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An age of political mediocrity

February 4, 2020
Gun rally in the Kentucky state capitol

I don’t comment much on US politics these days, apart from the occasional poke at Donald Trump. Since we in Britain have a government that seems determined to emulate the populist tactics of Trump and his gang, we have plenty of dodgy politics to preoccupy us at home.

But I can’t help sharing a few thoughts about the impeachment process, which is coming to an entirely predictable conclusion.

The Senate is about to acquit Donald Trump. An increasingly popular argument among republican senators is that yes, Trump did wrong, but not wrong enough to be removed from office and banned from standing again this year.

I can at least understand the argument. If Franklin D Roosevelt had committed an act of a similar nature in 1943, one year away from a wartime election, I very much doubt that the Senate would have impeached or removed him. They would have cited the danger of changing presidents during a life-or-death struggle against Japan and Nazi Germany.

Nor would they have removed Eisenhower, a man whose wartime record and behaviour as president, though not wholly beyond reproach, for a lapse from his usual high standard of behaviour.

Only misbehaviour on a grand scale, such as aiding an enemy (Japan, in Roosevelt’s case) or sharing state secrets with a geopolitical rival (the Soviet Union, in Eisenhower’s case), would most likely have resulted in impeachment.

The chances are that anything on the scale of Trump’s offense would have been covered up –  something far easier to do when there was only print media, radio and TV to deal with, and a powerful figure such as J Edgar Hoover at the FBI ready to snuff out any investigation.

The current situation, I would suggest, is entirely different. Trump’s Ukraine behaviour is the tip of an iceberg. The man is a liar, a cheat, a fraudster and a grossly incompetent leader. The one obvious reason why the Senate will acquit him is that for all his manifest faults, he has taken a grip over a substantial portion of the US electorate. His base doesn’t care about his lies or the long-term implications of his policies. They buy into the MAGA ethos and the growth of their 401k pension funds.

A substantial number of senators, I suspect, are well aware of the consequences of Trump’s presidency – spiralling debt, a dangerous level of economic inequality and impulsive decision-making that leads to unknowable consequences. But they hold their noses and vote for him because they are frightened of his power to influence the voters in their states and persuade the wealthy not to fund their election campaigns. In other words, their jobs are more important than the national interest. Or at least they persuade themselves that their tribe’s interests are the same as those of the nation.

There is, I suspect, another reason why they are unwilling to defy Trump by removing him. It’s not just fear of loss of office. They fear for their lives.

They see images of armed gunmen parading through the Kentucky state capitol. They will know all about the armed militia that have formed across the country. They are aware that Trump supporters have threatened civil war if Trump is removed. Who is to say that an angry gunman will not try and take revenge on the “traitors” by shooting them down?

And how many of them, unbeknown to the average American, have, like British MPs over the past four years, been on the receiving end of death threats? I imagine they are afraid of similar reactions from extremists if Trump loses the next election.

Any surprise at this reality comes from our expectation that politicians should act out of high principle and, if necessary, self-sacrifice, rather than, like the rest of us, as fallible human beings, with hopes, fears and a strong sense of self-preservation.

Although the UK looks increasingly like the US in terms of polarisation and the susceptibility of the electorate to easily digested but deceptive messages, we should be profoundly grateful that we are not intimidated by politically-motivated gangs of armed men dressed like soldiers.

I’m currently reading Chastise, by Max Hastings, an account of the Dambuster raids in the Second World War. Most of the crews who carried out that raid were aged between 20 and 25 years old. Many didn’t come back. Their courage was matched by that of many thousands of fellow-combatants of a similar age.

These days few of us are called upon to show physical or moral courage. On both sides of the Atlantic heroes are often to be found in the armed forces, the police and the fire services. Occasionally ordinary members of the public also individuals act on their own initiative in extraordinary ways to defend their fellow citizens.

Sadly, the courage of both kinds that was in abundance 75 years ago is lacking among our leaders, who seem all to willing to succumb to the path of least resistance.

In case I’m accused of being partisan, let me say that with a few honourable exceptions I haven’t seen much evidence of moral courage on any side of the political divide in either country.

Back in the Second World War, the Royal Air Force would cruelly describe airmen traumatised by months of incessant sorties as having “low moral fibre”. Our political leaders don’t have the excuse of flying over enemy territory, never certain that they would come back in one piece. Those who have military experience would be well aware of what that feels like. But the rest face challenges infinitely less perilous than those facing the bomber pilots, yet still fold under pressure.

It’s a symptom of the age, and I’m not sure there’s much we can do about it apart from electing other leaders. Are those we choose likely to be better than those they replace? Again, I’m not sure.

Perhaps we have to come to terms with the possibility that we live in an era of political mediocrity. Let’s hope that in the near future, one or two people will stand up and prove me wrong.

From → History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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