The True Power of a President (and the real reason to fear a Trump presidency)

From the start of the American presidential primaries last year there has been considerable talk of “establishment” candidates vs “outsiders” or “anti-establishment” candidates, talk that increased with every “establishment” Republican that dropped out of the race leaving Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee. On the Democrat side, the “establishment” candidate Hillary Clinton won out over self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, though Bernie shattered all expectations for his campaign and put up a very good fight. Now the presidential race is still largely about “establishment” vs “anti-establishment”, but the polarizing primaries have put things into a different light.

Now people are talking about the fact that neither Hillary, who is described as being “shrill” and “bitchy” (as most women in politics tend to be described, sadly), or Donald, who actually is shrill and bitchy, are likeable. We like to think that the personal likeability of a candidate isn’t all that important to their qualifications to lead a nation, but whatever we think of Obama’s approach to drone warfare, we melt into adoration for his unruffled demeanour, sense of humour, and open displays of fatherly tenderness toward his family. Nobody is looking forward to a White House Press Gala jokes from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – they’re just not likeable personas. Nor are their policies likeable: Donald Trump’s policies are largely morally reprehensible, tapping into deep-seated racism and surging xenophobia to scapegoat virtually everyone, while Hillary Clinton is dogged by investigations into her criminally careless approach to sensitive information as Secretary of State and her voting record on morally questionable policies of the past. There is a general sense that both of these candidates were chosen out of political strategy rather than out of any sense of their real qualifications: Trump’s populist juggernaut wasn’t stopping, so Republican leaders who had mocked him only weeks prior began to endorse him; and Hillary was largely seen as the Democrat who could beat Trump.

Faced with two unlikeable, and potentially even scary, candidates for president, the movement toward a third candidate is gaining steam. There have always been many candidates for President in the US, but never any that garnered enough votes to challenge the supremacy of the two parties and their official candidates. The Green Party in the US is apparently now offering Bernie Sanders their nomination, with presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein saying she’ll run on his ticket as his potential Vice President. Having a nominee who has such a massive profile would undoubtedly be a coup for any third party in the US, and Bernie’s politics are generally very Green-friendly anyway, but it is likely that the fear of splitting the progressive vote and handing Trump the presidency will keep him from accepting.

So we’re still stuck with a very uncomfortable question of which of two cringeworthy candidates will lead the United States, and that has a lot of people questioning what the future might look like. As with every election (including the recent Brexit referendum in the UK), Google reports that the phrase “how do I move to Canada?” is spiking; but others who are less prone to flee across the border are asking out loud how much power the President of the United States really has.

We’re all asking “do we really want Donald Trump with his finger on the button” (of the US nuclear arsenal)? But does even the Commander-In-Chief of the largest military force on the planet have the power to really mess things up? Not really. To remind us of that fact, Freakonomics recently re-broadcast an old episode from 2011 called How Much Does The President Really Matter? The answer is, not nearly as much as we think. The President is only one branch of US government, and needs the approval of the other two branches in order to act on most matters. So not even Yosemite Sam (or Donald Trump) could pick fights on behalf of his nation, screw up the national or global economy, or otherwise damage the US beyond repair. If there’s one thing the US political structure does well, it is limiting the power of any individual.

The real value of the President, as the podcast points out, is not in deciding or implementing policy, but in setting the national agenda and representing the nation abroad. The President’s high status gives so much weight to whatever he (or hopefully someday soon, she) says that the rest of the government, and the people, have to respond. The President’s role is therefore to steer the national conversation in such a way as to address the important issues and inspire the best in their citizens and legislators. This is the real reason why the possibility of a Trump presidency is so scary, and the possibility of a Clinton presidency is so underwhelming and dull.

Hillary, for all of her excellent credentials and experience, has a limited ability to inspire people. This is certainly at least partially because of deep-seated sexism: we are generally prone to not take women seriously as leaders, even today, though I am pleased to see Hillary making big gains in that regard (and kudos to Jill Stein and Elizabeth Warren for their leadership and groundbreaking work too!).

