Monthly Archives: February 2017

TTIP, CETA & Co.: BOON OR BANE?

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By Julia Huentemann, a 1st Year International Relations Student and Editorial Assistant for International Relations Today.

Strasbourg. On 15th February, 2017 the European Parliament ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada, best known by its acronym CETA. According to the EU Commission, this is supposed to be the most modern, advanced and progressive free trade agreement ever constructed, since it goes beyond just removing customs duties and takes people and the environment fully into account. By doing so, it will set a new global standard for future trade agreements.

“It will help to generate growth and jobs by boosting exports, lowering the cost of the inputs businesses need to make their products, offering greater choice for consumers, and upholding the EU’s strict standards for products.”[1] This is how both the European Union and the Canadian government are currently advertising CETA to the public. The underlying optimistic and innovative tone seems quite convincing and implies that the free trade agreement will mean a significant step forward for Canada and the EU.

In his speech, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about better incomes for workers, entrepreneurs who will have access to new customers, consumers paying less at the checkout counter, manufacturers who can expand their global reach, and more predictability and transparency for the “engineering, architecture, and information technology” sectors. In short, he said “CETA is a framework for trade that works for everyone”[2], from the companies level all the way down to consumers.

If  CETA is obviously so beneficial, why is it so unpopular among the European public?

There are still many remaining skeptics who forecast that instead of soothing nationalism, the ratification of CETA will actually encourage populist movements across Europe, since the benefits of the trade agreement will disproportionately accrue to upper income earners, leaving working class people behind. If you do some research on the matter, you can easily encounter websites promoting a European-wide petition against CETA and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), the pending trade deal between the US and the EU, which already caused a lot of unrest recently. Those websites refer to CETA and TTIP as “dirty deals”[3] and is presented as the cause to global poverty, inequality and injustice. But, what exactly sparked this upheaval about TTIP and what does this have to do with CETA?

TTIP negotiations began in February 2015 and, once information was leaked, the content was  considered somewhat alarming, especially with regard to TTIP’s ‘regulatory convergence’ agenda which will seek to bring EU standards on environment and food safety closer to those of the US. But US regulations are much less strict, with 70% of all processed foods sold in US supermarkets now containing genetically modified ingredients while the EU does not permit GM food. The same quality gap exists in the environmental standards as well. While the EU’s regulations are stricter towards producers, obliging them to prove a substance’s safety before using it; in the US quite the opposite is the rule: any substance can be used until it is proven unsafe. It does not come surprisingly that, once it was leaked, this information caused some doubts about the benefits of such a trade agreement.

However, what appears to be even more essential is the fact that the process of negotiations has been highly secretive, with nearly all information on negotiations coming from leaked documents or Freedom of Information requests. For the public, who has no say in whether the treaty goes through or not, this issue necessarily raises some questions about the democratic nature of the decision-making processes and thus of their governments’ self-conceptions.

Following TTIP, CETA now raises these same questions, as again the European citizens did not have much of a choice on whether to ratify this agreement or not. Decisions are being taken on behalf of the citizens without even asking or informing them on crucial matters. In the context of the current crises Europe is going through, this could encourage the lurking, constant rise of nationalist populists. Anxieties, be they irrational or not, about jobs being lost to Canada due to competitive advantage foster the dissent towards national governments as well as the EU and at the same time pose the risk of creating a framework for populists to rise.

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Only the future can tell whether CETA, TTIP & Co. mean a boon or bane for Europe, because a reliable prognosis seems impossible in our globalised and complex world. But irrespective of future economic effects, and even though such agreements are likely to have very beneficial spillover effects upon political relations, the controversial discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of CETA reveals one aspect very clearly, namely that the EU commission should pay more attention to the concerns of the European civil society when constructing future trade agreements. The fact that more than 3.5 Million people (almost 7% of the European population) have already signed the petition against CETA and TTIP undoubtedly sends a clear message to the EU Commission including all its member states, implying an urge to change policy direction.

