loyalty, then your enemies become my enemies, and then, believe me, they would fear you….

With Don Trump its case of: “If you don’t show me friendship and your loyalty, you become my enemy and then, believe me, you will fear me.” Republican Senators and Representatives may not have owed their original election to Trump and they might feel they could be re-elected without his endorsement, but they know too that they would be in deep trouble if he were to disavow them publicly. His down-turned thumb, they do not want to see.

The President’s base voters are like Napoleon’s dogs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, wagging their tails to him but ready, at his bidding, to tear the throat out of any farm animal who incurs his displeasure. Don Corleone relied on a small cadre of shadowy unidentified “associates” to intimidate many. Don Trump can count on a large number of highly visible, baying supporters to intimidate a few.

During the half century that I have been observing politics in Ireland, Charles Haughey is the only leader remotely approximating to Trump in deliberately cultivating fear as much as love among his parliamentary party. But “strongman” leaders flourish mainly in binary “us against them” contexts where unity and loyalty are key and where those outside the tent are perceived not just as opponents but as enemies: Republicans v Democrats in the US, Tories versus “the rest” in the UK and, for so long in Ireland, Fianna Fáil versus everybody else.

That weapon lost its potency for Haughey when Fianna Fáil were forced into coalition government for the first time after the 1989 election, and their Progressive Democrat partners were immune to any threat that Mr. Haughey might make or imply towards them.

Since the 1980s, the increasing fragmentation of voter support across a larger number of sustainable political groups has flowed into equivalent fragmentation in the distribution of seats within the Dáil. This trend certainly makes government formation increasingly challenging, never more so than after this month’s election.

But, one silver lining of it is to counteract the emergence of “strongman” (or woman) leaders like Mr. Trump. In Ireland today, political party leaders must be able to forge working relationships with other parties, not just maintain coherence and consensus within their own party.

It is an era requiring a talent for facilitation as much as direction, pragmatism as well as purity, for competent chairpersons rather than powerful chieftains.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

33 Followers

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.