Donald Trump, on the other hand, inspires virtually everyone. This is his only real credential: the ability to capture our attention and dominate our conversations. In that respect, he’s already about as powerful as the President. The problem is the quality of the conversations he inspires. Donald Trump inspires hatred: hatred of him, for those who do not identify with him; and hatred of others (women, and racial and religious minorities and outsiders) for those who do. While Obama ran on a platform of Hope with a capital “H”, Donald Trump’s vision for “Making America Great Again” is based on scapegoating almost every identifiable minority group for all of America’s problems. As much as we’ve never been without racism and xenophobia and division, the wave of white nationalism that is rising across Europe and North America right now almost makes the LA race riots and other incidents of the 1990’s look like a series of blips in an otherwise progressive and tranquil time (I say this with the detached hindsight of someone who wasn’t actually there). The realities right now are frightening, with a massive upswing of racial violence: Britain saw a 50% increase in racist violence since they voted to leave the EU; over 100 unarmed Black men have been shot to death by police in the US in the past year, and yesterday a Black man retaliated, killing five police officers and wounding six or seven more; and even in Canada there is increasing violence and protest targeting Muslims and Black people, often even with reference to “President Trump.”

Violent and hateful rhetoric inspires violence and hate. That’s why we have hate speech laws in Canada – because we recognize that words have consequences, and even free speech carries responsibility. America has no such law, and Donald Trump’s ability to inspire people to greater and greater fear and hatred of others is far scarier than the notion that he might have limited access to “the button.” Because if he is given the biggest platform in the world, he might create conditions in which he’ll have the social license he needs to actually push that button. Even short of starting wars, his ability to create division around the world, between people groups within nations, has the capacity for chaos.

So don’t fear the damage that Trump could directly do as President; there are checks and balances that will prevent him from doing any real harm. But fear the power of the platform he may be given, and guard against the polarizing rhetoric such a platform will send around the world.

Brexit and the Resurrection of Nationalism

Yesterday marks the end of an era.

In World War II the world came together, but in brutal opposition and violence. Since then, or for the last 70 or so years, we’ve been very deliberately coming together in peace and trade. The League of Nations became the United Nations, and provided a new forum for international relations and potentially the foundation for world government. NATO, while still being a military alliance, has operated (at least ostensibly) on the premise of promoting and safeguarding peace and democracy in the world. The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have overseen the globalization of trade, weaving the economic activities of nations around the world together to not only increase prosperity (again, ostensibly for the whole world) but also stability. The European Union marked an even greater integration, effectively dissolving borders between nation states (in most respects) and pooling the political and economic futures of member nations into a single body. For the past 70 years we’ve been on a global path away from nationalistic division and toward a global community.

Until yesterday, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

To be clear, this is not the first sign that the trend toward fewer barriers between nations was coming to an end. It’s just the first big, official step by one of the most powerful nations in the world. and the first time that a privileged/colonizing nation has claimed “independence” from a body of the less powerful. While the world in general, led by powerful nations, has been moving toward more unity, at the exact same time small nations or people groups have been seeking a national identity and international recognition, and I want to draw a sharp distinction between that and what happened yesterday.

The 20th century included the creation of dozens of “new” nations, and several unsuccessful attempts. The new nations arose from Western colonies, largely in Africa, as those people reclaimed and reforged their national identities after being suppressed by typically racist colonial regimes. Even in Western nations, there have been attempts at independence: Ireland won freedom from Britain, but lost Northern Ireland in the process; and Quebec has tried and failed a few times to gain independence from Canada. As recently as 2014, Scotland held a referendum on the question of leaving the United Kingdom, a bid that lost with a vote of just 55% in favour of staying. In all of these situations, oppressed or historically conquered people were seeking to re-establish their identity as a people, distinct from their conquerors and colonizers. That is not what Britain has just done.