 

Bibliography:

[1] European Commission. Trade; Policy; In focus: Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Retrieved 26th February, 2017 from <http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/in-focus/ceta/&gt;.

[2] National Observer. Baloney Meter: Will free trade with the EU benefit everyone in Canada? Retrieved 26th February, 2017 from <http://www.nationalobserver.com/2017/02/23/news/baloney-meter-will-free-trade-eu-benefit-everyone-canada&gt;.

[3] War on Want; Fighting Global Inequality. What is CETA? Retrieved 27th Feubrary, 2917 from <http://www.waronwant.org/what-ceta&gt;.

The Independent. What is TTIP? And six reasons why the answer should scare you. Retrieved 27th Feburary, 2017 from <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/what-is-ttip-and-six-reasons-why-the-answer-should-scare-you-9779688.html&gt;.

 

 

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Is Putin being ‘Trump-ed’ by the Media?

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By Gloria Trifonova, a first year War Studies student at King’s College London.

Vladimir Putin has been in power in Russia for over a decade now – from Prime Minister to President and back again, he has become a symbol for the post-communist Russian political system. Recently, he has been taken out of the spotlight as the media has found a new villain, Donald Trump, who took the world by storm by winning the US Presidential election in 2016. Has the media truly abandoned their beloved Russian scapegoat for everything that is wrong in international relations? 

Given that we now live in a world where executive orders and tweets provoke a similar outrage in the public, it seems Putin is only a side character in the new season of American Horror Story: The White House. We hear about him as if he is the irreverent best friend that is only there to push the development of the main character forward with snooty comments and late night phone calls we never get to hear.

 

While the media has been concerned whether Trump and Kanye had tea or coffee, Putin has been on the move. His recent visit to Hungary seems to have strengthened Russo-Hungarian relations and may result in Hungarian support for the lifting of EU sanctions imposed on Russia. Furthermore, with pro-Russian socialist electoral victories in Bulgaria and Moldova in 2016 it is likely that EU stability may be experiencing turmoil other than BREXIT. Moreover, Russia has managed to keep its relations with Turkey relatively stable thus far, despite a few hiccups along the way resulting in taking down of a Russian war plane in 2015 and a few Turkish soldiers dead by a Russian military jet air strike in 2017. The two historically antagonistic states have taken up a common campaign against ISIS and this is decreasing diplomatic pressures of the past.

 

Military cooperation in Syria has also helped better Russia’s relations with Iran and many independent media sources suggest that Putin is going to attempt to dissuade Trump from his hard stance on Iran, as Trump has recently threatened further sanctions and of course employed his supper villain catch-phrase “nothing is off the table” in regards to further action if Iran doesn’t stop testing missiles. It would be interesting to see Putin’s strategy regarding Iran, traditionally in opposition to key US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, instead of theorizing about how the Russian leader will handle this delicate diplomatic issue, the mainstream media is concerned with the crisis of the day – why did Nordstrom drop Ivanka Trump’s line indeed?

Perhaps it is a positive development that Putin has been outshone in the media. For too long the West, which likes to presents itself as a beacon of democracy and human rights in the face of the “borderline fascist dictatorships” of the East, has exerted hypocrisy in criticizing his every move and the election of Donald Trump only reveals this further. The US, which for years has deemed Russia racist, homophobic and radical has elected a man, who is the poster child for all those terms. But this is not all about Trump. It seems the moral code the US has applied to Russia over the last decade evaporates when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Not once has the US condemned their oil donor, which enforces punishments for homosexuality ranging from imprisonment and fines to corporal and capital punishment. Furthermore, crimes based on racism occur just as often in the West, but the US, for example, seems to forget its own Trayvon Martins and Mike Browns, while patronizing Russia for being racist.

Also, it seems mainstream media in the West never truly grasped the position of Putin in Russian politics. The tendency to glorify leaders in Russia has deep historical roots. Modern Russia is a produce of both its Tsarist and communist past. In both cases, whether we speak of Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, a strong leader, whom the people believe in, seems to be an intrinsic part of keeping such a vast country together and Putin has ensured the resurgence of Russia in world order and this has secured him the support of the public. Culturally, Russians look for strength in their leader more than anything and Putin is a “killer” as Trump himself has referred to him.

