The national political humiliation of America is almost too painful to watch

The national political humiliation of America is almost too painful to watch
From left: US President Joe Biden. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images) | Former US President Donald Trump (Photo: Allison Joyce / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The American political landscape — in the presidential race and an ineffectual Congress — is both embarrassing and increasingly dangerous for the world.

… Don’t you love the farce
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry my dear
But where are the clowns
Send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here…”

— from A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim

If the current American Congress and the country’s presidential election process were a film, it would be a Laurel and Hardy comedy reel, but with cameos by the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, the Little Rascals and maybe Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price as well. 

Heroic creatures like National Velvet, Trigger and Lassie, however, would have foregone the opportunity of participating in such a shambles. 

Seen from our current vantage point in South Africa, this national humiliation is becoming almost too embarrassing and painful to watch.

Despite the tragic-comedic aspects of it, what is happening is serious business and will have far-reaching implications for the US and beyond. 

A growing roster of well-respected commentators like David Brooks and Max Boot now argue that this election, with the shenanigans in Congress, will make this the most consequential election in recent American life — with outcomes that could be dangerous for generations to come.

Low-stress campaign mode

Let us take this year’s presidential election first.

Among Democrats, the assumption is that the incumbent president has the nomination for the asking, and Joe Biden has asked for it. He has already shifted into campaign mode, at least in a low-stress way for the most part.

The man is in his eighties, though, and his prickliness under fire came to the fore the other day when he spoke angrily to hectoring reporters about the disparaging comments about his memory skills contained in the special prosecutor’s report concerning his lapses in appropriately protecting classified information.

Still, it seems his team believes the candidate’s energy must be conserved for the really hard slog that comes up after the summer vacation period that ends with the first week of September.

Perhaps this reticence about exposing him too much to the rigours of campaigning explains the wrongfooting by his campaign team in declining a presidential interview broadcast opportunity that would have taken place just before the Super Bowl broadcast, a tradition going back years.

Such an interview would have been free campaign broadcast minutes, even if the president would have been required to respond to questions from an actual journalist or two from CBS News (this year’s broadcaster for the football championship game). 

Since the game garnered some 123 million viewers, a significant portion of those might have tuned in a bit earlier to watch the president before the game.

The repercussions of the special prosecutor’s report, even as it absolved the president of any criminal misdeeds, have only served to cement into popular discourse that the president is too old to remain in office until 2028.

And it has given Donald Trump — under criminal indictments for a whole slew of misdeeds, some of which relate to hoarding boxes and boxes of classified material in Florida — ammunition to argue that his behaviour is no worse than Biden’s.

Improbable alternatives

america politics

US Vice President Kamala Harris. (Photo: Julia Nikhinson / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At the same time, the concern on the part of some Democrats is that if Biden were to falter in a second term, the vice president, Kamala Harris, would step up to the job. So far, the feeling is that she has been unable to distinguish herself in the minds of many that she is a person fully ready for the Oval Office.

The Kamala Harris conundrum, though, is that Biden cannot consider dropping her from the ticket. 

In an increasingly identitarian age, replacing a black woman on the ticket would be tantamount to throwing some serious shade on major portions of the party’s support base. 

Such an act might then be fatal to the party’s hopes for the reelection of the incumbent president — and doom the chances of various other candidates further down the ballot around the nation.

Given the nervousness among a significant cohort of Democratic Party strategists, donors, elected officials and activists about the incumbent president’s ability to win a second term (his polling has rather consistently been below the 50th percentile among all voters and continues to trail his almost-certain opponent, Donald Trump, in some polls), there has been hand-wringing over how (or whether) Biden might be nudged into deciding not to run after all and letting the Democratic Party’s national convention meet to slug it out over the party’s nominee.

That seems improbable, given Biden’s determination to see it through to the election, and it would create potential chaos among all the primary ballots yet to be cast among Democrats, but it would generate enormous attention to the party’s prospects and choices, and it would return the nominating process to something like the way it was before every state began to hold binding primaries or caucuses, after 1968.