Britain has always been the conqueror, the colonizer. They’ve always only had one foot in the EU as it is, wanting to maintain their own currency and border controls, and they command enough international respect and economic and military power that they can decide for themselves just how committed they will be to an international body. Even in the EU they are a privileged nation, somewhat distinct from the rest in ways that many other member nations are not. Their national identity as a people is strong, even globally dominant (behind the US), as more of the world speaks English than any other language.

There are many issues involved in the Brexit, and I don’t want to be reductive, but I do want to draw attention to a pattern or trend that I’ve been seeing over the past few years related to the rise of nationalism: racism and xenophobia.

It’s only been about a week since British MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street as she met with constituents. She was known for her passionate work serving her constituents, many of whom are immigrants, and for her championing of immigrant and refugee rights. The man who killed her, when brought to court, refused to give his real name, saying his name was “Death to traitors, and freedom for Britain.” His real name isn’t worth reprinting, in my opinion, and his sentiments echo a shockingly large movement in Europe that see welcoming immigrants as a form of treason. The logic behind this movement is that people believe that immigrants are “taking over” their nation, and fear being pushed out culturally and politically. All of this is patently false, as Doug Saunders makes very clear in his excellent Myth of the Muslim Tide, but it taps into very real fears for uninformed and xenophobic people. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian so-called Christian, killed over 70 people, mostly children at a liberal-political themed summer camp, because he viewed them as the children of traitors (as the liberal government of his country had allowed immigration at levels he believed to be treasonous). If this sounds like the work of a few madmen, consider that one of the biggest political parties in the UK right now is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader spews this kind of xenophobic rhetoric on a regular basis and spearheaded the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum; and the second biggest party in the Netherlands is an anti-immigrant party led by Geert Wilders, who is known for his heavily racist and xenophobic comments, particularly against Muslims. Then also consider that the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States of America is Donald Trump, who is known for his policies of banning all Muslims from entering the US, building a wall to keep Mexican migrants out (whom he characterizes as rapists) and making Mexico pay for it, and accepting the endorsement of the KKK. It seems that the rise in nationalism in western democracies is largely in direct response to the influx of immigrants and refugees from poorer nations with very different (and mostly Muslim) cultures.

I want to make clear that there are very good reasons for a measure of nationalism. Establishing and maintaining a national identity as a people group is important; but most of these nations have been cosmopolitan for so long that any cultural narrative tied to race is either long gone or long since integrated.  (A British woman commented last year (in a sermon in church, no less!) that Britain used to be about fish and chips, and now it’s about curry (like that’s a bad thing!), completely missing the fact that fish and chips was brought to Britain by eastern European immigrants just a hundred years ago while curry as we know it (as a specific dish rather than as a spice more generally) was adopted and adapted by Brits in colonial India.) Economic concerns about the European Union are very logical in a time when Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy, but the UK kept its own currency, and has such close trade relations with the EU that it would be affected by a Greek default anyway. Concerns about sovereignty are certainly understandable, but as I said above, Britain is a strong player in the EU and does not bow to anyone. While I am not British, or an expert on European political economy, the reasons for Britain reasserting nationalism in today’s world all seem pretty weak in comparison to the deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept the West as fast as the refugees have marched across Europe. I sincerely hope that I’m just missing some reasons for nationalist sentiments, or that there are better arguments that strengthen those other reasons I’ve mentioned.

But we’ll see. The implications of the UK leaving the European Union are enormous: scads of policy will have to be re-written on both sides of this divorce, and with David Cameron stepping down there will also be new leadership. What emerges in the coming year will confirm the real motivation for this renewed nationalist movement. So, UK leadership: impress us. Show the world, with your innovative policies and new take on diplomacy, that this wasn’t about anti-immigrant xenophobia. Set a new standard for engaging with your neighbours in this new world that, with this Brexit, you’ve created – a world where globalization, individualism, and inclusivity as the standards of foreign relations are being replaced with nationalism yet again. Make sure this is a new direction for global relations, because we’ve been down the road of hyper-nationalism before, too many times, and we know that we don’t like where it leads.