Thus, maybe given that the spoon-feeding of propaganda by the mainstream media does not solve any problems; it only creates a smokescreen for the gullible Western public, who needs a moustache-twirling villain, it is time we start analyzing Putin’s agenda objectively. As he even said in his 2007 Munich speech – “Just like any war, the Cold War left us with live ammunition, figuratively speaking. I mean ideological stereotypes, double standards and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking.” It is high time we let go of such thinking.

 

Bibliography

Donald Trump seeks a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin, The Economist, Feb. 11th 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21716609-it-terrible-idea-donald-trump-seeks-grand-bargain-vladimir-putin 

Russian Foreign Ministry Following Putin’s Orders on Boosting Embassies Security, Sputnik News, Feb. 12th 2017, https://sputniknews.com/world/ 201702121050595855-russia-embassy-security-measures/

 

‘US-Iran tensions could be defused during Putin-Trump meeting’, Routers, Feb. 11th 2017, https://www.rt.com/op-edge/377079-iran-sanctions-trump-revolution/

 

The new power couple: Russia and Iran in the Middle East, European Council on Foreign Relations, Sep. 13th 2016, http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/ summary/iran_and_russia_middle_east_power_couple_7113

 

Putin Swaggers Into Hungary as Europe Wonders About U.S., New York Times, Feb. 2nd 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/02/world/europe/ vladimir-putin-hungary.html?_r=0

 

Pro-Russia presidential candidates tipped to win in Bulgaria and Moldova, The Guardian, Nov. 13th 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/ 13/pro-russia-presidential-candidates-tipped-to-win-in-bulgaria-and-moldova

 

‘Wars not diminishing’: How Putin’s iconic 2007 Munich speech sounds today, Reuters, Feb. 10th 2017, https://www.rt.com/news/376901-putin-munich-speech-2007/

 

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A violent peace: El Salvador 25 years on

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Carly Greenfield is a second year International Relations student with an interest in non-wartime violence, gender theory, and organized crime, especially in Latin America.

El Salvador, a state of little more than 6 million people, often falls below the radar in the 21st century. However, 25 years ago, El Salvador was ending a 12-year civil war that had ushered it into a violent Cold War paradigm and brought global media attention along with it. Today, El Salvador is the battleground for deadly gang warfare and a hardened state presence. While the peace deal of 1992 ensured an end to the conflict, Salvadorans have not been able to cultivate a peaceful society. In 2015, San Salvador hosted the third highest murder rate in the world: with its population hovering around 1.7 million, almost a third of all Salvadorans have been forced to make this a part of their daily lives. The peace deal failed to create a peaceful state due to an inability to remedy the conflict’s roots of inequality and injustice, failure to persecute military members following the deal, and a failure to address the trauma experienced by local communities. Along with a lack of political will, El Salvador has faced the same abject poverty as its neighbor states and extreme levels of emigration towards the United States (US), leading to an excess in crime rates.

The civil war was fought between the Government of El Salvador and Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), but its roots lay much further back in El Salvador’s history. Like most of Latin America, Spain dominated El Salvador for over 300 years until its full independence in 1838. This laid down a system built around natural goods such as indigo and sugarcane and the need for a peasant population to farm it. Following independence, as in the colonial period, a group of elites held almost all of the wealth in the country. In the 19th century, they amassed control of the economy through the farming of a new crop: coffee. Economic disparity grew and in the 20th century, peasant revolts became increasingly common, leading to brutal crackdowns by the government. As El Salvador swung from one military dictatorship to the next and social mobility stayed practically impossible, the growth of leftist guerrilla movements was expected. Like in neighboring states Nicaragua and Guatemala, the 1970s and 1980s became ground zero for revolutionary politics.

