There is a legendary story about the great Austrian mathematician and logician, Kurt Gödel, recounted in a recent issue of The Conversation (11 February 2017) by Sydney University’s Professor Mark Colyvan. When Gödel was preparing for a US citizenship examination he discovered what he said was a ‘loophole’ in the Constitution which would enable a President to become a dictator
Gödel went to his examination with Einstein and the economist Oskar Morgenstern supporting him and, although both tried to persuade him not to mention his discovery, he did so. It didn’t prevent him being granted citizenship and since then there has been much speculation about what the loophole he saw was and whether the story is apocryphal or not. Colyvan argues that that given Gödel’s work in systems of rules “it should come as no surprise that when encouraged to look at the US constitution (which is after all just a set of rules) Gödel was enthusiastic and his thoughts turned immediately to what the system said about itself – and its limitations. It should also come as no surprise then that when he looked, he found some.”
But it doesn’t need a Gödel to identify the limitations in the original (slavery anyone?) and the subsequent laws and activities which have been built on it. Indeed it is fairly common knowledge – other than among US patriots who believe they live in the world’s greatest democracy – that it is a flawed system. For instance, a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report on democracy around the world found that the US was ranked in 21st place in the report tables and was among the 57 countries defined as flawed democracies.
Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada and Ireland topped the full democracy rankings and Australia came in at 10th of the 19 listed as full democracies.
Knowledge of the flaws is not new. A recent book by Robert Parkinson , The Common Cause, gives chapter and verse of how John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington wrapped rhetoric about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in claims about slaves, American Indians, George III’s Hessian troops and anyone else that could be characterised as the other.
The explicit call for independence was constantly interwoven with threats about the monarchy and the loyalists encouraging freedom for slaves, Indian uprisings and other fearful developments. Indeed, despite the high flown language about freedom, much of the founding fathers discourse would not seem totally out of place coming from the mouth of Donald Trump albeit without the fathers’ grammatical and literary qualities.
There is also a long US tradition – in fiction and non-fiction – of discussing the risk and realities of US fascism and dictatorship. Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here and its main character, Buzz Windrip, is one famous example. Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the Kings Men, and the film versions in 1949 and 2006 with Broderick Crawford and Sean Penn in the role respectively, started from the same Huey Long base as Sinclair did.
Jack London’s The Iron Heel was structured as a post-facto tale of the revolution after the US dictatorship just as Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale was. Attwood’s take has particular resonance given the attitudes of the current US Christian right and the Canadian bolt hole many are considering. Non-fiction has also produced some fascinating work. Bud and Ruth Schultz produced It Did Happen Here, a wide-ranging collection of essays on political repression in the US. Garry Wills’ Bomb Power succinctly traces the development of the national security state and the concentration of presidential power in the nuclear era.
So while it is no consolation – indeed perhaps a source of even greater despair – Donald Trump, his rhetoric and his actions are not something new in US history. They are a continuation of recurring strands rather than exceptions. However, there are two reasons for optimism: first, there are many ambitious Attorneys- General in blue states more than happy to make their careers by pursuing legal action against the new President; and second, he has given – and will continue to give – them lots of opportunities to do it.
And if that’s insufficient consolation recall Cicero’s Dum Spiro Spero – while I breathe, I hope.