By Rajan Philips –
For today’s column I was planning on writing on the ‘use and abuse of science in politics,’ both generally about the tortuous relationship the two have been having throughout the world in this pandemic year, and more specifically about what seems to be becoming the political abuse of science in Sri Lanka. As far as I can think of examples, Sri Lanka seems to be the only country where the government has succeeded in dividing the medical scientific community almost right down the middle. And I cannot think of any other way to describe this development except calling it utterly disgraceful.
Differences among doctors and scientists are not uncommon and they could be positively useful in many instances. The current differences among world scientists are about the British vaccination protocol – seeking to maximize the number of single dosage recipients by extending the time for the second dosage from three weeks to three months, and to mix and match vaccines for the two dosages. This debate is at the cutting edge of Covid-19 vaccine science.
Closer to stone age is the debate in Sri Lanka about cremating or burying the victims of Covid-19. Somehow, the government seems to have strongarmed, or socially pressured, a medically learned opinion that the burial of Covid-19 victims might result in armies of an essentially respiratory virus escaping the buried cadavers and rushing through the earth’s esophagus to infect its ground water! What else could one call this, except disgraceful.
Trump’s last and worst hurrah
No one, however, will have any hesitation about calling out as DISGRACEFUL, what Donald Trump did in Washington last Wednesday. It was also dangerous. Over the last two months and more, American democracy has been living through the worst of times and the best of times. True to form, after Trump’s worst hurrah on Wednesday, Joe Biden registered his finest hour on Thursday as President elect.
On Wednesday, January 6, the United States Congress was getting into a joint session of the House and the Senate to perform its quadrennial constitutional ritual of affirming the Electoral Court votes and declaring Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners of the 2020 November presidential election. About the same time Trump was addressing a motley mob of his supporters in front of the White House, and egging them on to march on Capitol, while leaving it to them to take whatever course of mischief they could. And they did, storming the Capitol, overpowering security, invading the Senate and House Chambers, forcing the legislators to run for cover, and interrupting proceedings. Five people including a policeman were killed in the melee, and a number of people were injured.
The most shocking aspect of the mob invasion was the total absence of security or police. White thugs were seen freely scaling over parapets on to balconies. It struck everyone who watched the unfolding scenes that it would have been a different story if the protesters were from the Black Lives movement. They would have been gunned down instantly. To his credit, President elect Joe Biden condemned the racist inaction by Police and made it public that his granddaughter, a university student, had emailed him in real time to express her disgust.
This was Trump’s last and desperate attempt to prevent the official declaration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as winners of the November presidential election. Just earlier that morning he had tried to coerce his Vice President Mike Pence to use his simply ceremonial role of announcing Electoral College vote tallies before the joint session, to reject the results of one or more states and throw the whole election into hitherto uncharted chaos. If there could be enough chaos, Trump seems to have figured, he would be able to snatch a second term. Pence refused, and announced his refusal publicly – apparently becoming the first Vice President in American history to publicly contradict his President.
Separately, Trump’s supporters in Congress were trying to challenge and upset the results of six states where Biden’s margin of victory is low. These moves were doomed to fail as a majority of the Congress, in both the House and the Senate, including both Republicans and Democrats, was going to reject these vexations and affirm the clear Electoral College (and the massive popular vote) majority that Biden and Harris had legitimately and legally won. This the Congress eventually did – by massive majorities, over 300 in the House of 438 members and over 90 out of 100 in the Senate. This was done with the Congress reconvening after the mob interruption, and sitting through the night and finishing its constitutional business in the early hours of Thursday morning.
The 100+ members in the House who ended up voting against the endorsement of the election results are die hard Tea Party supporters on the extreme right of the Republican Party, and the half a dozen Republican Senators who objected to the election results were positioning themselves as candidates for the next (2024) presidential election. Their political calculations have now been trampled and trashed by the Trump mob that ransacked the Capitol. And Trump has disgraced himself far more than any of his many detractors could have.
The man who started his presidency yelling to stop the “American carnage” is now leaving office after failing to incite a mob carnage to extend his presidency. The phrase ‘American carnage’ was written into Trump’s inaugural speech by Stephen Miller, a 30+ right-wingnut policy wonk and speechwriter. Miller has been the architect of some of Trump’s worst initiatives, especially on immigration. Trump never owned or possessed any pre-meditated political vocabulary or idea when he embarked on his presidential flight. Nor did he come to acquiring anything worthwhile during his tenure as President.
