The ‘Big Man’ threat

The ‘Big Man’ threat

The drama playing out in the United States is testing the system of checks on power instituted by the Founding Fathers; it has already shown the dead end at which the divided country finds itself.

Those who in the 18th century hammered out the system of governance for their new republic wanted to exclude the danger of someone in the highest office abusing his power, of acting like the king they had just thrown off their backs. They decided Congress could impeach and try presidents.

This week’s impeachment of Donald Trump by the House of Representatives showed the system’s failure: Only members of the Democratic majority and one independent voted for impeachment; in the Senate, where Republicans hold sway, the two-thirds majority needed for conviction will not be found. Trump is the third president to be impeached; like his predecessor Bill Clinton, he will remain in office.

The system of checks collapses the moment that one of the two parties is determined to stick with the president irrespective of the charges, the evidence, the witnesses against him. We saw it with Clinton, we see it with Trump.

Whether or not we agree with the charges and their impeachment (for very different reasons), the fact is that, in effect, the only check on people who act like monarchs is the two-term limit for presidents. This is where we can see more dangers that democracies face.

In the United States, no matter what a “Big Man” does to seduce voters to the extent that members of Congress are afraid to go up against him, soon he will have to hand over the reins and go home. In other countries, though, elections bring to power people who are not subject to such institutional checks – on the one hand, they have undermined them, on the other, they use them against their rivals.

In this way, more and more “Big Men” become synonymous with their countries, rather than part of a collective leadership: Putin/Russia, Erdogan/Turkey, Bolsonaro/Brazil, Trump/United States (at least as far as the unpredictability that he brought to his country’s policies).

Despite humanity’s evolutionary leaps, despite our technological miracles, it is clear that – internationally – politics are in a dangerous regression. It no longer suffices for us to reckon with the national interests of each country in order to shape our policy toward it. We must also consider the personality, the ambitions, the fears of those who – without checks on their power – control them.

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