Any system-political, economic, social and cultural-survives and lasts when and if it is legitimate or, in the least, is perceived to be legitimate, fair and just. Of course, these noble ideals cannot be entirely replicated to picture perfection in a given society because social organizations like societies are human constructs and humans are fallible beings. But, at the risk of tautology, legitimacy that accrues from justice, rule of law or access to it and fairness is the foundation of legitimacy for a society.
Whether the United States was a society defined by justice and fairness, historically and contemporarily, is debatable but a substantial section of its society, perceived that they had rights and that these rights were protected by the country’s justice system. And, that the judiciary was a check on executive power. The result was that the country was defined by political stability. To take recourse to an extreme, the perception, flawed or real, prevented revolution in the United States, despite gross economic, political disparities and other morbid ills. But, this perception has received a body blow after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh , in a vote that reflects the deep polarization of the country.
Kavanaugh, shorn of accretions, is Donald Trump’s henchman who , in all likelihood, will not only do the United States’ presidents bidding but will also do his hatchet job. He will interpret the law as his sugar daddy desires. The obvious implication here is the executive power will overrule or overshadow the judicial arm which, in turn, will have profound consequences. If and when the judiciary does the bidding of the executive, it is not merely the rule of law that suffers and dwindles but also the legitimacy of institutions.
Broadly speaking, if and when executive power reigns supreme, with checks and balances to it weakened, the polity approximates totalitarianism. The United States’ institutional reconfigurations under Trump suggest a drift toward this. The legitimacy, perceived or real, of the country’s institutions will suffer. In a polarized milieu , this can either mean or entail a revolution , a coup d’etat or a democratic push back.
Will then there occur a revolution in the United States? Unlikely is the answer. While the country’s institutions are being marauded and the rule of law severely compromised, its economy might act as the check on a revolutionary impulse among the masses. This holds despite the fact that rights for many in the United States were and are notional given that access to justice is prohibitively expensive and monopolized by lawyers. Moreover, the revolutionary impulse might also be moderated by recourse to strident nationalism defined in narrow terms whose “natural” corollary would be to more intensely define “Others” , within and without America.
This then leaves the option of a coup d’etat which too, in all likelihood, will not happen in the United States. The country’s armed forces are not politicized enough to take recourse to this option. And, Donald Trump, to foreclose its potential, and in his pursuit of a strident nationalism, might militarize United States’ foreign policy, to the extent of waging war.
By elimination, what is left is the possibility of a democratic pushback. But, this option becomes effectively operative when citizens concerned at their country’s drift, aggregate their voting power into parties of candidates in whom they have trust and are credible. However, in the contemporary United States, there is neither credibility nor trust on the horizon. The country’s social capital and civil society has been fractured by mistrust and polarization. The Democrats are a depleted lot who can only waffle against the ravages of populism.
Against this backdrop then , the United States presents a bleak portrait and picture. While its political future cannot be divined at this point in time, but what can be stated safely is that the country which took great pride in its rule of law and the institutional fabric of the country woven by the country’s founders , is a pale shadow of its erstwhile self. How this will denoue remains in the domain of the “unknown unknown” but what is certain is that the entity that will emerge after various assaults on it by its political elite will not be a confident one. Decay and decline, difficult to reverse, not only scar a nation but render it impotent, within and without. This, of all things, will be Donald Trump’s abiding legacy to the United States.
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org