Rethinking America

The U.S. and the New “BR Index”

A close-up examination of whether the US is becoming a banana republic.

Credit: Mark Goebel www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • From corruption to election interference to military ties, the US is looking like a banana republic.
  • Measure the new Trump political system so far against a banana republic Index.
  • The United States does not score well on free and fair election metrics most years.

Soon after the November 8 election, a number of well-intentioned historians raised the issue of the rise of fascism in the 1930s in Europe.

They have asked whether the same scenario could unfold in the United States, a country that its politicians like to describe as a “shining city on a hill” or a “beacon of democracy.”

The debate continues to this day, Francis Fukuyama arguing in Politico against Daron Acemoglu that checks and balances are enough to avoid the worst.

It is true indeed that themes in the candidate’s speeches, the recurring line I alone can fix it and – more worrisome now – the President’s inaugural address give credence to those who fear the worst.

Dangerous echo sounds

Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address on January 20, in eerie ways, echoes Hitler’s famous speech in the Berlin Sportspalast on February 10, 1933, complete with an apocalyptic vision of the country – with the obvious difference that it was indeed the sad reality in the Germany of 1933.

Trump’s speech echoed the 1933 denunciation of politicians who had abandoned their citizens and could not be trusted, and the theme of the power being given back to “the people” (somehow, “das Volk” sounds a little more threatening, although it is the exact same).

On the road to a banana republic?

But instead of comparing to 1930s Germany, let us measure what we know about the new Trump political system against a rigorously constructed BRI, or banana republic Index.

The country will be ranked across a series of indisputable metrics from 0 (liberal democracy at its most boring, say Switzerland) to 5 (the ideal banana republic, Gabon – with apologies to the many other countries which deserve to be named as well.) We will thus measure how the United States fares under the current administration.

1. Legitimacy of the electoral process

There should be no discussion here: President Trump won the vote in the Electoral College fair and square, and that is all that counts.

But there are several considerations. First there is the level of racially-tinged structural voter disenfranchisement, including registration purges and prohibitions on voting by ex-convicts.

It was not notably higher than the normally elevated U.S. level, but is undeniably not a beacon of liberal democracy.

There is little doubt either – except in his mind, or more precisely in his ego – that he lost the popular vote by a substantial margin (62,979,636 against 65,844,610, to be precise). In any democracy in the world, he would have lost.

It is in some ways unfair that he should be penalized by the fact that the American system does not fit the basic definition of democracy: “one man one vote.” But we are assessing the country, not the man, for Banana Republic characteristics.

Aggravating factors, too, are the candidate’s refusal, in the final public debate of the campaign, to acknowledge whether he would accept the results of the election, if he lost.

Worse is his repeated assertion that he “won the popular vote, if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

The latter will surely be used by sympathetic state governments in future elections to restrict voting rights among ethnic minorities and students, something they already tried and succeeded in doing, sometimes, in 2016.

All this puts Trump on a par with the recently departed-for-exile President of Gambia, Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh.

The system itself earns the indictment of being a stratified and unfair electoral system that a mid-20th century Central American client state of the United States might use.

Score: 5

2. Treatment of the opposition

It is not an easy job to be part of the opposition in a banana republic, unless one is part of the fake opposition, paid by the authorities so that the country looks like, well, a republic.

Real opponents must be ready to spend most of their life behind bars, if not worse, their only hope being to return the favor if they ever access power.

In that respect, the campaign of the Republican candidate was less than exemplary: the screams of the crowds “Lock her up,” encouraged at the Cleveland Convention by the prosecutor Chris Christie, hardly look like the working of a model democracy.

Neither does the tweet sent by the President-elect on January 13, a week before his inauguration, when he wrote: “she should never have been allowed to run-guilty as hell.”

Score: 3

3. Role of the military

In a good banana republic, people cannot be trusted, and the military plays a key role in assuring the protection of the beloved leader. Often, the leader happens to be a former military officer. Otherwise, he is merely surrounded by them.

Is it a coincidence that a larger number than usual of President’s Trump appointees issue from the military? Should we be worried?

Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor might concentrate most of his energy on the conspiracy theories he propagated in the campaign and lucrative relationships to foreign governments.

