I have been musing about the events of these past few weeks – particularly the unprecedented events that took place in the United States during which the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” showed itself in its true colours (or colors, as they say) to the rest of the world. To [...]

Sunday Times 2

Looking at America


I have been musing about the events of these past few weeks – particularly the unprecedented events that took place in the United States during which the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” showed itself in its true colours (or colors, as they say) to the rest of the world. To us outside America, it has shown itself to be a nation at war with itself.

Thankfully, Donald Trump has now gone and the country is headed by a saner president. In 2016, when they were both competing for the Republican nomination, Governor Jeb Bush described his rival Donald Trump thus “Donald as you know, is great at the one-liners. But he’s a chaotic candidate – and he would be a chaotic president.”

Sadly, Bush has been proved right. While Trump’s loyal supporters claim that under his presidency the economy thrived, unemployment was falling and the country did not get America into a new war, the fact remains that under Trump’s watch nearly half a million Americans died of the badly mismanaged COVID pandemic. In fact far more Americans died of COVID during Trump’s presidency than in either the 9/11 attacks or the Vietnam war – and the current figure of 400,000 COVID deaths exceeds the number of military casualties (291,000) that the US suffered during the second world war. The unemployment rate which had been gradually declining since 2010 had been continuing to steadily fall at the same rate – but when Trump left office, having hit a high of 14% in mid-2020, unemployment had climbed up to 6.7%.

So the 45th President has flown off to his home in Florida, leaving a mess and a shambles that his successor will have a hard time sorting out. Last week there were more American troops (25,000) guarding the capital city (against attack by Americans) than there were American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan!

Ex-president Donald Trump greets supporters as he drives past them in West Palm Beach, Florida, after he leaves the White House on January 20. Reuters

It was particularly sad to see the rabble of Trump supporters, some of them armed with the lethal weapons that ordinary Americans can buy over the counter in that country, storming their way into their Capitol building (the US Parliament) on January 6th.

Watching replays of these destructive scenes on TV, I could not help contemplating: If this is what American civilians can do on the instructions of their President to their own seat of government – just imagine what American soldiers, armed with sophisticated lethal weapons, legitimised by their army uniforms and let loose by an American President in the cause of “defending Democracy”, can do to legislators and legislatures in other countries! And as is well known, US soldiers cannot be prosecuted by the International Court of Criminal Justice for alleged war crimes!

But Trump’s election in 2016 reminded me of what my guru the late W.J Fernando used to say “All forms of government are simply forms of exploitation of the people by their rulers. The only consolation is that in a democracy, we are given the opportunity of electing the exploiters!”

It is true that the qualities that one needs to get elected into office are different from the qualities one needs to govern a country efficiently and for the benefit of the people. Democracy originated because people felt they needed representatives who would honourably represent them and articulate their needs and views at the public forum. Democracy, however, has degenerated into Populism – a concept exploited by opportunists who emphasise the idea of ‘the people’ and often juxtapose this group against those they paint as ‘the elite’. Populist movements are usually led by charismatic, dominant figures who present themselves as the voice of the unheard.

Just as Donald Trump who hadn’t a clue about how to govern a country used his popularity as a reality TV star to get himself elected to “challenge the establishment”, in our own country too popular people with no clue of governing or legislation get themselves elected, hoodwinking the masses at the hustings into casting their votes for them.

Just take the 2021 Budget that was presented in parliament in November. Several analysts with knowledge, experience and integrity reported that this budget was faulty – it did not provide numeric estimates of the revenue impact of the budget proposals, it had key estimates differing by Rs 50 to 70 billion between the budget speech and the statistical tables — and it had great inconsistencies between the budget proposals and associated numeric targets. Despite these glaring inconsistencies, the Budget was approved by a two thirds majority in parliament on December 10. As to how many of our elected representatives actually understood the Budget proposals, I hesitate to guess. Of these popular people that we have sent to parliament to enact laws and govern the country, I suspect only a handful would have even read the Budget proposals!

So has democracy passed its use by date? Will this “one person one vote system” only serve to throw up more low IQ TV personalities like Donald Trump and film actresses like Jayalalitha whose popularity on the large and small screens endears them to voters despite their lack of vision and governing capability?

Was Trump just a flash in the pan, an accidental aberration, a bad dream – or a portend of things to come?


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