In fact, the party does have a deep bench of solid, experienced senators, governors and current cabinet members, many of whom might be interested in stepping up in such a scenario. But it is extremely unlikely any of them would be public about it, absent a decision to stand down by the incumbent president as nominee.

Further, such a scenario would run the risk of causing such chaos that the party’s chances in November would be significantly downgraded for the presidential vote — as well as for hundreds of other contests down-ballot, thereby giving the presidency to Donald Trump.

Any rebellion without a decision by Biden to withdraw would mark its proponents as persona non grata among the party leadership and followership. It could only come from the president himself, based on his evaluation of his condition and circumstances. 

And the clock is ticking on this.

Trump’s likely Republican triumph

Meanwhile, among Republicans, former president Donald Trump has virtually wrapped up the nomination — at least in theory. 

He has beaten his remaining rival for the nomination, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, in each primary or caucus so far, and polling data says she is similarly headed for defeat in the South Carolina primary on 24 February.

america politics election haley

Republican presidential candidate, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CJ Gunther)

Shortly thereafter will come the massive primary day on 5 March — Super Tuesday — with a huge haul of convention delegates at stake. If Trump triumphs there, it should be all over, save for the taking of the attendance roll at the convention.

As things have evolved, Haley has increasingly taken the gloves off to insist her primary opponent should be put out to pasture, just like the incumbent president — they are both too old (and in Biden’s case, too worn out), too wedded to the old ways, and, in Trump’s case, embroiled in far too many legal troubles that render him morally and ethically unsuitable.

While she may be struggling with gaining the support of the hard-core Maga Republican base that comprises Trump’s reservoir of strength, Haley argues that her appeal would bring in independents and some Democratic votes, thereby giving her the presidency in the general election. 

She still has considerable financial support and her campaign war chest is not bare, but her circumstances will take a tumble if she is thoroughly thrashed in most of the states voting on 5 March.

Courthouse campaign

That leaves the question of Donald Trump. His campaign has dispatched all but two of his opponents — Nikki Haley and the country’s judicial system. The latter is where he may yet falter.

At present, the Supreme Court is considering whether to uphold the ban by Colorado of having him appear on their primary ballot in response to Section 3 of the 14th  Amendment to the Constitution that forbids federal offices for those who had participated in a rebellion against the government. The court is likely to permit his name on the ballot.

However, there is also his suit to have total immunity from prosecution while serving as president. 

A panel of a federal court of appeals has already said no to him, and if he appeals to the Supreme Court, it seems likely that even that conservative court will uphold the unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel that he could not claim such broad immunity. 

The argument is effectively saying that if he could so claim, then a president literally could assassinate a rival and still claim immunity from prosecution. 

Meanwhile, it seems entirely possible Trump will be facing two of the big pending federal cases against him.

The first is the charge of inciting an insurrection against Congress to prevent certification of the 2020 election, which would be heard in Washington, DC, and that stash of classified materials at Mar-a-Lago belatedly found and retrieved by the government. That case would be heard in Ft Pierce, Florida.

Additionally, on Thursday, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan denied a motion by Donald Trump’s attorneys to dismiss the case in which his client is accused of falsifying business records in connection with an alleged hush money payment during the 2016 election. The judge has said the criminal trial will go forward as scheduled.

These cases would not be running simultaneously, but even if they simply run concurrently they would take up significant time that otherwise could be dedicated to campaigning.

They likely would continue to churn up embarrassing testimony and Trump-style explosions and rants in between court sessions. 

Even if Nikki Haley is out of the way by then, the Biden camp and its surrogates will likely find and use juicy tidbits of Trumpian invective and outlandish rhetoric from these trials. 