El Salvador’s civil war lasted from 1980 to 1992, leaving over 75,000 people dead and thousands more displaced from their homes. It was notorious for death squads, the use of child soldiers, and various other human rights violations. Thousands had fled to neighboring countries, chief among them the United States. The US, who had backed the Salvadoran government during the war, would play a key part in both the peace deal and its ensuing breakdown. Following the 1989 Jesuit massacre, and the US no longer supplying the government with weapons but rather calling for an end to the conflict, the government and FMLN brokered a peace deal. Although the peace deal succeeded in ending the violent civil war and incorporating FMLN into the political system, economic goals of the peace agreement were less successful. Along with this, a lack of funding for government programs reincorporating child soldiers or supporting communities most affected by the atrocities kept areas from healing.

Within the peace accord, several agreements have been breached or not followed closely— Chapter 1, Armed Forces, facing the most challenges. Point 5, End to Impunity, gave the Commission on the Truth power to end impunity for armed actors involved in human rights abuses. However, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed an amnesty law that protected all military and guerrilla forces from prosecution in 1993, undercutting the Commission on the Truth, leaving many victims without anyone to hold to account. To this end, the entrance of the FMLN into the president’s office in 2009 led to the removal of the blanket amnesty law, yet still few cases have been prosecuted. Now, at the 25th anniversary, prosecutions are becoming less and less likely, meaning the justice side of the conflict remains unfulfilled, keeping the country from experiencing total peace. With Point 6 of Chapter 1, Public Security Forces, the government has loosened the regulations set out in the peace accord. While the peace accord set about creating a police force controlled by civilian authorities, rather than allowing the military to conduct the policing within El Salvador, the government has instead militarized its police. Though the primary role of the national civil police was shaped around safeguarding peace, anti-gang policies have been more offensive than defensive in nature. In the first decade of the 2000s, El Salvador’s leadership developed the manu duro policy (iron fist). President Antonio Saca brought more force to the program and labeled it super mano duro. These policies led to increased police presence in El Salvador along with heavier weapons and the legal ability to take harsh methods against suspected gang members, therein beginning to blur the line carefully set out by the peace accords. In 2015, the government labeled street gangs as terrorist organization— a step that proponents said was fitting, given how the gangs terrorize the local population and seek to undermine the government. What this decision also does, however, is expand police rights to round up any person with a gang-related tattoo, as being a member of a gang is now illegal. Searches and raids rose and stories began to crop up of police abuse and overzealousness, but few arrests were made inside the police force. The government’s ability to seek justice as it sees fit is reminiscent of the civil war, making some civil society activists uncomfortable. As many gangs are most active in poor neighborhoods, it is those people who are most affected by gang violence and extortion and government abuse, rekindling the divide between the poor and the heavily armed police.

Point 11 called for the suspension of forcible recruitment: children disappeared throughout the conflict and many were coerced or forced into fighting, leaving a generation with few skills outside of war. While the government has taken steps to protect children, the gangs recruit boys as young as 10 to serve as lookouts and informants throughout the country. Recruitment into a street gang should be treated as a similar crime to that named in the peace accord since most of the gang members are young and die early. The government’s inability to protect its youth shows that the peace accord has not been implemented in its entire scope, made more acute due to a lack of finances.

The El Salvador peace deal, like many other peace deals, focused on resolving the conflict at hand and less with the structural issues going on inside El Salvador. Still, Chapter 5 sought to answer “the agrarian problem.” Land reform occurred to give workers more access to the wealth being gained from the earth they till and more peasants were able to buy land. Still, wages did not rise substantially, and an elite few continue to amass a critical amount of the wealth. The space left between peace accords and truth commissions following conflict leaves substantial room for economic structures to remain in place even while they are often a focal point of the conflict. The failure of the government to set significant reforms in place means that many Salvadorans face similar economic pressures as those prior to the civil war.

It would be incorrect to claim, however, that El Salvador is wholly responsible for its homicide rate or gang epidemic. The role of the US in Salvadoran politics was a main hindrance to peace within the state during the civil war, and its support of the original peace deal was mainly in pursuit of its own national interest. Now, as the international community looks to how El Salvador can lower its homicide rate, it should really be analyzing US immigration policy. The practices that gangs employ have their origins in Los Angeles, not in Soyapongo.

