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Watershed moment for democracy

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally last week in Phoenix (Photograph by Rick Scuteri/AP)

What do we make of Donald Trump becoming the first former United States president in 200-plus years to be convicted of a felony offence? To be precise, 34 of them!

To make the question a lot more complex, he is again running for office and is the presumptive nominee as the Republican leader in the presidential election on November 5.

Putting aside personal bias or political leanings, what are the stakes for the country when there is not only a conviction but pending criminal and federal crimes?

Are “I’ve done no wrong” or his calls for patriotism enough to obfuscate all the indictments? Or has there developed a new subculture that thrives off national hymns of patriotism caused by a deep disconnect between what was and what is now culturally acceptable in America?

The wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Ukraine have dramatically changed the populations of most Western countries. The near-slave conditions of work in Central America and South America enabled by large multinational companies connected to the US have fuelled the exodus towards the North. That aside, the world population is growing where one cannot drop bombs and create hotspots all over the world and not bear some responsibility for re-homing the displaced.

So what does a democracy do when it goes to the polls to decide on who and what type of person is to be elected to the highest position in the land and perhaps the world? Is this a constitutional matter or a matter purely for the electorate? That there has never been such a case to answer and that the Constitution does not prohibit a felon from being elected appears to be common ground. Adding peril to the exercise is that there has been an expression of no trust in the judiciary by many in the top Republican ranks. If there is a sufficient lack of trust in the judiciary, the election will be seen by too many as having no oversight, or at a minimum any result will be seen as suspect, leading potentially to complete mayhem.

The tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, essential to a democracy, will instead become an occasion for a bloodbath every four years. This upcoming election is threatening to be just that, eclipsing that of Mexico and other less-developed nations.

America is heading towards a crisis because it has no filter to protect its democracy. The answer given by Thomas Jefferson to the questioner — “a Republic if we can keep it” — is alive and well. Could this be a question of propriety, or could having some definable characteristic of integrity be a missing piece in the American Constitution? It is appreciated and understood that democracy is an experiment about equality and that the idea of America is still in the test tube as a work-in-progress moving towards a more perfect expression of individual freedom and a union. But can it last?

What is at stake is whether the democracy experiment continues or falls into anarchy and the universal mission it once espoused ends. The ideal that held America by its seams and promoted it above the rest will never die as a philosophy, but the country could. The golden rule is that if you don’t live up to your universal calling, you will be replaced — which is a guarantee in life.

In 2008, I had the fanciful dream that it was time for smaller nations to take up the call as leaders in human democratisation and that a country is not to be judged by the size of its population but by the size of its ideals. Sadly, 16 years later, there is no evidence of any leadership in smaller countries attempting to take the “high road”, remaining instead in the shadows of democracy.

The one thing that Trump has done is test the limits of freedom under the American Constitution. The world is now bracing itself for the result of the presidential election. Already it has become the case that the ideal and principle of rule of law that once defined the West has lost its glow because of the Israel-Hamas conflict. The US has lost its position of integrity, which will no doubt affect its economy and the standing of the US dollar, as the Global South realigns its economies with the Brics nations. The remaining question is how far the alienation will continue to go with a new administration.

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Published June 11, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated June 10, 2024 at 6:07 pm)

Watershed moment for democracy

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