Tighten Our Belts For President Trump?
20 June 2016
By Amir Taheri
With the primary season in the US presidential election campaign almost over,
what was marketed by some pundits as ''unthinkable'' a month ago is now
branded ''inevitable''. Not only will Donald Trump be the Republican Party's
nominee for the coming showdown in November, he now seems to have a chance of
winning, too, at least according to some opinion polls.
If memory serves me right, no recent US presidential hopeful has attracted so
much opprobrium as Trump has, especially from the intelligentsia who see him
as a semi-literate vulgarian who happened to inherit a fortune from his dad.
The three million or so who voted for him in the primaries are dismissed as
uneducated lumpens or bigots.
A huge majority of the Republican Party's elected officials and other grandees
are not prepared to rub shoulders with Trump, let alone endorse him. Some are
even flying kites about a third party candidate to make sure Trump doesn't get
anywhere near the White House. A few have gone further by hinting they might
campaign for Hillary Clinton, the Republicans' bete-noire for three decades,
or Bernie Sanders, the standard bearer of an ersatz Socialism made in
A Trump presidency, we are told, would lead to ethnic and sectarian conflict
in the United States not to mention a Third World War.
Is there anything to justify such jeremiads? In real terms, I think not.
Trump hasn't offered any concrete policies. His promise to
build a wall on the Mexican border, and to impose a temporary ban on Muslims
visiting the US, have become part of political folklore and feature in
dinner-table chats across the globe. But they don't amount to policies.
The truth is that we don't know what a President Trump may
offer in concrete policy terms.
This is not surprising because US presidential elections often resemble a
beauty contest rather than a serious examination of policy options. What
voters are interested in is the candidates' life-story, demeanor and charisma
or lack of it. Much also depends on the public mood of the moment. An angry
mood partly caused by America's humiliation in Iran helped Ronald Reagan win
in 1980. A mood of fatigue, partly caused by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,
helped produce an unexpected victory for Barack Obama in 2008.
The voting habits of Americans mean that those who feel more intensely about
the ambient state of the nation secure a much bigger say in picking the
Several studies of voting patterns in US show that only a third of those
eligible to vote do so regularly. Another third vote only occasionally,
sometimes only four or five times in a life. The remaining third never vote.
The typical turnout in presidential elections hovers around 55 per cent with
the outcome often decided by around 20 per cent labelled ''independents''.
Those who say they are ''horrified'' by Trump's success so far ignore two
facts. The first is that democracy spells out the rules of the game but does
not guarantee the outcome. In a sense it is like a game of tennis which, to be
valid, must be played according to the rules while no one knows who might win.
There is no guarantee that democracy would provide us with the best possible
government and the most reasonable political programme. Those who want those
things had better look to Plato and his ''Republic'' or to Sir Thomas More and
Perhaps a better image of democracy would be that of a supermarket in which
shoppers, standing in for voters, shop around, weigh brands and prices against
each other, and fill their trollies as they like, then move to the cashier. No
one could know in advance how all those shopping trollies are going to be
loaded and with what products. But we know that it is the shopper who pays,
including for his or her mistakes.
If that sounds too prosaic or even bland the reason is that, devoid of
romantic fluff, democracy is prosaic and bland. The trouble is that human
nature always craves for some flourish and romance. In democracy that craving
is catered for by charisma.
In the case of Trump, the fact is that, though he may not be your cup of tea,
he does have charisma for many Americans both because of his appearance and
his ''life story''. He is no Gary Cooper but, his controversial wig
notwithstanding, he does look like what used to be regarded as ''the average
American'' before the melting pot turned into a salad bar.
He is riding a wave of anger among white Americans of Anglo-European stock
who, according to one of Trump's loudest cheer-leaders Sarah Palin feel they
are ''losing'' their country to a rainbow of immigrants, especially Mexicans
Those who may see this as evidence that Trump supporters are racists miss the
point. Aristotle believed that in a democracy the ruler must resemble the
average citizen as much as possible. For a chunk of white American electorate,
Trump, who is partly of German and Scottish extraction, passes the test of
averageness with flying-colors just as Obama did for the black chunk of voters
eight years ago.
Not being American or Republican it may sound pretentious for me to offer
advice. But I think Republicans would be wrong to try to sabotage Trump's
nomination through undemocratic cabals. If he is the choice of a majority of
the party he should be allowed to bear the party's standard in November even
with defeat foretold.
The American presidential system suffers from a more fundamental problem. In
it one man is granted immense powers which are, in turn, hampered through
separation of powers.
The American founding fathers, all of them English, quietly shared Herodotus'
belief that monarchy was the best system of government if only because it had
stood the test of time over millennia. However, having just rebelled against
the English King in the name of independence, they couldn't immediately
re-plunge into the ideological Anglosphere.
The American voter is always looking for a savior, a man or, thanks to
political correctness, a woman, who would act as what Germans call ''Ganzemacher''
(The All-Doer). This is why so many US presidents came from the ranks of the
military while others, notably Franklin D. Roosevelt and, in a different
context, Ronald Reagan, also filled that slot.
The French have had a similar experience. Having disposed of Louis XVI with
the guillotine, they have been looking for a ''providential man'' ever since.
They had the two Bonapartes, uncle and nephew, then looked to Gambetta after
the 1870 defeat, to Petain after the 1940 debacle and, in 1958, to De Gaulle
in the middle of the Algerian war.
All in all, both the US and France might have done better with a parliamentary
system in which the head of state stands above partisan politics. But that's
For the time being, we may have to tighten our belts, meaning safety belts,
and prepare for President Trump, just in case.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.