Last week contained more Donald Trump-related antics than most of my weeks do. Not only did I attend the Trump Protest in London – and subsequently have one of my protest photos go a little bit viral on Twitter – I also read Michael Lewis’ new book, the Fifth Risk, detailing the Trump administration’s dismal government transition and exploring some of the risks of incompetence of this magnitude.
Because that’s the thing with Donald Trump: while he may be an abhorrent person, he is also deeply, completely unqualified for a role in political office, let alone to take the mantle of president of the United States. Unfortunately for those of us with left-leaning politics, openly stating that your policies include climate change denial, a racist wall and banning abortion does not make someone inherently unfit for political office. However, this goes beyond right-wing policies. Plenty of right-wing leaders have led countries for decades – perhaps more often than left-wing leaders, I’m not sure – with some having focused their ideas on individual freedom and others having used their power to murder and oppress millions (as has also been the case with totalitarian left-wing leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot). It’s a sliding scale. There are many shades of grey when it comes to conservatism and liberalism. Purely being a Tory or a Republican or a member of any right-wing party does not prevent you from standing for election, obviously. A significant portion – if not a majority – of politicians worldwide espouse right-wing ideas and while I may disagree personally, it’s not for me to say that only one set of political beliefs are acceptable, because that’s called totalitarianism and tends to end very badly.
Trump can be right wing if he wants, of course he can. I can’t stop that. But the question of whether someone is very conservative and whether or not they have the skills and experience necessary to run the most powerful country in the world are two entirely different matters.
Criticising democracy is controversial. Democracy is a good thing. Over the past few centuries, democracy has freed many people from inescapable servitude and, in theory, allowed the people to run their own countries and decide on their own policies rather than being beholden to a monarch or other divinely, or unfairly, selected ruler. It has allowed marginalised groups a voice in electing people who they believe in or have their interests at heart (though voter suppression continues to disproportionately affect marginalised groups and especially communities of colour). While there are still significant issues in democratically-run nations – largely that the barriers to entry are high and you typically still get privileged groups running the show and oppressing people in the process – it appears to me to still be broadly the best option when compared to other systems of government, namely monarchies, autocracies, technocracies and oligarchies. I’d like to think there is an even better option out there somewhere, but given what we’ve got at the moment, our current democracies seem to be the best of a complicated bunch. These other systems tend to make progress toward equality even more challenging and unlikely, as marginalised groups and average citizens have no voice in political decisions. Democracy is, in most cases, the only system of government that even aims to allow all people, regardless of gender, race, class or sexual orientation, to participate in politics.
But just because it is the best of a bunch of options doesn’t mean it’s the best we can do. Many people are still prevented from participating in politics, whether due to direct voter suppression, disenfranchisement due to a lack of viable candidates or the same institutional disadvantages that prevent underprivileged people from breaking into a number of industries. Some argue that capitalism is also undermining democracy by turning us all into consumers first and citizens second, as a nation of people who critically evaluate the large-scale forces in their lives is broadly bad news for the corporate bottom line. It has also made us more isolated through living in busy cities, moving away from family and friends, decreased leisure time, weaker ties to the local community and an almost religious focus on work and constant productivity, which may make it less likely that we collectively organise to start a revolution. These same issues can make it disproportionately easy for unqualified, unaware people to succeed in politics if they have enough privilege and money.
It’s a mockery of democracy that someone like Trump would be in the White House, again, not due expressly to his politics but because he is so inexperienced and politically incompetent. As much as being president involves being a public figure, it is also a job, which comes with standard tasks and responsibilities in the way that most jobs do. Given the general role of a president, it seems pertinent to have some background in economics, trade, foreign policy, diplomacy, law and social issues. If someone has a very limited knowledge of these fields, they may have the potential to be a great president, but they probably aren’t ready to walk into the White House, in the same way that someone who has never studied astrophysics, even if they show a lot of aptitude for mathematics, is not ready to walk into a senior role at NASA. While some may say that the whole point of the wider government is to provide continuity and stability as different administrations come in and out of office – especially when the commander in chief appears to have no idea what he’s doing – Lewis’ book makes clear that the president has a major role in the federal government (as you’d expect) and his poor management is causing real issues for many fundamental and necessary departments that serve Americans everywhere.