Despite his nickname, James “Mad Dog” Mattis appears to be the sanest of all the appointees and a model of balance, compared to his boss-who admittedly sets the bar very low.

This fascination for the military is nevertheless intriguing.

Could it be motivated by the eternal regret of not having had the chance to prove his military prowess in Vietnam, where the young Trump would have been awarded so many Medals of Honor, had he not been prevented from joining the draft by a congenital malformation which fortunately vanished as soon as it was not needed anymore?

Could it be the reassurance and comfort to know that orders will be executed faithfully?

It should be noted that the President apparently wished to have a few tanks in his Presidential parade, Soviet-style, and is on record as saying: “The military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue.”

One should not forget that these festivities in Moscow had a double meaning: they fed the nation’s pride, but were also a stark reminder that these tanks could be directed against das Volk too, if it did not behave (kind of: “Remember Budapest, 1956.”)

Score: 3

4. Separation of powers and legislative independence

The Parliament’s branch in any good banana republic – all of which have strong presidents, not strong prime ministers – is to rubberstamp the proposals of the executive. They show both deference and enthusiasm for the great leader.

It is, to be honest, premature to appreciate how things might evolve, but prospects are not bad for the BR paradigm. The Republican Congress has, for 8 years, killed every proposal coming from the Obama administration.

It is now spineless when President Trump goes against the most sacred principle of the party. His tweets to prevent outsourcing would have been excoriated as Communist dirigisme enacted by a socialist Muslim President, if they had come from his predecessor.

They are now welcomed by the boy-scout smile of Speaker Paul Ryan. And the pro-trade Republicans (with the notable exception of John McCain, a “loser,” as everybody knows) wave, without any regret or remorse, bye-bye to the TPP, a blow to American farmers, industries and services companies and a Chinese New Year gift to China.

True, the legislative branch may yet prove to be independent of, if not dominant over, the Trump White House.

But the odds are long, as demonstrated by recent events: the Speaker applauded the Muslim ban on immigrants, which he had condemned sternly during the campaign.

Score: 2

While the previous criteria needed to be carefully weighed, the last two are home runs.

5. Freedom of the press

This is a concept ignored in any self-respecting banana republic.

The day after his inauguration, talking to the CIA, President Trump declared: “I have a war with the media. They are among the most dishonest people on earth.”

It is indeed slightly worrying that these words were uttered in front of an agency whose job it is to “take care” of people who are at war with the country.

Not trusting the media, and conscious of his responsibilities, President Trump has decided to be his own Minister of Propaganda, using his twitter account, whose abbreviated syntax he masters better than more elaborate forms of communication, with the same incontinence he showed before acceding to the Presidency.

Meanwhile, his assistants – the White House spokesman Sean “Liar-in-second” Spicer, Kellyanne “Cruella” Conway, not to forget Steve “Little Goebbels” Bannon – are in charge of presenting the “alternative facts” that the daily-vilified journalists are supposed to dutifully reproduce, the old Pravda way.

Score: 5

6. Corruption

Last but not least, a good banana republic is one where there is no limit or constraint on the leader and his family to enrich themselves while in power.

These riches may flow to Swiss banks and their secret accounts or French real estate. So many little castles in the countryside and mansions on the French Riviera are owned by various active or retired African tyrants.

Surprisingly for a country that used to present itself as a model of democracy, there is no specific provision to force an American President to divest his holdings.

President Trump and his sons and daughters will continue to run the little family business, and profit from countless daily interactions with state officials in the United States and foreign heads of state and government.

The example was clearly set at the first meeting held by the President elect with a foreign leader, Japanese Prime Minister Abe, attended by his daughter at a time when she was negotiating a deal with a company owned in part by the government of Japan.

Four years, at least, of win-win for the Trump business.

Score: 5

Time to sum up

The United States now scores 22 out of 30 possible points. We can safely salute the entry of the United States of America in the select club of the banana republics of this world.

To his credit, the President seemed to acknowledge the fact. In his inaugural speech, he said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” Thank you indeed, Mr. President. Leader of the Free World, no more.

How about: “Top Banana”?

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About Jean-Francois Boittin

Jean-Francois Boittin is a former French diplomat and Treasury official.

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