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Sunday, 19 November 2017

A threat to US democracy

Even though the US has one of the best democratic systems in the world – albeit for some flaws in practice – it appears that Trump poses an unprecedented threat to established and historically agreed upon democratic practices

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Wednesday 11 Jan 2017
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There are several pillars of US democracy, most notably civilian control of the armed forces, the sanctity of freedom of expression, the integrity of the president and not making any material profits while in office. But it looks like Trump does not care about any of these principles, whether while campaigning or even after he won the elections.

Since the 1788 Constitution (the oldest in modern history) was adopted, the founders of the US system were keen on avoiding absolute and centralised control that would concentrate power in the hands of one person or one institution, to avoid authoritarianism. Constitutional amendments ensured that the president, Congress and the judiciary would not violate freedom of expression, and that the military remains out of politics and leaves that realm to civilians and elected officials.

Trump’s choice of James Mattis as secretary of defense in his new administration is a direct violation of federal law which prevents any military personnel from reaching this top military position before seven years have passed since they left the service. General Mattis left the army in 2013 after serving as commander of the US Central Command. Mattis will need the Senate’s approval and special exemption to be secretary of defense, since the law was written to prevent a military secretary from taking control of the army. It is preferred that a civilian is at the helm of the army, as a principle of US democracy.

There is extensive concern that the brass will play greater political roles in the future, especially after Trump picked another general, Michel Flynn, as national security adviser. Other military names were floated for key civilian positions, which is why political experts are now concerned about changes in the nature of the relationship between civilians and the military within the US political system.

US legislation exempts the president from most laws relating to conflict of interest, but the constitution prohibits the president from accepting any gifts or funds from foreign governments in any shape or form. This issue is of extensive controversy now because legal experts believe Trump is violating this clause by accepting or receiving financial compensation for renting large spaces in Trump Towers in New York to a state-owned Chinese bank, and renting rooms and halls to foreign governments and embassies in his new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of Washington.

Although Trump promised to step down from running his businesses to avoid conflict of interest before he is sworn in as president on 20 January, the Trump brand name on these buildings and skyscrapers keeps the US president a player in the field, especially in many instances when Trump does not invest a single dollar and only reaps the profits for the use of his brand name on these buildings.

The president-elect’s promise to leave the business to his family is a point of ridicule, especially since his children are not distant from the governing and decision making processes. Thus, Trump’s business practices show a conflict of interest between Trump’s commercial empire and the supreme interests of the United States. The New York Times asks: “How can Trump choose to go forward with putting pressure on Turkey when he is receiving tens of millions of dollars annually from his brand name on a skyscraper in Istanbul?”

This aspect points to a double jeopardy. On the one hand, the possibility some foreign companies will seek deals with Trump companies to curry favour with the new US administration, and on the other these buildings would become targets of terrorist attacks.

On a third point, Trump is relentless in attacking the media, both written and broadcast, and is always sceptical about the integrity and neutrality of the US media. He believes mainstream media is conspiring against him. Although the First Amendment prohibits Congress from adopting any laws that hinder freedom of speech or the press, almost every day Trump attacks the media and criticises its coverage of his news.

Trump forgets that as president his actions will be scrutinised by the media however they please. The First Amendment goes beyond freedom of speech and press and also includes the right to organise and right of assembly. It also protects the rights of citizens to worship however they want and not be forced to follow other religions. It also guarantees the rights of citizens to object to government policies and work on changing them.

It seems that some of Trump’s proposals harm and regress US democracy, as follows:

Trump endangered the smooth transfer of power in a democratic fashion when he threatened during campaigning not to accept the election results if he lost.

Trump doubted the integrity of the judiciary when he was sceptical about the character of a federal judge of Mexican origins who was looking into a case pertaining to Trump University.

Trump vowed to use torture and waterboarding during questioning of suspected terrorists, which is a clear violation of US law.

Trump vowed to criminalise and imprison anyone who burns the US flag, which the Supreme Constitutional Court views as within freedom of expression. He said US citizens who burn the US flag would be stripped of their citizenship.

The writer is a political analyst.

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