What is to be done

Tennyson Joseph

MY title is not a reference to outgoing United States President Donald Trump. We have heard so much commentary describing him as a flawed individual, and we have indeed been presented with recent evidence which has borne this out, that such a title would have been quite apt.

However, there is more than a heavy dose of hypocrisy and false analysis in the attempts at placing the recent post-election crisis in the US solely at the feet of the personality of Donald Trump.

All the attendant structural realities which culminated in the January 6 right-wing insurrection have been present from the very birth of the US itself. Indeed, despite his glaring and obvious flaws, Trump did not elect himself in 2016.

Instead of discussing the personality flaw of Trump, it may be more useful to analyse the flaw in the US system of government which has facilitated this recurrent problem of a roughly three-month “transition” from a defeated government to a victorious one.

This period of transition is a denial of the reality of state power. There can only be one sovereign. The king is dead. Long Live the King.

However, in a flight of democratic fancy, the US founding fathers found it necessary to include a long period of transition between political defeat and demitting office. Real powers are retained by a so-called “lame duck” president, while an elected “president-in-waiting” is biding his time, giving rise to a reality of “dual power”.

An electoral defeat feels no differently from a coup. In the night there is government A; and in the morning, government B. The US constitution denies the immediacy and indivisibility of power, and allows both victor and vanquished to bide their time.

Their relation to power is expected to be governed by “human decency” and good faith. The behaviour of a defeated president can range from “remaining out of sight” to one where far-reaching decisions are hurriedly implemented.

Trump is only a most extreme manifestation of the latter example, and indeed, had it not been for the insurrection, his larger behaviour could have been viewed as indecent, but not illegal.

Sadly, however, this flaw may not be an error at all. The US system is so much a government for the wealthy that it is built in to be a self-perpetuating system, with the holders of power being temporary and inconsequential.

Trump’s error was that he tried to turn the system into one which revolved around himself—as a holder of office. It was always meant to be in the hands of the rich, who have no need at all, to wield the levers of public office. Be that as it may, this failure to allow for an immediate transfer of power will remain a persistent flaw in the US system.

—Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, specialising in regional affairs

—Barbados Nation


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