Getting to grips with Donald Trump

For someone who made a sizeable financial contribution to Hilary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign to become US President, Jeremy Waldron is remarkably philosophical about Donald Trump’s victory.

Professor Jeremy Waldron 

“I disagree with him on many things. His personal style is not pleasant to watch and hopefully the country can survive him,” Professor Waldron told LawNews. “But I think we can exaggerate how much havoc is being wrought by the President.”

Professor Waldron’s carefully considered assessment of the Trump presidency, something that has deeply divided America, is perhaps not surprising given that he’s regarded by his peers as one of the world’s greatest legal philosophers. The New Zealander, who teaches legal and political philosophy at New York University, is on a mission to restore some civility to the hotbed of US politics.

“We look as though we’re sliding pretty seriously away from civility, but it can be built back up by a few people taking responsibility and giving some leadership.”

Professor Waldron’s abhorrence of the warring factions in Washington can be traced back to his upbringing in Invercargill, where his father was an Anglican minister for many years. The middle child of five, he was brought up in a family that placed much emphasis on Christian values of tolerance and forgiveness, values that were reinforced at Southland Boys High School, where he was co-dux, and later at Otago University, where he studied law and philosophy.

In a wide-ranging interview, he outlined the remarkable story that took him from provincial New Zealand to the heights of academia in the UK and, for the last 30 years, the US.

What drew you to law in the first place?

“There was something called the Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia, which was a twelve-volume set. My father gave each of us a volume at Christmas – I think the second volume I got was law and order and I immersed myself in that.

“There was also a kind of assumption that, when you went to university, you were either going to do law intermediate or medical intermediate, depending on whether you’d concentrated on history or chemistry at high school. I’d concentrated on history.”

Why did you decide to embrace philosophy as well as law?

“It was partly because I was brought up in a very, very good and rigorous philosophy department in Dunedin and it was the best in the country in those days, so there were very good role models there.”

You’ve lived in the States for much of your life. How would you describe the current social and political climate?

“If you focus on politics, then maybe the election of the Trump administration has thrown everybody a kind of curve ball, and nobody really knows what to do with it. So there’s a lot of anxiety about that, but life goes on and it’s still a fine place to live.”

Is President Trump responsible for the polarised climate in the US or is he just a lightning rod for the disenfranchised?

“There’s something to the lightning rod theory. I mean, one man can’t transform an entire nation and certainly not one as unwieldy as this, but he gave voice and respectability to a current of anger and he evoked a lot of anger on the other side that has not been particularly respectable either. So there’s a certain amount of anger in the country and it’s not particularly healthy, but it’s not as if we are at war or anything like that.”

How would you describe the path that he’s taking the US down?

“At the moment it’s not clear that he’s taking the country down any path. There are a number of paths he wants to pursue like health care, trade wars and immigration, but he sets off down a path and then wanders off on a path of his own and this often turns out to be a dead end.

“Chaos is the wrong word to describe it though. The place seems to run perfectly well and you must remember there’s been chaos as you call it in the political system on a perennial basis here, with the budgetary troubles, the close-down of the Federal Government, and this or that debacle. I guess what I’m saying is that we can exaggerate how much havoc is being wrought by the President.”

Nonetheless, you see an urgent need to restore civility between opposing political factions. Why are you so hot on this?

“I’m a theist of democracy and I think about democracy a lot. We take things for granted, say, in New Zealand – we have an adversary system that doesn’t involve hostility in the sense of treating somebody as an enemy. This doesn’t exist by magic; it exists through a culture of some degree of collegiality and civility.

“So, even when people are entirely at odds in their policy positions, they might still be on first name terms or they may still be able to participate in the procedures of parliament and the political system and civil society.

“Increasingly, that’s breaking down in the United States. We talk way too freely about impeachment as a possibility for example, assuming that the thing to do with a President you don’t like is to get rid of him during his term.”

