Donald Trump’s rejection of Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand, followed by the speaker of the House of Representatives’ ceremonial tearing up of a copy of his State of the Union speech, did not simply stress the end of any semblance of civility in American politics, nor was it just further proof of the rift between Republicans and Democrats.
These symbolic actions stressed that the very real and endless wrangling between executive and legislative power is coming to a head. The emotions of those involved show the magnitude of the crisis of representation in the United States – and not only there.
Trump’s popularity, as recorded shortly before his speech on Tuesday, reveals his country’s absolute polarization: 49 percent are in favor of him while 50 percent are against (with 1 percent saying they don’t know what they think).
Furthermore, his acquittal by a Republican majority in the Senate, after impeachment by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, on charges of abuse of power and obstructing a congressional inquiry, confirms this division.
In the runup to this year’s presidential election, the clash takes us back to the ferment of the first days of America’s independence, when the revolutionaries feared that their rejection of the British monarchy might lead to subjection to a new, local tyranny; at the same time, they worried about possible excesses of those who wanted to check this power.
Today, for half of the voters in the US, Trump represents the freedom to do as they wish without limits; for the rest, he personifies royal impunity and callousness toward the American people. Some regard the House of Representatives as an obstacle, a den of their enemies, while for others it is a bastion of democracy, an expression of the people’s will. With the US president appointing scores of conservative judges to senior posts, Congress’ responsibility to control power becomes even greater.
Trump’s dominance encourages the rise of an “anti-Trump” on the Democratic side. But the spectacle of this conflict cannot hide the fact that the problems are greater than a clash between parties and personalities.
They concern the dispute between executive and legislative power, the extent of citizens’ representation, their freedom and prosperity. In a time of radical change and global insecurity, these questions ought to concern every country.