Congress held hostage

But there is still more happening right now. Down Pennsylvania Avenue at the Capitol, stand-alone budgetary legislation to provide military assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan has been stymied by a Republican-led House of Representatives.

(Yes, some critics argue that any military aid to Israel must now be used as leverage to bring about a ceasefire in the fighting and destruction in Gaza, but that has certainly not been the Republican argument, since support for Israel is virtually unanimous among their caucus. All of this is taking place as the Biden administration pursues a larger strategic initiative to aim at a comprehensive settlement.)

An earlier bill had been arduously hammered out that would have included this aid, plus humanitarian aid for Gaza, enhanced budget support and a tougher regulatory framework for dealing with the country’s southern border with Mexico.

Among Republican congressmen and senators, aid to the nations mentioned is broadly popular, and, at least initially, changes to deal with the flood of immigrants crossing the border have been a key Republican priority.

Immigration had previously been a major campaign issue for them to hammer away at Democrats. In fact, border issues and a continuing flood of would-be immigrants had been the ostensible trigger for an ultra-narrow vote of impeachment of the Biden administration’s secretary of homeland security, although there is virtually no chance he would be convicted in the Senate trial that might take place, assuming that body even decides to have such a trial. The Senate is narrowly held by Democrats. 

Interestingly, in the special election to fill the now-vacant seat in Congress formerly held by George Santos, Democratic candidate Tom Suozzi – the man who formerly held that seat before Santos – was victorious, using immigration reform as a campaign issue.

Immigration will be a headline issue in November’s election nationally, it seems.

But then Donald Trump intervened, denouncing the bill (despite it containing more control measures for the border), essentially to prevent Democrats from being able to say they had done something serious about the border, and thus taking the sting out of Republican charges that Democrats were weak on immigration.

america politics election

US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson. (Photo: Kent Nishimura / Getty Images)

Subsequent aid package measures passed by the Senate with its slender Democratic majority now seem unlikely to pass in the House of Representatives. There, the newest speaker of the house, Mike Johnson, has promised to prevent the measure from coming up for a vote — in an act of obsequious fealty to Trump.

What this means for the possibility of military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, as well as stricter border control is — at least at this point — uncertain if not unlikely, despite the president’s pleas not to allow a small minority of right-wing Republican members of Congress to hold the institution hostage to enhance Trump’s electoral chances.

The Ukrainians in particular are already rationing artillery ammunition to frontline units, even as Russia continues to have a healthy supply of such materiel, apparently courtesy of nations like North Korea. 

A collapse of will or actual fighting units could mean the real defeat of Ukraine as well as the idea that Russian aggression can, should and will be repelled. In such circumstances, the fortunes of Ukraine will be left adrift and the Russians might feel emboldened to put pressure on the Baltic nations and Poland.

Compounding the uncertainty (and fear in various European capitals) have been statements by Trump that any Nato nations that do not pay their fair share (by his lights) do not deserve the protection of the alliance and, quite unbelievably, that Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin should feel free to do whatever he wants to do to them.

This Trumpian pronouncement seriously misstates an understanding of the question, since Nato funding is not like a giant stokvel with contributions to a central kitty. Rather, the issue has been the willingness of all member nations to increase their national defence spending to at least 2% of GDP following an earlier Nato ministers’ agreement to achieve that level.

Taken together, these actions and statements have allowed commentators to point to the Republican (and by extension the country’s) actions, or perhaps more pointedly, their inactions, as the 21st-century equivalent of Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia to Hitler at the Munich summit in 1938. 

For such critics, this moment now represents an inflection point where America’s ability (and will) to insist upon a rules-based world begins melting away, thus allowing the dark days to come upon us. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    South Africans wish they had the ‘national humiliation’ problem that the US has. South Africa has both a national humiliation problem AND a dysfunctional state. At least, in the US, most things work … & should continue to do so regardless of which old plonker gets elected.

    • Willem Botha says:

      *some South Africans.

