N Sathiya Moorthy Firstpost 29 January 2024
Even without his age, 77, the US media has been calling former President Donald Trump names of every description as if to indicate that he is off-balance on most issues, on most occasions.
Bob Woodward, who is among the best-known American journalist-authors from Richard Nixon’s Watergate era, listed out episodic events of great international relevance in his book, ‘Fear: Trump in the White House’ The book, published in the middle of Trump’s presidency in 2018 was about presidential gaffes of every kind. In Oval Office discussions, he would tell his team to take a right turn on specific policy matters but show his left hand and crash straight ahead in his official missives to counterparts in South Korea or elsewhere. So much so, his personal staff on the presidential team were equipped and trained to draft a different letter and get it through him with the official seal and signature, and the President would not know that it was not the letter that he had dictated.
Learning lessons, not Trump
In near-similar circumstances, another leader, whether in the US or elsewhere, in Trump’s place would have learnt his lessons. He would have become less assertive and/or arrogant, learning his lessons from past failures and mistakes, starting with the re-election bid once earlier. But not Trump. He believes more than any time in the past four years that he was cheated out of a second term and he needs to reclaim that position, if only to teach his domestic adversaries a lesson that they – and the nation even more – would not forget.
Then there are the international partners, many of them across the Atlantic but not all of them there, and also adversaries, who comprise China and Russia, North Korea and Iran – and not in that order. They too need to be taken to task – and will be taken to task. Or, that is the prediction and preparation. If it is Biden again, then, fine, the waiting game will end with the polls. If not, the agony would continue at least up to January 2025, and even more, given Trump’s uncertainty, hence unpredictability.
Translated, whatever has changed in bilateral relations in the successor Biden presidency, they may have to change again. Call it a U-turn or Yo-Yo Presidency, America’s allies and adversaries (as they are known today) may know what to do with and during this interregnum in particular, between now and the presidential election in November and Inauguration two months later, on 20 January.
Suddenly, America, which is considered to have the most stable of foreign and security policies independent of whoever is the tenant of the White House for four or even eight long years, is seen as being unsure – hence undependable by allies inherited from the Second World War, to which new ones like India were added en route.
What alternative does the nation, the self-styled global policeman, have? Incumbent Joe Biden will be 82 by election-time. His critics in the US media, more than political adversaries, had pointed to this fact and the possibility of its impact on his health and that of the presidency, even before he was elected President. Like now, America and Americans had little or no choice in the matter. They knew Biden was ageing. They also know incumbent Trump was erratic.
They were replacing one dangerous with one less harmful. It was also because if the incumbent faced health-failure, one he would still be less harmful than an hyper-active President. The Constitution provides for the Vice-President to take control where the incumbent becomes incapable of discharging his duties. There is no such provision to check a President who has gone haywire. Trump already was proving to be one – and urban America saw it unfolding before their eyes, day in and day out.
But America’s problem through the interregnum, and possibly later, too, is about Biden’s health, particularly mental alertness, as often reported in the national media out there. By protocol and otherwise, very few people in the President’s vicinity can tell the world’s most powerful man that he was failing – even as he himself can see for himself, how he was falling on more than one occasion in the public eye. Already, there are catalogued instances of Biden going off tangent while delivering public speeches and sounding less attentive in official discussions, maybe at times with foreign delegations.
There is then the famous episode in which his media director cut his response to a media question half-way through and declared that the news conference was over when she found, rather concluded, that the President was blabbering.
In Kim’s North Korea, she would have been shot. China’s Xi would have caused her disappearance, leaving the world to continue to guess if she was alive or dead. In Putin’s Russia, she would have been sent to Siberia for re-education. If it was Trump, who knows, he would have slapped her, or at least sacked her on the spot, for the whole world to see. But not Biden, who is at times seen as deep in trouble but docile. And both represent/represented America, and in ways Americans do not want to see their President – and more so do not want the world to see their President.