Thousands of Salvadorans escaped the country during the civil war, particularly young men avoiding being brought in to fight. Many fled to the US, albeit without the proper documentation, and settled in Los Angeles. The adolescents noticed the street culture already prevalent in the city at the time, particularly the gang rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips. This gave birth to la Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13, and one of the main gangs in El Salvador today. While the gang was formed in Los Angeles, it ended up back in El Salvador: the US government, cracking down on illegal immigration, deported thousands of Salvadorans back to El Salvador following the peace accord. Since the US prioritizes deporting those with criminal records, gang members were the perfect example of what the government wanted to get out of the country. So although the young men were raised in American streets, the US took no responsibility for their behavior, and gang culture was exported to El Salvador along with the people. Since most of these men had little connection to El Salvador, they were difficult to integrate, notwithstanding all of the other issues that the country was facing. US foreign policy towards El Salvador, laden with hypocrisy for decades, has only furthered the destabilization of the small country. By only understanding the civil war through the Cold War, it supported brutal government tactics and furthered the endless bloodshed. The deportation of young gang members and the separation of families across borders continue to put Salvadorans at risk. Furthermore, when the US saw an increase in unaccompanied minors entering the US in 2014, they were careful not to label them refugees, even though they were escaping the deadliest region outside of a warzone. As El Salvador continues to grapple with its rival gangs, the US continues its deadly deportation policy.

What does this all mean, in the context of a 25 year-old peace deal? Small states do not have full agency in their policymaking if they are not afforded it by larger states, such as in the US-El Salvador relationship. The violence in El Salvador should also serve as a reminder of the importance of financial power to put in place post-conflict programs that emphasize reintegration, community building, and job opportunities. Impunity serves no one but those who committed the crimes, even if it is being done in the name of healing and moving on. Furthermore, governments must conduct their own commissions to reform long-established obstacles: while truth commissions may bring victims’ voices to light, and peace accords disarm the opposition, there continues to be no exact model for addressing the long-term grievances of oppressed groups, especially in postcolonial states. The peace accord may have ended the civil war, but it was unable to provide stability or lead to civil society involvement that could have created a peace that meant more than simply the absence of war.

 

Sources:

http://www.seguridadjusticiaypaz.org.mx/biblioteca/prensa/send/6-prensa/230-caracas-venezuela-es-la-ciudad-mas-violenta-del-mundo 

http://www.blog.rielcano.org/ciudades-violentas-sin-necesidad-de-guerras/#comments 

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/es.html 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/29/el-salvador-police-arrest-77-raids-powerful-ms13-gang 

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/04/adam-hinton-el-salvador-ms-13-gangs-prison-portraits 

http://cja.org/where-we-work/el-salvador/ 

http://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/SV_920116_ChapultepecAgreement.pdf 

http://www.usip.org/publications/truth-commission-el-salvador 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/18/nayib-bukele-san-salvador-mayor-save-worlds-most-violent-city 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGG7lRJJkJk 

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/11/arts/television/11bull.html 

http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1920741,00.html 

http://www.csmonitor.com/1996/1105/110596.intl.intl.1.html 

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/Latin-America-Monitor/2012/0425/Building-on-success-How-El-Salvador-is-trying-to-keep-gang-violence-down

 

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The Fruits of a Popular Presidency

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Matthew Shoemaker is an analyst for BAE Systems at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Matthew specializes in nuclear war strategy as well as American, British, and NATO security issues. He holds a BA in Political Science and International Affairs from George Washington University, an MA in Philosophy from Mount St. Mary’s University, and is completing his Ph.D. in War Studies from King’s College London.

Admiration for the office of the American presidency, though perhaps not for the present incumbent, would seem, at face value, to be nearly universal amongst practically all sections of the American populace. In the era of 24 hour news, the press minutely reports the comings and goings, agenda, and even the wardrobe of members of the first family. Broadcasters tirelessly and even unctuously described the dresses and gowns of Melania Trump and her consort at the Inauguration Day festivities. President Trump’s children Ivanka, Tiffany, Eric, Donald Jr., and Barron have already become public figures. They became front page news even before President Trump raised his hand to take the oath of office.

