by Rajan Philips
Donald Trump is in a free fall in the US presidential election. Facing what appears to be certain defeat he is behaving like a wounded Neanderthal and is threatening to take down the American political system with him. He is riling his base for a post-election showdown, accusing the political and media elites of rigging the electoral system to engineer his defeat. He is equally rousing his followers with his (empty) victory promise to subject Hillary Clinton to special prosecution for a lifetime of lies and criminal acts. All of this is shocking, but should not be surprising, because Trump is a grotesque and dangerous clown who is personifying the worst elements of male chauvinism in America against its first female presidential candidate.
What was surprising last week was to hear President Sirisena’s public outburst against the CID, FCID and the Bribery Commission for their allegedly disrespectful handling of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former Navy Commanders over allegations of abuse of authority and financial misdemeanours.
Everyone seems to have been taken by surprise. Using the three-legged metaphor I trotted out last week, it is as if the President has tried to swing his free leg behind him to land a kick on the Prime Minister’s backside. The President’s surprising political acrobatics had both men losing their unity balance and falling face down. The Prime Minister hurriedly extricated himself and huddled with this half of the national government before having a chat with the President. The main media and the social media are busy mining for meanings from the President’s uncharacteristic ‘loss of cool’. Speculations range from calling it a sign of serious differences between him and the UNP, to a fatherly attempt to deflect attention from the night club thuggery of his enfant terrible and his bodyguards. More discerning observers think that the President may have been legitimately concerned about what is said to be going on in the Bribery Commission, but ill-advisedly threw mud at the police and prosecutors in the CID and the FCID.
While admittedly incomparable, the two threats are opposing examples of political interference in the judicial process. Trump’s threat is an unprecedented presidential threat against his rival candidate and underscores his ignorance of the inability of the US President to direct the Justice Department to do anything.
Sri Lanka of course saw that playbook in action when the Rajapaksas humiliated the retired Army Commander and 2010 presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka, and jailed him after an orchestrated court martial hearing. When President Sirisena publicly berates the police and the prosecutors for arraigning the former Defence Secretary and retired Navy Commanders, he seems to be forgetting what the Defence Secretary and his brother President did to Sarath Fonseka after the presidential election in 2010. More importantly, the President is interfering in the judicial process.
Just as much as the Executive has no business to direct the judiciary to prosecute someone, it has no business either to direct the judiciary not to prosecute someone. In threatening to prosecute Hillary, Trump is showing both his ignorance and desperation.
In accusing the CID, FCID and the Bribery Commission of following a ‘political agenda’, President Sirisena is throwing a political wrench of his own into the already unclear world of this government’s investigation of corruption. Doing it so publicly is what has surprised everyone. He may have wanted to send a message to the UNP and the Prime Minister, but he has only awakened the civil society groups that worked their hearts out to have him elected as President in January 2015. They may have got tired and given up on their expectations of good governance from the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government. Now the President has inadvertently whipped them into action. The JVP also has come alive after the President’s outburst. Whatever reasons the President may have had for his outburst, he will now have to deal with its unintended consequences. And that is not a bad outcome, because those who worked hard to get him elected can now get activated again and demand results.
The government has serious challenges to face and it is not at all funny to see the President and the Prime Minister creating unnecessary distractions and difficulties for themselves and the government by their rather silly obsessions. For whatever reason, the Prime Minister is not willing to let go of Arjuna Mahendran from public life; and the President for all his power to berate police officers and prosecutors in public, is unable to discipline his errant son in private and put him in his place. If their private addictions lead to their political downfalls, that is their problem.
But given the state of Sri Lankan politics and government, the President and the Prime Minister bear a greater responsibility to the public to simply cut loose their private obsessions for the public good. If they fail, they will not only go down themselves but will also bring the house down with them. Of course, the Rajapaksas will return, but that will not do anybody any good except the Rajapaksas themselves.
Trump’s majority of the majority
There is a more ominous parallel between Trump’s political assertions and methods and the ‘majority of the majority’ thesis that is sometimes articulated in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. He is honing his message to white Americans to get a sufficient majority of them to vote for him, while viciously attacking Hillary Clinton to discourage independent voters from voting for her and encourage them to avoid voting at all. Some in Trump’s entourage including one of his sons have tweet-suggested that because Trump is assured of a majority among white male voters, the path to victory could by disenfranchising women voters; that would require the rescinding, in the midst of an election campaign, the 19th Amendment that was enacted in 1920 enfranchise American women. Their political naivety is both appalling and dangerous. The implication of this campaign is also that a Hillary Clinton victory, insofar as it will be based on a majority of non-white voters, will not be ‘legitimate’ because it would not have won a ‘majority of the majority’ white male voters.
The fact of the matter is that there are too many Americas than what the simplistic Trump and his supporters can reckon. Even white males are divided and subdivided by age, education, income, region, and religion, not to mention sexual orientation.
Trump draws his main support from the less educated white males with lower incomes, who are also racist, misogynous and homophobic.
It is not that these sections of society are to be treated as rejects, but it is only that the amelioration of their own conditions can never be achieved through hateful and exclusionary politics. And Donald Trump who has inherited and wallowed in wealth, and rather obscenely so by his own boasts, is hardly the champion of the underprivileged.
Exclusion and hate are the hallmarks of Trumpism, as indeed they are of bigots everywhere. It is not an accident that Trump in America and Marine Le Pen in France are relying on the rhetoric of national sovereignty to advance their political agendas. What is also not accidental is that after 200 since its beginnings, nationalism has virtually lost its emancipatory and democratic content; more so in the West, where it began, than anywhere else. America is also home to people who have migrated from every other country in large and small numbers, including a good number of Sri Lankans. Hopefully, one useful outcome of the Trump phenomenon would be the realization of the dangers of nationalism, and the fallacy of the ‘majority of the majority’ thesis and what could be its horrendous consequences for America and other political societies.