Two Indian women
What does it all mean? And where from here for the US of A, which all Americans love and all Americans want the world to love, respect or fear? From a purely Indian perspective, it is but a coincidence that in the respective second place to the front-runners in from Biden’s Democrats and Trump’s Republicans are from the country and women.
As Vice-President, Kamala Harris (59) is a stand-in President, but cannot assume that the candidacy would have been hers if Biden had decided not to seek a second term. Nikki Haley (62) has lost the two early primaries to Trump, in Iowa and New Hampshire, but has not given up. Yes, there is a long way to go for Trump, who is a victor in both as he is not the incumbent and he has to sweat it out like any other GoP candidate in the primaries.
A third Indian, Vivek Ramaswamy, at 38, the third Indian who wanted to be reckoned with possibly knew that he had a long, long way to go. First and foremost, running the world’s greatest government is not like owning a business – which Trump showed in his first term.
Yet, Ramaswamy could take heart that he could learn from Trump, how to run a campaign and how not to run an administration. He wanted his name registered in the American voter and institutional memories to register his name for future recall and to consider his candidacy at the time sympathetically, if not favourably.
Yet, he lacks political experience, which he can obtain only as a member of a State House or Senate, or the federal House or Senate – or, as Governor. The system does not like raw hands to ‘act smart’ and hijack traditions and processes. Hence, possibly reports that Ramaswamy has quit the race early only with the hope of making it to Trump’s White House.
If true, and even if it happens – that is, Trump becoming President and Ramaswamy being given a White House assignment – that would still be a back-door entry into the presidential primaries whenever he chooses to contest, and would still be frowned upon. For now, it will be interesting to see how far he goes to work with Republican-Indians for the Trump ticket, for him to prove his usefulness for the campaign.
Mood of the nation
If Haley still makes it, it could well owe also to the prospects of Trump getting penalised in more criminal cases than already. Of greater interest should be the pending case for his inciting unprecedented violence on the Capitol after he lost.
The way he has won the two primaries thus far show that the Republicans at least have no shame, no concern. Do they reflect the mood of the nation, which got etched first with Trump’s election eight years back? Laws are laws, and the great American nation does not have a single law that bars felons from contesting the presidential polls.
Until America’s stagnant poll laws that belonged to a different generation and century are revised and a federal law is passed in their place, in some States, the name of Trump cannot be on the ballot if he becomes a court-declared felon, and not so in other States.
There will then be many more questions on his eligibility to be sworn in President if elected by the popular vote and/or the Electoral College: Will he be President for all of the US of A or only for States where his name was placed on the ballot paper?
Of course, it could well be a theoretical question as if Trump’s name is to be missing from the ballot in a few States under local laws, then the Electoral College from those States would go to his Democratic competitor, that is incumbent Biden, even without the latter working for them. Biden then would be starting at X-Plus whereas Trump would be starting with zero on the Electoral College tally.
It will be an uneven match, which all of America should frown upon, yes. More importantly, the nation should be ashamed for the laws that are their legacy that could permit a felon to contest for the presidency. Conveniently, the all-American media, academics and political class would then be divided in the middle, with some throwing the Book of Morality at Trump and others the venerable American Constitution at the other, to respectively argue why he should or should not be accepted as the candidate. It is anybody’s guess if the federal Supreme Court would consider a fit case for them to adjudicate, either between now and the elections or between the elections and the Inauguration, that latter if Trump wins.
In between, American law-makers, present and prospective, can turn to India for a few lessons on electoral laws, practices, judicial powers and pronouncements, all of which respect the Constitution and democratic processes and also ensure that public morality has a legal cover and support. The US is said to be the greatest democracy and India, the largest democracy. While India learnt from the US while drafting the Constitution, especially the Fundamental Rights Part –and readily incorporated them, the US is stuck in the past and stuck up in attitude. They refuse to learn in time, and are good at fire-fighting as in foreign and security matters, and do not provide for the day-after even there.
(The writer is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst and Political Commentator. Email: email@example.com)