The spectacle that is being played out south of our border involving the impeachment proceedings against President Trump is at the same time both fascinating as well as profoundly dismaying. The U.S. has had forty-five Presidents to date. Some, like Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt have been great; most have been reasonably competent; and some, like Buchanan, Pierce and Harding were found sadly wanting. None however came close to matching the sheer gall, the overriding egotism, the ignorance of the constitution and the governing process, the lack of ethics, the absence of human empathy, and the abysmal grasp of foreign policy that characterize President Trump.
For most scholars, journalists and politicians, his election still continues to baffle and defy conventional logic. Despite his extravagant self-promotion of his business successes, any close examination of his personal history reveals a trail of bankruptcies, failed businesses, unpaid creditors, and dubious tax evasion schemes. There are also grounds to suspect that he has frequently been bailed out financially by Russian oligarchic money, hence his seemingly incomprehensible affinity for and support of Putin and the Russians.
Most telling though, has been his singular incompetency at governing. The first three years of his presidential term have seen an almost farcical revolving door of unqualified appointees and staffers leaving either under dubious circumstances, or because they would not succumb to his unethical, unconstitutional or sometimes illegal whims and requests. He and his appointed cronies have often alienated long standing and dedicated administration officials, causing operational disruption and chaos, with the attendant decline in morale and confidence. American politics has become a gong show.
What all this seems to point to is a seismic shift in the evolution of the profession of politics in America. Historically, most of the people that got elected to political office were people who had earned respect and stature in the fields of law, business, the military, academia or social activism. They had some intellectual depth and a reasonable understanding of the law, the functioning of government structures, and the workings of the economy on a national and international level.
Of late, we have increasingly seen a disturbing trend towards the election of personalities that do not have this kind of experiential grounding, but rather are media savvy, motivated by ego, fueled by populism, and who are masters at conveying black and white slogans in lieu of policy depth, and who have a superficial charisma that lends itself to creating effective 30 second video clips. Elections have in effect become shallow personality contests.
Trump is the epitome of this and was able to parlay this into being elected President. It is indicative of a broader social trend where most of the population has been conditioned by television and the media to look not for in-depth analysis and understanding of complex issues, but rather for quick cures, simple solutions and easily digestible, bite sized explanations for everything that may trouble them.
Trump is by no means the only politician on the world stage that has benefited from this phenomenon. In the last Ukrainian election, voters chose Zelenskyy, a media star and entertainer, with no real experience or background in politics to be President. It can be said that Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau owes his political success more to his media charm and good looks than to any significant political skills and experience. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in office more because of his media notoriety and his entertaining persona than any record of significant political accomplishments.
A corollary to this trend, has been the fact that during elections, the focus has shifted away from any significant consideration of policies and programs being put forth by the major contending parties, and more towards attacks on the personal qualities, history and character of the party leaders. We no longer have real political debates of substance, but rather no-holds-barred verbal gladiatorial combat between the candidates featuring slurs, insults and character assassination. Politics has unfortunately become a blood sport with minimal to no intellectual content.
It would behoove us to examine why this has become so. Is it the advent of all-pervasive commercial media aimed at short attention spans and simplistic answers to everything? Is it the dominating influence of the Internet and social media channels that has restructured our interpersonal communication into small bite-sized chunks? Have we been seduced into the modern cult of instant fame and popularity? Has politics now become a form of sport and entertainment rather than an important cornerstone of our society? We need to seriously address this before the whole field of politics deteriorates any further.