Given his sociopathic craving for power and fame, Trump turned to the worst and the ugliest in America and among Americans to sustain his politics. His worst hurrah was in trying to goad the Americans, or at least a critically sufficient number of them to overturn the results of the presidential election that he lost by quite a margin. By stubbornly overreaching in the end, he has destroyed the chance of leaving even a partisan legacy of mobilizing over 70 million voters to vote for the Republican Party.
Without the power of the presidency and the social media platform that he exploited, with Facebook and Twitter already beginning to isolate him, and deserted by fleeing staff and supporters, Trump will find it difficult to remain in the eye of the political storm as he has been doing for the last four years. As his former Defense Secretary James Mattis has summed up, Trump “will be deservedly left without a country.” Scotland has already spurned him by officially saying that he is not welcome to visit his golf club there. In America, Trump will be pre-occupied with legal worries.
With only two weeks left in office, there is no point in impeaching Trump or executively removing him under the 25th Amendment. But the calls for one or both, have certainly rattled him and may have prevented him from doing anything outrageous, not only domestically, but also internationally. Within a day of openly inciting his mob supporters to overthrow the election, Trump has been chastened to deliver highly scripted statements that a new administration will take over on January 20 and that he will spend his remaining days in office facilitating a peaceful transfer of power.
He has not been able, however, to find any decency in him to acknowledge that Joe Biden will be the next President. The only remaining surprise about him is whether he would (self) pardon himself out of future legal jeopardies. Whether a self-pardon will be legally enforceable or not is an open legal question, and in any event, it will protect Trump only from federal litigation and not state litigations. There are cases awaiting him in New York, his hometown and home state. But he might never return there. He is now a registered resident of Florida.
America’s Game of Inches
Americans call their national game – (American) Football, a game of inches. The opposing teams lock one another, pushing and shoving to gain ground and advance ball possession inch by inch. Aerial passes were a later introduction apparently following a casual suggestion by President Theodore Roosevelt after his son was badly injured in a college football game. American politics seems to be no different. It is a game of inches – with checks and balances and separation of powers in a federal system. There is no room for aerial passes or sweeping landslide victories.
Joe Biden’s impressive popular vote win would have meant nothing if Trump had managed to hold on to the handful of states that he narrowly lost. Trump would have squeaked through to a second term thanks to the Electoral College system. And the Biden presidency would have been thoroughly ineffectual if the Democrats do not have control in both the House and the Senate. The Democrats have a majority in the House, but they had to win both Senate seats in Georgia in the runoff elections held on January 5. The Democrats stunningly won both, for the first time in 28 years. But it was again a game of inches – just about a one percent margin of victory in both races.
Until recently, the working of the American political system depended on bipartisan agreements in the House and in the Senate. It was not unusual for a sitting President to be opposed by members of his own party in Congress, and for the President to reach out to the opposing party members to secure legislative majorities on a case-by-case basis. The Republicans upended the system when they decided to function as a ‘parliamentary’ opposition to President Obama, opposing everything he did or initiated. The same stalemate would have continued for President elect Biden if Republicans had won at least one of the two Senate races in Georgia, which would have kept the Senate under Republican control.
Apart from the Electoral College system, it is the Senate that provides the biggest check against popular majorities and mandates. James Carville, the coiner of the famous Clinton slogan – “It’s the economy, stupid,” never misses an opportunity to remind his young progressive critics that 18% of the American population (living in 26 rural States) elect 52 of America’s 100 Senators. Therein lies the dilemma of winning big on progressive agendas in New York and in California and running into roadblocks in Washington set up by small state Senators.
The Georgia wins are a great boost to the new Biden-Harris Administration. Both Biden and Harris are former Senators, and Biden had been a Senate fixture from the Nixon era until he became Obama’s Vice President. He has loads of Congress and Senate experience to draw from as he tries to restore normalcy to American politics and its role in the world after four years of Trump chaos.
Joe Biden may not be the man of destiny, but he is a man of great decency, and Americans could not have found a better person to replace Trump and reverse his disastrous course. Biden’s address to the nation on Thursday, the day after Trump’s failed carnage, was his finest hour as President elect. He eloquently went through the long charge sheet against Trump, but he was not interested in impeachment – only in moving on and turning a new page.
He also chose the occasion to announce his new Attorney General – Merrick Garland, a highly respected Federal Appeals Court Judge, whom President Obama nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016, only to have him spurned by the Republican Senate on the grounds that it was an election year. Now it is just reward for Justice, for if there is any area that requires immediate restoration after Trump, it is the Department of Justice. Both Biden and Garland recounted that the American Department of Justice (DOJ) was created in 1870 to specifically enforce civil liberties and eliminate the menace of Ku Klux Klan. The two men promised that the DOJ will be rebooted to its original purpose in the new plural America.