It has been a distressing week for the United States, as the dysfunction of its politics has been on display for all the world to see. A cascade of events has spotlighted the anger, partisanship and effective breakdown of the political process throughout the country. While the sad spectacle is a case study in domestic political chaos, the implications will not — cannot be — confined within U.S. borders. Political dysfunction in the U.S. has global implications.
The parade of horrors began Monday with the “Iowapocalypse,” the breakdown of the Democratic Party caucuses in the Cornhusker state. Iowa is the first official stop on the U.S. presidential campaign trail, and there has been a long debate about the outsize role the state plays in that process. The winner in Iowa gets a substantial media bounce, while all others fight for attention and money to stay in the race. Since 1972, the winner of the caucus has won the Democratic Party nomination 55 percent of the time; for Republicans, the number is 43 percent.
This year, the caucus broke down. A new app failed to work — it isn’t clear why — and backup systems (phone calls) were overwhelmed. No results were available until the following day, and even then, they only trickled in: Wednesday evening, only 86 percent of results were available, fueling complaints from various candidates. Thursday, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee declared “enough is enough” and called for a recanvas of the results. There is no evidence that the outcome was rigged or the vote hacked — although there are reports of Trump supporters overwhelming the phone lines to create chaos — but the debacle in Des Moines (and elsewhere) exposed a candidate selection process that is misguided and mismanaged.
In one of the few signs of restraint in his annual State of the Union address, delivered Tuesday night, President Donald Trump did not repeat his tweet declaring the caucuses an “unmitigated disaster.” The rest of the speech was a virtual campaign rally, however, which put on full display the partisanship that now dominates political discourse in Washington.
The spectacle began with a seeming snub by the president to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives and his host, when he ignored her outstretched hand (an invitation to shake hands) as he gave her a copy of his speech. Pelosi dropped the flowery rhetoric that traditionally accompanies introduction of the president: Rather than acknowledging “the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States,” as in the past, she merely said “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.” Even more revealing and damning, as soon as the speech concluded, and as Trump was basking in the applause, Pelosi deliberately and visibly ripped up her copy of the speech. Her contempt could not have been more plain.
The theme of Trump’s third State of the Union address was “The Great American Comeback.” He claimed to have steered the country through “the carnage” he denounced in his inaugural address and the nation’s future was now “blazing bright.” Accordingly, “The state of our union is stronger than ever before.”
The speech resembled a reality TV show, not surprising given Trump’s show business background. There were theatrical touches: the reunion of a military family, a scholarship to a young woman from a single-parent family. But particularly “reality TV”-like was the morality play in full display with the audience sharply divided. GOP members were raucous and celebratory while Democrats were silent and irritated; their anger culminated in Pelosi’s shredding of the speech at its conclusion.
As in recent years, the speech focused on domestic affairs, with little attention to the world beyond U.S. borders. Trump claimed success in forcing China to negotiate a trade deal, intimating that the world has not seen the end of “tariff man” and more sanctions are in the offing. He took credit for getting U.S. allies to contribute more to alliance burden sharing, foreshadowing hard bargaining over the terms of the U.S. presence in allied countries. Japanese negotiators have been warned.
Missing from the speech was any mention of Trump’s impeachment, a process that would conclude Wednesday with the Senate vote to acquit the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Trump, the third U.S. president to be impeached, prevailed in virtual party-line votes: the only Republican to break ranks was former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who voted in favor of the first article, abuse of power.
Thursday, the president took his victory lap, making two appearances, the second of which — a speech in the White House — was described as “bonkers” and an “angry, raw and vindictive” rant. In contrast to President Bill Clinton who responded to acquittal in the Senate after his impeachment by saying that he was “profoundly sorry for what he did” and “humbled,” Trump called his antagonists “scum” and “evil” and declared that “we went through hell unfairly.”
There is now fear that acquittal will convince Trump that his power is unchecked and that any act in service of his re-election or in furtherance of his goals is permissible. Or, as former U.S. President Richard Nixon once asserted, “if the president does it, it can’t be illegal.”
Democrats have indicated that they will not be bowed by defeat and will continue to attempt to scrutinize and hold Trump accountable for his behavior. Expect more partisan fights and increasingly vicious politics.
The world’s leading power is being governed by grievance and emotion. Even Pelosi, who for all her partisanship, has been publicly decorous, declared that she felt liberated after tearing up her copy of the State of the Union speech. The rancor will increase on both sides of the aisle as the presidential campaign intensifies and the ugly spectacle will play out in for all to see.
It is hard to overestimate the damage this is doing to the U.S. and its image. While the U.S. possesses a formidable military and a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world several times over, the real source of its power and prestige has been the idea that it stood for a set of principles that transcended any particular administration — indeed, represented far more than even the U.S. itself. They were universal and that was basis of their appeal.
It is hard to make that claim today, especially when the president stands so proudly atop a nakedly nationalist platform and encourages all other countries to do the same. This week, the U.S. showed the world managerial incompetence in its political process, dysfunction that reduced its political deliberations to name-calling and the abandonment of principle for political gain. One only wonders what the next week will bring.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”.