A recent article in The Economist chronicled the downturn in the popularity and standing of democracy over the last fifty years. In the first half of the twentieth century democracy (“government by the people”) was the gold standard, and was riding a wave of adoption worldwide. Democracy, national pride and economic success appeared to go hand in hand. Sadly, those heady days appear to be over.
Since it supplanted Britain as the dominant world power over a century ago, the United States has been the standard bearer for democracy – and its success story once inspired the world, leading to the adoption of the democratic model all over the world. Sadly, over the space of the last thirty years that has changed dramatically.
Flaws in American-style democracy have become increasingly evident. It has become clear that in American politics money is king. Social issues like gun control and health care face impossible odds from the deep pockets that represent interests that profit from the status quo. Those interests supply the money needed to run for election and create debts of loyalty that are hard to overcome. Long term issues such as global warming and environmental safety stand little chance when the representatives of government are focused on short-term issues that will be foremost when they stand for re-election. And then the very structure of U.S. government gets in its own way, with presidents battling Congress and the Senate and the constant war between the federal and state governments. The end result has been legislative gridlock. And worst of all, there is growing skepticism that government is capable of dealing with the basic needs of the ordinary citizen: job, income sufficient to maintain a satisfactory lifestyle, protection from hardship like health problems and confidence they can retire gracefully.
Enter Donald J. Trump… Riding a wave of dissatisfaction among the most disadvantaged voters, Trump blared a populist message of change (“make America great again”, “drain the swamp”, “America first”) and managed to convince an important segment of the American voters that his fresh, apolitical approach coupled with his self-proclaimed business success (notwithstanding six bankruptcies) would translate into a better life for them. To everybody’s surprise—even Trump’s—he succeeded.
Six months into Trump’s presidency the emptiness of his promises has been exposed. Not a single piece of significant legislation has been passed. No repeal and replace of Obamacare. No tax reform. No major vitalization projects such as infrastructure. No Mexican wall… Meanwhile, every new day seems to bring fresh material that adds to the smoke of suspicion that Russian meddling in the 2016 election was abetted by members of Trump’s campaign team.
All the major players in U.S. Intelligence (CIA, FBI, and National Security) are agreed that Russian hacking a) gathered information to embarrass Hillary Clinton’s campaign and b) distributed “fake news” that appeared with near-perfect timing to reinforce derogatory insinuations by the Trump campaign. The only person expressing doubts that the Russians, with direction from Mr. Putin himself, deliberately set about trying to influence the election in favour of Trump is Trump himself.
Strangely, throughout Donald Trump’s election campaign he consistently displayed a maverick affection for Russia and Putin—at odds with the Republican Party and virtually everybody else. Why? It certainly didn’t win any votes from Americans. He had nothing to gain by his pro-Russia stance. One reason given by Trump is that Putin called him “a genius”. Putin has denied making such a statement, saying he merely referred to Trump as “flamboyant”.
There are many theories as to why Trump is so enamoured of Putin. Besides the glaringly obvious one that Trump positively purrs any time any prominent person flatters him, it is also consistent with his expressed admiration for a number of authoritarian leaders including Sadam Hussein and, recently, even North Korea’s dangerous and unpredictable president, Kim Jong Un. Another theory is that Russian money has been important to Trump, even to the point of rescuing him from bankruptcy—and Putin sits atop the tangle of oligarchs that control almost all Russian money. We can all hope that the money driver is part of the story because, inevitably, any money threads will be uncovered by the Special Counsel’s investigation.
One thing that is abundantly clear is that if Trump could make a wish to his favourite god (money?) it would be to make all the encumbrances of democracy disappear: a free press, “disloyal” FBI Directors and Attorney-Generals, the Judicial system and, in fact, all opposition to his absolute power. In the end, that may be all that there is to Trump’s infatuation with Putin: a political form of penis envy for what Putin has and (we can all hope and pray) Trump will never have.