There ought to be little doubt that all this attention evinces an authentic public interest. Editors at CNN and MSNBC will likely assume that features about the Trump family, however tired and repetitious, will restore their falling ratings. Exposés of Melania Trump and her supermodel career or humble upbringing will assuredly never fail to increase clicks for the news agencies. It would be fair to speculate that in time Ivanka’s driver or Barron’s former teacher could command for their reminiscences sums which any mortal might envy. Even if the new president’s politics and personality divide American public opinion, tourists to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be sure to stare through the iron railings like that of pious old women who shuffle through dark, deserted churches.

The particular expressions in which popular esteem for the presidency and for the person inhabiting that office have evolved and adapted through the centuries. The first presidents exercised significantly weaker power than their contemporaries do today yet they monopolized the American consciousness during times of upheaval. Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln in particular enjoyed relative popularity during their presidencies: Jackson as a war hero, whereas Lincoln eventually was held in awed regard by the end. At the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, The Washington Times wrote on the occasion:

‘The President breathed his last at 2:15 o’clock this morning. Words of consolation to his wife were the last that passed his lips. They came as a gentle farewell to the American people whom he loved so well, and of whose manhood he was so fine a type…Only three times from the moment he received his death wound did he speak of him who so wantonly struck him down, and it was characteristic of the President’s magnanimous character that in each instance his words were those of pity for what he, in his broad charity, regarded as the delusion of a misguided youth.’

The obituary continues in the most prolific and glowing terms of the late president’s saintliness. His memory was accorded the sonorous adulation which had and has even at the present age come to be regarded as due to a deceased president.

It was during the presidency of Bill Clinton that the popular presidency as we know it today took shape. In previous administrations, presidents were at the mercy of voter sentiment during election season; however, the Monica Lewinsky scandal thrust the president’s personal life into the homes of American citizens to examine, debate, and gossip over well beyond the slated election cycle. The effect was that the president had become the star in an American soap opera.

At the time of his impeachment proceedings, Bill Clinton is said to have told his advisors that he was contemplating resigning as Richard Nixon had in 1974. Nevertheless, he confronted his political adversaries and defeated the impeachment accusations. For this, his party was rewarded in the 1998 midterm elections with gains in the House and Senate. As events unfolded, he realised that the voters held him in affectionate regard as a man, as distinct from holding him in respect, or even awe, as a president.

From an outsider’s view, one could easily be forgiven for expecting demonstrations of hostility or at any rate ridicule against a president who cheated on his wife with a 22 year old college intern in the Oval Office. Instead, to the political establishment’s amazement, he was acclaimed with delight in American homes. If the majority of people sympathized with and took the president to their hearts in spite of, or perhaps because of, the similarities in American marital and sexual mores, then, surely, it might be confidently assumed that the whole population were solidly behind the president. Louis XIV of France made the claim: ‘L’état, c’est moi”. I and the state are one and the same. Bill Clinton found himself in a position to claim: ‘I and the people are one and the same.’

If Bill Clinton found himself the unexpected object of authentic popular affection, Barack Obama was idolised as few men ever have been. For millions of Americans, he was more than the inhabitant of the White House—the most powerful office in the world. He represented their own hopes of a better, kinder, more left-wing way of life than they had hitherto known. His personality became a sort of utopian drama against which global events and world leaders were measured. His fame and the time in which he became president were indissolubly connected. After the extraordinarily contentious Bush years, Obama, like so many of his contemporaries, was apt to confuse aspiration and achievement—to assume that human ills would all dissolve in the sunshine of good intentions. When he said, in the course of a visit to depressed areas of Detroit, that “something” must be done, everyone fallaciously assumed that something would be done. Had his presidency been more prosperous, he might have achieved Kennedy-esque stature, but he lacked the humility to be a president who turned thoughts and intentions into reality. Instead, he basked in the spotlight as his people’s idol, unwilling to upset the apple cart and risk unpopularity by getting into the muck of governing.

