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Above: President Donald Trump in a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at the White House/Photo: UNI

With at least 16 declared Democratic aspirants and another dozen or so who would like to be asked, it’ll be interesting to see whose policy and leadership can undo the worst excesses of the Trump experiment

By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

Empathy is no longer an attribute of American presidential leadership. While it gets lip service it seems to hardly matter in response to events like the Boeing 737 Max crash in Ethiopia or the mosque killings in New Zealand. Empathy does not convey well in tweets.

Meanwhile, Congress, beginning to exercise its equal role in government, handed three defeats to US President Donald Trump, who used his veto power for the first time. A unanimously passed resolution in the House of Representatives urged that special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s eventual report on Russian interference in the 2016 election be made public. The 420-0 vote put Democrats and Republicans on the same side, easier to accomplish for a symbolic non-binding vote. Could the Republicans be confident that the full report will exonerate Trump while perhaps 60% of Ame­rican voters believe it will not?

The House and Senate votes cancel­led the President’s declaration of a national emergency to pay for a Mexico border wall that Congress would not fund. With this veto, the declaration is back. The Congress is unlikely to muster a two-thirds majority to override the declaration. But wait, there’s more. Trump’s affection for the Saudi leadership is no secret, yet the Senate voted to prohibit military aid to Saudi Arabia for use in the latter’s war against Yemen.

A recent terrorist attack at a New Zealand mosque killed about 50 people and injured several others. The lone Australian gunman behind the attack posted an online manifesto that hailed Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.

Trump described the terrorist attack as a “horrible, horrible thing”, and said he called New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to convey the US’s “sorrow”, but then turned to “crimes of all kinds coming through our southern border”. He added: “People hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is”—language eerily similar to the gunman’s rhetoric.

The next day, when asked, he said that white nationalism was a small problem. Hal Brown, a mental health professor, put a psychiatric spin on it, tweeting “Donald Trump’s reaction to the New Zealand terrorist attack and his insistence that it didn’t represent an upsurge in white nationalist extremism across the globe is a Petri dish of cells of malignant narcissism growing like a cancer”.

Days before, Trump had complained to website Breitbart News: “You know, the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad. But the left plays it cuter and tougher. Like with all the nonsense that they do in Congress … with all these investigations—that’s all they want to do is—you know, they do things that are nasty. Republicans never played this.”

Perhaps the best assessment from the non-Trump faction came from a political pundit who said that one by-product of the week’s news will be “deepening outrage fatigue”.

Trump is the singular choice on the Republican side, but for the Democrats it is a veritable smorgasbord of options. There are at least 16 declared candidates and another dozen or more who would like to be asked. They come in different flavours, colours and genders, in keeping with the “big tent” style of Democratic party politics.

Like India, the US is an amalgam of states, regions, ethnic and religious groups. The questions voters have to ponder are significant, and pertain to matters such as policy, personality and leadership. What they dec­ide for the Democrats will determine Trump’s future: back to being citizen Trump or four more years of national and international political chaos.

The respected magazine The New Yorker recently asked, “Is America Becoming Trump’s Banana Republic?” After the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to announce grounding of all Boeing 737 Max planes for safety modifications, Trump autocratically made the announcement personally, as if he had decided the matter.

It’s a long run until peak campaigning in the summer of 2020. Past performance suggests Trump will begin again to use nicknames and condescension, trying to convince voters that whatever Democratic flavour they pick he will still win the election.

With the arrival of Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas Congressman, as a candidate, there are four serious Democrats and a fifth, former Vice President Joe Biden, waiting to enter the contest. The presence of old and new faces reflects the age and experience issue. Biden and Bernie Sanders are in their 70s, Elizabeth Warren is 69, Kamala Harris 54, while O’Rourke, Corey Booker and others are in their 40s. Gender and colour are also significant issues, but what’s critically important is whose policy and leadership can win and undo the worst excesses of the Trump experiment.

Has a single term of conservative/ authoritarian government increased the chances of a more enlightened American leadership winning? Despite his age, Sanders attracts voters many decades younger than him, who share his belief that American society is rife with inequities that will not be solved by candidates like O’Rourke. There is an overriding desire among the Democrats to defeat a president they believe is a menace to democracy and global stability.

At the same time, the moderates in the party are tempted by Biden, wagering that the political equivalent of comfort food to America may prove the safest recipe. It isn’t clear if the highly partisan and angry American electorate has any genuine desire for comfort food.

— The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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