      I for one would choose our dysfunction a hundred times over before the American sham democracy. At least I still have hope that SA can correct its course. The US has proven itself incapable or unwilling to accept this farce. At this stage I wouldn’t be surprised if they have Taylor Swift vs Ye in the next presidential race. And we’re also not out there stoking the fires of the next World War.

  • Graeme J says:

    What I find difficult to understand is, “Why in such an enormous country can neither the dems nor the reps come up with better candidates? The one struggles to string a coherent sentence together and the other is a misogynistic, narcissistic, unabashed liar. There just have to better options out there.“

    The same applies to the Russians. Surely they can come up with a better candidate than the megalomaniac they currently have?

    • Andrew Newman says:

      You’re misguided if you think the Russian election is in any way democratic.
      Media is controlled by Putin and it is now illegal to criticize Putin or the war. Every opposition candidate that wanted to stand against Putin was disqualified because at some stage they have said something that is not entirely supportive of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • Allen Masomere says:

    American strength now lies in its people and other institutions. Congress has been a bit player for some time now and will remain so as long as there’s social media.

    • Paddy Ross says:

      But it seems that the US electorate doesn’t realise what a mess the USA is in. The institutions are something of which the US can be proud and why it is better to have a benign octogenarian as President rather than a lying, narcissistic, megalomaniac as President.

    • dexter m says:

      The problem is that irrespective of the House of Representatives or Presidential shortcomings in US history one could always count on the Senate to keep the country stable. In the last 10 years the disfunction has also infected this body. All great strides in US has been by bi partisan support , now bi partisan support seems dead .

  • Rae Earl says:

    Remember the good old days when US presidents were of the ilk of Roosevelt, JFK, Truman, Eisenhower, and more recently, Obama? They all had enemies sure, but there was always respect and trust that they would look after their country and its citizens. Biden is OK in this respect but not up to the grinding pressure of that job today. Trump is simply downright dangerous to America. He fawns on monsters like Putin and Kim Jon-Un, and turns America’s many friends in the EU into non-allies, suspicious of his blatant dishonesty and criminal tendencies, to say nothing of his relentless urge to become a dictator in his own country so that he can destroy the lives of all his fellow Americans who opposed him.

  • David de Jong says:

    I’ve felt for a while, that Biden intends to step down after two years, if elected, to allow Kamala Harris to take over as the first female (and black) POTUS.

  • welcome to a new world!
    America is going down the toobes and will NEVER be able to recover….politically, financially or morally!!!!!!!!!

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Yes, this is indeed an extremely concerning situation, especially given the implications globally of the outcome of the elections for security and stability. It is certainly perplexing to try and understand how it has ended up being a re-run of a race between Biden and Trump, although politics generally (certainly including in South Africa), seems generally incomprehensible these days.

    The last sentence raises the critical question of how combat the increasingly precarious and unstable times that we currently find ourselves in.

  • Francis Faller Faller says:

    The issue is not age. The issue is competence to address current issues, taking into account retrospective causes and prospective consequences. There are plenty of faux-politicians in the age group 20-60 who are quite capable of historical amnesia and prospective political inanity. So don’t equate forgetfulness of detail or general stupidity with age. Many politicians acquired those features in their youth, and have not lost them.

  • Really Honestly says:

    US politics is a filthy, dirty, corrupt business, with most actors carrying skeletons in their closets. The game today is about making as much money as one can, through legalised lobbying groups, without getting caught and found out, with “winners” like Trump, having the most embarrassing dirt on the most people, through people like Jeffrey Epstain. This is how we end up where we are today with two terrifyingly inappropriate candidates, who shouldn’t be near the leadership of a school PTA let alone the most powerful country in the world. It’s unlikely to change any time soon. It’s all about money!

  • Donald bemax says:

    Putin watches this unfolding sitcom and roars with laughter. Imagine coming on field to play a match where your opponents are still in fighting in the changing room over who plays in which position…..

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