Obama may have been a super kind, capable president, but no one would let him walk out of the White House and into an operating theatre, because regardless of how likeable, popular or well-versed in policy he is, he is not qualified to perform surgery. It seems odd to me that the only requirement we have for some of the most powerful people in the world is that enough members of the population like them, even if they have no experience in the field they will now command.
Of course, the idea is that the general populace wouldn’t vote for someone who is fundamentally unqualified to take office, because that would crazy. The hope is that any bizarre candidates with no relevant experience would be weeded out at an early stage of election process. However, the 2016 election turned that assumption on its head, probably because the motivations of most people were misidentified. Most people are not well versed enough in matters of economics and policy to really be able to evaluate the various policy proposals that may affect them – and why should they? If you are a mechanic or a nurse or a bartender, it’s unrealistic and unnecessary to expect you to be evaluating the minutia of a candidate’s proposals. You are also probably unconcerned about the day-to-day and more interested in the big-ticket policies that may change something about which you are deeply unhappy. As we saw with Trump, his promise to shake things up is what mattered, regardless of the actual feasibility that he might do so.
As Lewis explains in the Fifth Risk, most Americans – understandably – have little knowledge of just how large the US government is or the myriad functions it performs. There is an implicit assumption that any presidential candidate will somehow keep the USA ticking along in the background. No one worried enough that without a vaguely competent leader at the helm, not only would dangerous changes be made (e.g. the Muslim travel ban or changes to abortion legislation) but also that other necessary but unknown government departments may be left to languish.
It seems too paternalistic and controversial to imply that some people might not understand who truly has their best interests at heart, and yet, the voting decisions of many low-income Americans would suggest that that is the case (though this raises the bigger question of what a ‘best interest’ even is). It blows my mind how many Americans oppose a 70% marginal tax rate on income earned over $10m dollars each year, despite the fact that this policy would only improve their lives (in theory) through greater funding of public services. I know this comes from the enduring notion of the American dream, with many people hoping that they will someday occupy that tax bracket, regardless of how enormously unlikely that is in reality. The socialist policies championed by the further left members of the Democratic Party are probably best placed to improve the life of the average American – through national healthcare, gun control, educational reform, better wealth distribution and other policies designed to even the playing field. While Trump is also a representative for the dispossessed, his constant lies and incoherence have distorted truth and reality. While many Americans, especially working-class white men (who were a significant proportion of Trump voters in the 2016 election), are looking for a change from being told what to do by the liberal elite, it remains objectively true that many of these same people are being held back by a lack of jobs, rising income inequality, predatory loan practices, the tech giants, crazy levels of student debt and for-profit healthcare, issues that are increasingly the purview of the left. While it is more complicated than Democrats want good outcomes for the many and Republicans want good outcomes for the few, it feels like Republican policies tend to benefit wealthy, privileged Americans the most despite the fact that the bulk of their voter support are not a part of that group.
As soon as I really started to think about how to improve the democratic process, I realised how fragile the whole thing is. Despite us having decided on this process of voting and election centuries ago – and it therefore, perhaps, being time for a refresh, or at the very least a review – it is still difficult to levy even a modicum of criticism at the way we go about electing our leaders. I don’t have any real answers about how to apply some minimum level of qualification for president without setting a precedent that might end up excluding people unfairly in the future. However, many people are already excluded from politics – not constitutionally (anymore) but through the same forces of institutional marginalisation that keep minority groups out of many industries and roles. We do a disservice to millions of people by pretending there are not already real barriers to entry to the White House, which have so far meant that all 45 presidents have been men, 44 have been white and, at least publicly, all have been heterosexual, cisgender and Christian. There is already an unwritten set of requirements that makes it easier for some and almost impossible for others to reach the highest point of political leadership in the USA. By formalising some of those requirements to make it clear that all candidates must have some relevant experience in politics and demonstrate a satisfactory understanding of the US government and the role of the president, we may prevent people who qualify only by our current unwritten rules – and nothing tangible – from taking office and harming millions in the process.
I believe that everyone deserves a leader who is qualified to lead them and has a real appreciation of the task and what it requires. If politics becomes a popularity contest, with no thought to the work it takes to run a nation and manage an economy, then ultimately, everyone will lose, which seems something worth asking a few awkward or hard questions to avoid.