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When a big nation is led by a small man

November 28, 2017 14:04 IST

'Presidents may come and go, but America will go on forever,' an American business leader tells Ambassador T P Sreenivasan in New York.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Abraham Lincoln's definition of democracy in his Gettysburg speech appears to have assumed a new meaning in the United States, one year into President Donald J Trump's current term.

On the ground, one sees that, instead of relying on an elected government of the people, by the people and for the people, the American people themselves are assuming power.

 

They have begun to feel that governance is too serious a matter to be left to the vagaries of an individual, who is unpredictable, incoherent and preoccupied with his survival. Constitutional remedies are openly discussed and there are several campaigns to impeach him.

The realisation is dawning on the American people that the dynamics of political configurations, the game of numbers and the finer aspects of legality will prevent changes before the 2020 US presidential election.

The answer, therefore, appears to be to move on a parallel track, formed by public opinion, the media and responsible citizens inside and outside the administration.

An American business leader exuded confidence when he assured me, "Presidents may come and go, but America will go on forever."

The most sensational instance of resistance to President Trump came when Air Force General John Hyten, the commander of the US strategic command, said recently that he would ignore an 'illegal nuclear order' from the president, adding that the president could not carry out an illegal strike.

If the president asked what was legal, the general said, 'We would come up with options and a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is... We're not stupid people. We think about these things a lot.'

'When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?' the general asked.

Moreover, some US senators want legislation to alter the president's nuclear authority. A senate committee held the first congressional hearing in more than four decades on the president's authority to launch a nuclear strike.

At a time when the president is threatening to 'totally destroy' North Korea, such developments erode his credibility further.

Although the Trump administration's position to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is unchanged, the US attended the November meeting of the Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, not only for technical reasons, but also because opinion in responsible circles is that it is in the US' interests to remain within the confines of the Paris Agreement.

The US delegation participated in the COP deliberations in good faith in the seeming expectation that the Paris Agreement could not be wished away by President Trump. Apart from the environmentalists and the public, many industries continue on the course set by the Paris Agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Although Trump characterised his East Asia visit as 'tremendously successful', the American public was generally sceptical and ignored most of his views expressed on the trip as tentative. His advisers kept providing briefings to indicate that much of what Trump said was tongue in cheek, particularly when he praised the Chinese as a role model.

Neither his enemies nor his friends, new and old, expressed confidence in his reliability. Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out the red carpet for him, but took all the Trump flattery in his stride.

Trump's repeated references to Asia Pacific as 'Indo-Pacific' sounded hollow when India is not even a member of APEC. The revival of the 'Quadrilateral' grouping consisting of the US, India, Japan and Australia contradicted Trump's adoration of China, but even the participants were cautious not to make the grouping appear an instrument of containment of China.

Even more, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made new moves to befriend China, precisely because he does not consider Trump reliable.

The initial instinct to demonstrate against Trump has died down except in the recent case of Puerto Rico-related protests.

The strategy Americans are adopting is to wait for Trump to reverse his decisions as he has done in the past.

Even on migration issues, on which Trump has wide support, the inconsistencies in his approaches and the judiciary's interventions have thwarted his initiatives. Immigration officials appear more than friendly at airport counters.

Trump's inability to find an alternative to Obamacare was another blow to his capacity for change. His response to national emergencies like terrorist attacks and school shootings have further alienated him from his people.

His statements are a matter of curiosity, not the voice of the conscience of the American people or the consensus among them.

American Presidents used to be judged by their approval ratings in the past, but they have reached rock bottom in Trump's case. Nobody seems to give his ratings any attention as the criteria used to determine approval ratings are difficult to apply in his case as there is no finality about his statements and actions.

A leading American newspaper was asked soon after last year's election why it was totally wrong in its predictions. The answer was that the newspaper's duty was not just to report facts, but also to guide public opinion.

The American media -- with some exceptions like Fox News -- has taken on the responsibility of guiding the nation, by way of a running commentary on Trump's thoughts and actions. The president dismisses all these as 'fake news' and ignores editorial and opinion writers.

The public seems to lap up the media's negative assessments of their president. They trust the media more than they do the president and accept assessments like 'This is what happens when a very big nation is led by a very small man.'

Today the American media is preoccupied with the array of high profile men in a variety of professions, including politics, who have resigned, been fired or disgraced after accusations ranging from inappropriate text messages to rape were made.

The trend was set in October when several women came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, of sexual misconduct. Though the men belonged to different parties and backgrounds, the fact that the president himself was accused of such misconduct was highlighted in the process.

The major act in town, the Russia investigation, is meandering slowly towards an unpredictable denouement, while taking a greater toll on the credibility of President Trump and his associates.

Republicans and Democrats have been trading charges against each other over Russia. But all of this has become irrelevant to a nation which has taken charge of its own governance while waiting for change, one way or another.

T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services, Director General, Kerala International Centre.

T P Sreenivasan