Days after Donald Trump was elected as US President in November 2016, I wrote one of my very first columns for Elocal. This was my opening paragraph:
It’s a very long time since I’ve felt so depressed about the future of the United States and of the world. In President-elect Trump we have a man who, at least to judge from his pre-election rhetoric, seems to have not a single redeeming quality.
In mid-2018, eighteen months into his four-year term, I wrote another column, and admitted that some of the things he had done I agreed with. I conceded that the US economy (like the New Zealand economy) had become grossly over-regulated, and Mr Trump had been making some progress in reducing that over-regulation.
I acknowledged that he had been right to reduce the ridiculously high corporate tax rate – at 36%, perhaps the highest in the developed world, though unsurprisingly US corporates were going to great lengths to avoid paying that rate.
I expressed delight that, because of opposition from within his own Republican party, he had been unable to implement some of his worst campaign promises, such as building a wall along the US-Mexican border and getting Mexico to pay for it, or scrapping the health insurance policy which President Obama had put in place.
But even mid-way through his fouryear term it was already clear that he was doing enormous damage.
His tax cuts were not matched by any reductions in government spending, with the result that the federal deficit in 2019, the year prior to the pandemic, was in the order of one trillion dollars. Running a fiscal deficit is an entirely responsible thing to do when the economy is struggling – as it was last year because of the impact of the pandemic – but was grossly irresponsible when the unemployment rate was at its lowest point in years, and meant that the federal debt was already at a very high level even before the pandemic arrived.
In foreign policy, he undermined friendly relationships with traditional allies, undermined trust in America’s word by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (notwithstanding Iran’s compliance with the terms of that deal), refused to believe the assessment of US intelligence services that Russia had interfered with the 2016 election, abandoned the Kurds after the Kurds had done most of America’s dirty work in Syria, and seemed hellbent on destroying the World Trade Organisation.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen his complete failure to deal effectively with the pandemic, initially quite deliberately hiding from the public the potential seriousness of the virus (as he frankly admitted on tape to biographer Bob Woodward), and later refusing to take any notice of the advice from his own health experts.
Then, as the end of his term approached, he quite explicitly refused to commit to a peaceful transition to a new President if he should lose the election.
And when he did lose the election he simply asserted that he had not lost at all, that on the contrary he had won in a landslide and the election had been stolen. He kept repeating this lie again and again despite:
- A clear statement by Christopher Krebs, the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency in the US Department of Homeland Security, appointed by Trump in November 2018, that the election was “the most secure in American history”. That statement got him fired.
- A strong statement by William Barr, the Trump-appointed Attorney General who had been unfailingly loyal to the President since his appointment in early 2019, that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the election.
- Strong statements from even Republican-controlled states such as Arizona and Georgia that their election results were safe.
- The complete failure of lawyers acting for Trump in some 60 legal cases intended to “prove” that the election had been “stolen” to have the court decide in Trump’s favour – including two cases which were decided by the Supreme Court.
And then of course the world was witness to the extraordinary spectacle of Trump urging his followers to come to Washington for a “wild protest” on 6 January, the day scheduled for Congress to receive and confirm the votes from the Electoral College; and finally a speech from Trump urging a mob of his supporters to descend on the Capitol with the clear aim of stopping Congress from ratifying those Electoral College votes.
There can be little doubt that Trump’s behaviour warrants his second impeachment: how could urging a mob to attack the Capitol not be grounds for impeachment? Of course, given that at time of writing the President has only 10 days left in office, it may be that the clock will save him.
But the US has reached an extraordinary place when the Speaker of the House of Representatives was so worried about the state of the President’s mind that she felt obliged to contact the Secretary of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to warn them that they should be extremely wary of responding to any presidential orders involving aggressive use of American military power in the remaining days of Trump’s presidency.
Or when Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defence under President George H W Bush (and Vice President under President George W Bush), felt so worried that he enlisted every living former Secretary of Defence – men from both Republican and Democratic Administrations, ten in all – to sign an open letter reminding the armed forces that their allegiance was to the US Constitution, not to the person of the President. They said that “efforts to involve the US armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory”. The letter may well have been prompted by rumours that imposing martial law and re-running the election in some states was openly discussed in the White House.
Under the heading “Trump burns down US democracy”, the New Zealand Herald editorial on 9 January noted that “Trump will go down in history as among the very worst US presidents, the main author of the mess and ugliness that erupted on the streets of Washington”. An absolutely accurate assessment.
Dr Don Brash is an economist and former Member of Parliament. He served as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand from 1988 to 2002.