Yet, in attempting not to upset the cart, upset it he certainly did. In leaving his people and relinquishing the destiny upon which he so dazzlingly embarked, he confronted the presidency with what seemed an insoluble problem of how to transition from an idolised man by the establishment to a brusque billionaire, an arduous septuagenarian. To the surprise of the American establishment, the transfer as we have seen over the past months, was achieved without significant difficulty, though perhaps raucous grumbling. The new president attended what has become a de facto coronation and is beloved by Middle America. President Trump, along with his wife and family, held the center stage. Despite Obama’s withdrawal from the cast as its leading actor, the show went on playing to a packed house. Today, a solid majority, nearly 60%, of the American populace approves of President Trump according to a Rasmussen poll.

For months, President Trump and his supporters announced that a new Age of Trump was to be expected. Such a prospect, in the circumstances of minimal economic or foreign policy successes, was alluring and Trump and his consort fit well into the expectation of a new springtime in public affairs. President Trump alone constitutes a kind of a presidential soap opera unto himself, whose interests never seem to flag even though the successive installments might be somewhat monotonous. Sophisticated observers might marvel at the appeal of so invariable a theme, but the general public continues to be enthralled almost to the point of hysteria.

Such is the popular presidency. It has its charm and utility. A largely materialistic society like ours has a natural propensity to hero worship, and the image of a presidential family is not a bad way of satisfying it. The presidency in a way provides a sort of substitute or ersatz religion. One could almost be forgiven for thinking the president practically ruled through divine right. Today, with the imperial presidency creeping into legislative affairs via pens and phones, Congress struggles to remind presidents that Congress does not advise but rather legislates. However, in an era where presidents are hailed as ‘The Anointed One’, he is practically God’s viceroy, and, as such, is not susceptible to interference by mortal men. When a president rules over the hearts of men, it is inevitable that the focus of interest should be transferred from the office to the person.

For the current occupant of the White House, it is Trump, himself, his family, and his way of life which holds the public attention. The presidency has amassed such power both socially and constitutionally that the person inhabiting the office becomes, in himself, wondrous. If he were ordinary, he would be nothing. Almost two dozen Republicans ran against Donald Trump in the primaries and quickly melted away when they were deemed mundane or banal by the public. Now, President Trump’s raison d’être is to be president and presidential. That is to say, he must be alluring, removed from the necessities and inadequacies of ordinary men—a creature of this world in the sense that he has a home, a wife and children, and yet not quite of this world in that he is president.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume from the adulation shown the presidency, the security of the office. Popularity, like patriotism, is not enough. Any earthly image is an extremely unsound focus for hysterical feeling. History shows that institutions survive only to the degree that they fulfill an authentic purpose. The American presidency indeed fulfills a purpose though perhaps too large a purpose in a system with coequal branches of government. Conversely, the presidency theoretically provides a head of state transcending the lower politicians who tend to ‘ebb and flow by the moon’ as King Lear so wonderfully said. The past three presidents all won second terms which expresses that continuity which has enabled America to survive the French and Russian Revolutions, a civil war, and two ruinous world wars without being torn asunder. But the function of the presidency must not only be fulfilled, it must be seen to be fulfilled. The president, in other words, must be put across not only as an effective businessman who is able to win hearts through his achievements. He must be put across, as well, as a useful unifying element in a society full of actual and potential discord.

Are his present advisers and his own temperament capable of doing this? In all fairness, it is too early to pass judgment. He will, however, need men and women who understand what the twenty-first century is about and what the role of a president at such a time ought to be; men and women who can deal with the internet and news cycle side of his existence subtly and sensibly, without losing sight of the great symbolic utility of the institution he embodies; men and women who are living in the present age which has been shaped by the fleeting desires of the populace. The American people are the authors of their own leadership; they anoint their own ruling class. They need only thank themselves for the fruits of a popular presidency.

 

 

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