Is impeachment a possibility for Mr Trump?

“It’s a possibility, but I don’t think it’s likely to happen. I think what is likely is that the President will just get sick of the whole thing and just resign.”

Given the toxicity of the political climate in the US, is there a will to restore any semblance of civility?

“On both sides there are a few people who are willing to commit to that but many others think that if they start being civil to the other side they will go under, so that’s making it very difficult.

“Anybody who calls for civility, anybody who does want to engage in honest and reasonable dealings with the other side is taking a bit of a risk at the moment.”

So what’s the end game here?

“Well one end game is sourness and difficulty in getting anything done in Congress that requires bipartisan action, and you may get increasing collapse of the Congressional procedures that make bipartisanship necessary, like simple majority rules for legislation.

“We’ve seen that already with judicial appointments, so there’s a possibility that we’ll move very quickly to a much more ‘winner takes all’ system of alternation in and out of power.

“In a huge country like this, when there are major issues of public policy being addressed, you need people to take as many of their fellow citizens with them so that various minorities can recognise themselves in the moves that the majority is making.”

Hasn’t it always been a problem that you’re there to win whatever the cost?

“Yes, there’s certainly a tendency to think that winning is everything, but we structured the constitution so that no winner can take everything by virtue of winning in one forum alone.

“So the President doesn’t get to dominate Congress merely by virtue of winning the presidency and, even if his party dominates Congress, there’s no assurance that the factions of the party most receptive to his policies are the ones who are going to be in control of either the House or the Senate.”

Is the current situation the result of flaws in the US electoral system, where so few people vote and where the popular vote is trumped by the electoral college?

“The voting turnout is low compared to countries like Britain and New Zealand, that’s true, but it’s not drastically low, it’s sixty to seventy per cent or something like that.

“The electoral college mechanism was set up to reflect the fact that this is a federation of states, it’s not a unitary state. It was also set up to ensure, and it seemed like a good idea at the time in 1787, that a figure like the President cannot claim a direct mandate from the people, that he has an indirect mandate, and this was thought to make for a more responsible constitution.

“So I wouldn’t blame either the level of participation or the electoral college. Sure, President Trump won the election largely through the electoral college, but he also just took states that he wasn’t expected to take. It was a straightforward electoral result.”

So you see no need for any electoral reform to redress what’s happened since?

“No, I think it’s mostly the other way. The electoral reforms that are contemplated at the moment are voter suppression arrangements, and those are wrong and ill-advised. It probably wouldn’t do any harm to make electoral registration compulsory, but that’s not going to happen.”

To what extent, if any, are some of these issues the result of the US education system?

“I don’t know that I would blame the schools, but I think what’s really to blame is just the large numbers of people across the country who have been profoundly demoralised by the economic circumstances of their lives and the massive decline in the opportunities for prosperous employment and the anger and humiliation that goes along with that. That, much more than anything else, I think is the real problem.”

Does Mr Trump still enjoy widespread support?

“His core constituency was people who feel disenfranchised by the process, and he still has a core support of around 35% of the people in the country. It seems to be very difficult for any of the scandals of his administration to make any difference to that. He’s trickling away very much at the edges but there seems to be a core who at this stage in the presidency are willing to give him continuing support.”

Bottom line, is Mr Trump up to the job?

“I think he probably finds it temperamentally very difficult because he’s accustomed to running a business, and the lines of command and the lines of responsibility and the lines of opposition are so radically different there than they are when you are trying to run a country like this, with a very, very complicated administration.

“He really hasn’t come to terms with that because he has no experience of politics whatsoever. We normally expect our presidents to have had such experience, to know what’s what, and the political system.”

You sound as if you have some sympathy for the position he’s in?

“He’s in a position where he’s out of his depth. The other thing is that he’s not been given any breaks I think by the newspapers and the TV channels. They have delighted in every misstep and they are actively watching for every misstep and they are craving every misstep.” 

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