Trump intransigency digs America deeper into uncertainty

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, November 9, 2020

                                                         Outgoing POTUS Donald Trump


Any complaints about the twists and turns of New Zealand’s MMP electoral system pale into insignificance alongside the Byzantine intricacies of an American Presidential election.

For many of us, the 2000 Presidential election, where the eventual outcome was decided by a narrow 5-4 vote in the United States Supreme Court, and where words like “hanging chads” entered the political lexicon, was the most bizarre on record.

Weird events of 2020

However, it has almost certainly been surpassed by the weird happenings of the 2020 election.

While the United States has often been the country most love to criticise because of its dominant, and sometimes controversial, role in international and economic affairs, it has nonetheless been fundamentally and frequently grudgingly respected for its overall commitment to participatory democracy. Until 2018, for example, there was even a county in Vermont where the local dog catcher was elected by a public vote!

However, a fair measure of the gloss of America’s democratic veneer has been rubbed off by the antics of the Trump Administration since 2017. From the abuse of many of the traditional relationships between the Executive and Legislative Branches of government, through to the stacking of the Supreme Court with conservative Justices who will shape the direction and role of the Court for decades to come, the Trump Administration has consistently worked to undermine the traditional separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government and to subjugate those to the transitory political authority of the White House.

Undermining the government

As such, it has deliberately and blatantly attempted to undermine the whole American system of government. The Founding Fathers envisaged a constitutional structure not dissimilar to that in place in eighteenth century England, with the role of the President (the King) no longer unfettered but constrained by the authority of the Constitution.

The Trump Administration’s approach has been to assert the role of the President in a manner equivalent to the eighteenth-century King of England, which the American War of Independence had been a reaction to.

Even against this backdrop of a deliberate and concerted attempt to realign the American system of government so blatantly in favour of the President, Trump’s extraordinary conduct in the early hours of the morning after the election surpassed most reasonable expectations.

‘Two-bit Dictator’

His premature victory claim and demand that all other vote-counting cease, were not altogether a surprise. But his threat to seek the intervention of his hand-picked Supreme Court if he did not get his way shocked many as going far too far, for even loyal colleagues like the Republican Majority Leader in the Senate. Former President Barack Obama had earlier described the possibility of such a response by the President as the actions of a “two-bit dictator,” a surely unprecedented description by any American President of the man who succeeded him in office.

At this stage, it looks likely that former Vice President Biden will emerge as at least the interim winner of this year’s Presidential election. He will be a more orthodox and traditional President than President Trump with a strong focus on restoring the integrity of the Constitution and America’s place and perception in the world after the Trump Presidency. Many will breathe a huge sigh of relief at that.

Looming legal actions

However, it is unlikely to be that simple. Even if all the threatened legal actions by the Trump camp are disposed of and the result that now looks likely stands, there is no guarantee about how President Trump will react in  the remaining two and bit months of his tenure.

During that time, an outgoing President retains the full authority of his office, but normally cooperates, sometimes awkwardly and unwillingly, with the President-elect and his transition team.

There is usually the staged event of the President and the President-elect and their wives meeting at the White House, and an unspoken commitment to make the change of administration process as smooth as possible.

 It seems highly unlikely after this year’s campaign that any of that will occur in the event of a Biden Administration. Nor is there even any certainty that at 12 pm on January 20, 2021, the appointed day and hour on which the next Administration is sworn in, President Trump will actually vacate the Oval Office. The prospect of one President being sworn in at the Capitol while the other remains barricaded in the White House seems extraordinary enough but the fact that many United States commentators have been speculating about what would happen in such a situation shows how unreal the world of Presidential politics has become under President Trump.

Deeply divided country

What is clear, though, is that America remains a deeply divided country. The social, cultural and economic divisions so grossly exacerbated by the conduct of the Trump Administration will remain for the foreseeable future. These go far beyond the intricacies of the Presidential election system and are unlikely to be overturned during a four-year term of office.

Nevertheless, progress towards resolving these and refocusing the American dream looks far more likely under a Biden Administration than under four more years of Trumpian upheaval and excess.

The simple hope has to be that after all the election dramas that have dominated this year the President’s focus shifts after January 20 next year to dealing equitably with these more fundamental issues.    

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 2008 and September 2017. He lives in Wellington.
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