Donald Trump’s detractors have struggled to define him as long as he’s been on the political scene. But in 2015 it was the famously tongue-tied Rick Perry who landed upon what seemed like the most accurate descriptor to date: he called Trump “a cancer”.
He was speaking in reference to conservatism and, rather amazingly, would later go on to support Trump; he was also on to something. We know how cancer cells evade the body’s natural response by basically disarming the immune system — turning it off or otherwise poisoning it.
But the way this election is shaping up, the better analogy might be an autoimmune disease. Such illnesses result from our body’s natural defences being marshalled against it with destructive results. Trump is exploiting our political immune system to the detriment and potentially grave peril of the republic. He’s taken what actually makes America great, the systems of government designed to foster public good — the courts, the press, our charity and financial systems — and used them for personal gain at the body politic’s expense.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of Trump using the protective mechanisms of society to undermine it — and perhaps the most conspicuous example of it is the courts. They were designed as the legal instrument of justice: to prevent victimisation; to accuse and punish evildoers; to protect wildlife and the environment from the tragedy of the commons. But Trump has perverted the system, hiring seasoned lawyers to bully his way to desired verdicts. (His $10 million [Dh37.3 million] lawsuit against a Miss USA hopeful who wrote a Facebook post he disliked was just one of an estimated 3,500 lawsuits involving Trump, according to a USA Today tally.)
Recently he sought to impugn the authority of a judge ruling on the Trump University case, saying his Mexican heritage and involvement with a Latino lawyers’ association posed “an absolute conflict”.
The courts aren’t the only protective lever of government Trump may have attempted to exploit in order to shield himself — Florida’s attorney-general, Pam Bondi, received $25,000 from a Trump charity before her office decided not to move forward with a review of his university.
Like so many aspects of American democracy, charities — and specifically the tax-protected nature of donations from them — are meant to encourage us to take care of the country’s vulnerable and protect people from the worst possible outcomes. And the Bondi donation is far from the only time Trump may have perverted his charities’ use.
A Washington Post investigation revealed that monies from the Trump Foundation have been used to settle legal disputes.
Trump has also found ways to subvert the financial system, and specifically its bankruptcy laws, for personal gain. The leniencies in bankruptcy law are meant to save people on hard times from complete financial destruction — allowing them to start over again. But for Trump they’re a modus operandi of sorts. After four corporate bankruptcy filings, he was still a multi-billionaire
Then there are the ways he’s used the press to his own ends. With its mission of truth-telling, journalism aims to protects society against illegal or otherwise destructive behaviour by exposing it. But Trump, who parlayed the notoriety from his television persona on The Apprentice into a national political platform, exploits its weaknesses.
His steady stream of lies is difficult to fact-check in real time, an advantage to him in debates and other events with live coverage. Moreover, he’s worked to actively undermine people’s trust in the press, vowing to “open up” libel laws so reporters can be sued more easily.
What keeps a democracy on course is believing its protective checks and balances — its immune system built up over years of evolution — will work to protect the whole. We need to believe the court systems strive for justice; that the government will represent the interests of the people and won’t be bought; that the press can speak truth freely.
Even if he loses in November, Trump will still continue to undermine trust in democracy — inciting the rage of his sometimes violent supporters with claims the election process is “rigged”. It’s a spectre he and his have long floated; confidante Roger Stone predicts the ensuing chaos will be a “ bloodbath”.
Such a thing, should it occur, would be a violation of what is perhaps the most basic tenet of democracy: that we vote to see what society agrees on, and once it’s been determined, we uphold it whether or not we agree. Trump seems to have little interest in any such civic-mindedness.
Especially troubling for anti-authoritarians is that even if Americans succeed in stopping Trump this autumn, through America’s imperfect system of checks and balances or whatever mysterious magic moves the public mind, one thing is certain: Considerable damage has already been done.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Lucia Graves is a political writer in Washington DC.