By Kumar David –
Trump’s jingoism hopes to reverse collapsing domestic popularity: Separation of powers tripod acquires fourth prop
Trump’s America is an example of how mass demonstrations, social media, town-hall meetings, local councils, court action by rights groups and mass pressure can make Congress, courts, media, the White House and security agencies bow to public concerns. In the last three months this conglomeration of drivers, which I will call People’s Power (PP), have been able to compel the other three branches (executive, legislative and judicial), well defined in the Constitution, to accommodate their influence. My thesis is that this is a paradigm shift, a change that has come to stay. There are now four not three ‘branches’ in the division of power, three constitutionally stipulated and PP, a supra-constitutional dynamic.
This thesis makes sense only if PP is not a flash in the pan but has come to stay. Many great mobilisations have transformed society, or been crushed or fizzled out. Revolutions alter countries; the tide from 1789 to 1848 changed Europe, February and October 1917 did the same for Russia and wars have shaped and misshaped the world. The Arab Spring, despite electrifying fireworks, fizzled out. PP in the Philippines and Eastern Europe achieved great change but did not add a fourth prop to the structure of state. In democratic advanced societies – that is, technologically, materially and culturally advanced – the score is different. Modern communications empowers social media whose influence is a game changer. It brought Trump to power and has the clout to drive him out of power. The influence of electronic media, TV and the Internet, penetrate maybe a 100 million homes.
Jingoism to mute critics
Let it be said upfront that Basher al Assad, a slayer of innocents and an egregious tyrant must be driven out. He has often used chemical weapons against his own people and I will cheer when they hang him from a lamp-post. World and American popular opinion is glad that Assad’s nose has been bloodied. Trump’s resoluteness contrasts favourably with his predecessor Obama’s Hamlet like indecisiveness in similar circumstances.
However, Trump repeated over and over again on the campaign trail that he would not “waste US tax dollars getting involved in the Middle East” and declared “let the people over there sort out their problems, it’s no concern of the US”. This complements his refrain that human rights and soft morality is drivel not in American interests. En passant this is a wakeup call for Sinhala chauvinists and simpleton Sirisena who delude themselves that Lanka’s war criminals and human rights violators are off the hook following the leadership change in Washington.
Why Trump’s epiphany, dramatic change of heart and total reversal of pledges? I was amazed to watch his performance. Why, he even had a tear for the “beautiful babies and chocking civilians” that Assad’s brutes were mowing down! You don’t need to be a cynic; you only need common-sense to see how bogus and theatrical the dramatization was. Firstly, the build-up of tension and its cathartic release was to defuse unbearable domestic pressure escalating against him. Secondly it was intended to mollify international human rights movements and thirdly to send a message to North Korea, the Middle East including Iran, Russia and China that the new man in the White House is tough so don’t mess around. This third objective may fall flat as global powers see that this is only an act by a crude showman. The strike was limited to 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles and hit just one air-base, Shayrat. The Russians were told in advance to move personnel out of harm’s way. No doubt the information was passed to their Syrian counterparts. [There is a Syrian-Russian version that conventional Syrian air forcr bombs fell on rebel held poison gas stockpiles. I have not taken note of this in this piece because no evidence has been offered up to now].
China and Russia
It was a painful snub to Chinese President Xi Jinping who was in Florida and told when dining with Trump when the missiles were already on their way. The Chinese, very sensitive to matters of face, were appalled by the snub. They are also to read this as a warning of US military intentions in North Korea and the South China Sea. Trump has said more than once, what Nicky Haley said at the UN Security Council during Wednesday’s debate: “If the UN does not act, we will act unilaterally”. I doubt if he will attack Pyongyang since a worst case response will be a nuclear counterstrike on Seoul. Nor is he likely to check Chinese garbing in the South China Sea because that would push the world to the brink of war. But a psychologically unstable type in the White House, when he sets out to push others around, could create far flung consequences. The election of Donald Trump has taken us a little bit closer to World War III.
The rapprochement between Washington and Moscow that Trump promised has suffered a setback. If there was Russian intervention in the US election to rally Trump’s prospects (I think there was but I also doubt if it had much effect) then Moscow’s efforts have been wasted. Trump gets payback in being seen as anti-Russian since FBI and Congressional Investigations into collusion between his campaign and Russia are digging up dirt. A distraction takes steam out of pressure in the rough and tumble of media limelight. The president who wanted to turn his back on the world and focus on Making America Great has mired his country more deeply in global affairs than at any time since George W Bush. The domestic survival strategy of an embattled president bogs America ever more deeply in world affairs and US-Russia relations have taken a battering.
Mavericks of neo-populism
Some weeks ago I argued in these columns that neo-populism should not be confused with fascism and that leaders like Trump, Durante – and Modi and Le Penn – can swing wildly in one direction or the other. Trump is a maverick, a chameleon which changes colour at break-neck speed. From “Obamacare is the worst in the world” to “Oh let it be”; from trade, territorial and maritime threats against China to accommodation; from “Regime change is not a priority in Syria” to “I have changed my mind about Assad” is quicksilver mutation. He has reversed his campaign trail Middle East policy, decided that he can live with Obamacare, gone silent on the Wall and removed his far-right political guru Brannon from a top security committee. The strike on Syria is earning a wave of support among foreign leaders, except Russia, Iran and China, and anti-Trump domestic furore has subsided, perhaps temporarily. The reason for the strike was to swell American pride with a ‘Trump is tough you protesters shut up and fall in line’ message.
I said “perhaps” because there are two alternative paths from here. Either, after the dust settles in Syria and he is back to his bad old days, anti-Trump mobilisation will return with renewed vigour; or the other more interesting option is that Trump will change. A radical turn will bring Trump into conflict with the GOP hard-right causes in Congress. Anyway I emphasise volatility and variability of neo-populists like Trump and Durante – less so Le Penn and Modi – who have no ideology and no world view to which they cling. Durante took China to the international courts about the South China Sea dispute and won; then he sidled up to Beijing to extract promises of aid and even got a big hug. Then equally inexplicably last week he sent troops to occupy some disputed islands. Like Trump he is bone headed and has no political vision or loadstar.
I have come full circle from my theme of several weeks ago to the thesis at the beginning of this essay. Twenty-first Century neo-populism is a new ball-game and when the player is a maverick the results can spin off in all sorts of directions. Democracy and technology engender a fourth pillar of state power in open societies, people’s power. Ah but what a pity, not yet in Lanka.