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America’s Starting to Look a Lot Like South America

America, for all its strengths, is a shouty, shooty sort of a country. You know what I mean. In public discourse, Americans have become the masters of hyperbolic denunciation of compatriots with whom they disagree; and as for shooty, they love their guns, and the data shows they use them.

We are a bit shouty, it’s true. Just take the way we’re managing the Voice debate. But we’re not shooty! John Howard was able to force through his gun laws with huge public support. Those laws have been a triumph and a credit to our national culture.

For all our faults, we’ve never had a civil war or come close to it. We accept election defeats with what Winston Churchill would have called magnanimity. On election night, the vanquished leader always makes a generous concession to his or her opponent because our leaders have recognised they have a responsibility to the stability of the polity.

By contrast, Latin American politics is played by different rules. The outcomes of elections are vigorously litigated: the losing candidates invariably claim that the winners rigged the ballots, election day and the immediate days after are convulsed in riots, and from time to time, former presidents end up in jail convicted of corruption, money laundering or human rights abuses.

Currently, three former presidents of Peru are in the same prison. Apparently, they enjoy each other’s company.

As one South American lawyer recently said: “At least we get them into jail.”

But putting former presidents in jail is a recipe for political instability. Their supporters are outraged, the courts that convict them are deemed to be stacked with partisan judges and the successful presidents or congressmen find it hard to govern.

The result is there for all to see. For all its wealth in natural resources, Latin America’s per capita GDP is about one-fifth of Australia’s.

It doesn’t surprise me that these indictments have not only enhanced Trump’s popularity,

So back to America. Its politics are starting to look distinctly South American. It will take the wisdom of Solomon to steer the United States back on to the path of stability and normality, and so far, there’s no Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt on the horizon capable of doing that.

I am, of course, no fan of Donald Trump. It’s not so much his policies that are objectionable but his very poor standards of personal behaviour coupled with his extreme partisanship. His apparent refusal to accept the legitimacy of the last presidential election result was shameful.

Contrast his behaviour with Richard Nixon’s in 1960 when he lost to John F. Kennedy. Republicans argued that Kennedy won the close race only because of vote-rigging in Chicago by the Democratic party machine. True or false, no one will ever know, but Nixon decided he would just accept the result and not challenge it, despite the urging of his Republican colleagues. He did not want to create a destructive constitutional crisis, although he believed he had won the election.

Trump may think the 2020 election was stolen, but we all know that since January 2021, Joe Biden has served as president and used the full powers of the presidency. That should be the end of the matter. Trump can brood about a stolen election just as Hillary Clinton brooded about the Russians delivering victory to Trump in 2016 – by the way, the Russians did try to sabotage Hillary’s campaign, but I doubt their efforts were decisive and I doubt Trump himself was engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians.

Unwise campaign

And remember Al Gore and the hanging chad saga in 2000. That went all the way to the Supreme Court and although Gore himself accepted the decision of the court, many Democrats didn’t.

The trouble with the evolving American practice of losers not accepting close election results is that it de-legitimises the authority of the winner and therefore weakens the system of governance.

On the other hand, “… in victory, magnanimity”. The virulent legal campaign against Trump, a former president with a huge following, is unwise. There’s no doubt Trump should have returned classified documents when he was asked to and much could have been made of his refusal to do so. But the best advice I ever give successful politicians is don’t overreach. Threatening to jail him over that is plain silly.

So, too, is pursuing him over his claim that he won the election. Of course, he’s free to say what he likes about the election. The allegation of the special counsel is that Trump knew he’d lost the election but told the public he’d won but was denied victory by fraud. Trump allegedly used various methods to overturn an election. Somehow it has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt that Trump knew he had legitimately lost and nonetheless conspired to keep himself in power.

Of course, the jury will have to know what Trump thought for the prosecution to win that case. But whatever Trump wanted, he failed to get. Joe Biden is the president.

It doesn’t surprise me that these indictments have not only enhanced Trump’s popularity but also a majority of Americans think the charges are politically motivated. That in itself is a bad thing. It looks like the courts are being used to pursue political objectives.

There is, I suspect, a way to go on this journey. The Republicans will endeavour to impeach Biden for allegedly helping his son Hunter in his shady business dealings. And meanwhile, the Trump trials will drag on. And what does the average punter make of all this? A plague on all their houses. That’s bad for America and bad for the free world.

In an ideal world, the Democrats would dispense with Biden and Trump would withdraw from next year’s race for the White House. They’d be both doing America and the rest of us a huge favour if they recognised US politics needed a reset. But you know as well as I do that greed and ambition will prevail over wisdom.

The sad thing is, for all its great technological and entrepreneurial strengths, the United States is day by day looking more like the countries to its south. Or, as you might ask, is the United States heading south?

Alexander Downer was Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, from 1996 to 2007, and most recently Australian High Commissioner to the UK.

Source : Financial Review