Mon | Jul 16, 2018

Peter Espeut | Binding the strong man

Published:Friday | May 19, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The late great Wilmot 'Motty' Perkins had a great deal of respect for the constitution of the United States of America with its many checks and balances, including the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

During the great ferment in the 1990s and the 2000s about the need to reform and reformulate Jamaica's Constitution to reduce corruption, and to better make Jamaican politicians more accountable, Motty was a vocal supporter of Jamaica adopting a similar model.

Critics of the US system point out that having separate elections for the president (head of the executive), Congress and the Senate (the legislature) is a recipe for gridlock if they are under the control of different political parties. In the recent past, we have seen gridlock in the USA, yet we have seen all concerned dig deeper for compromise and consensus, which is better than the winner-take-all of the Westminster system.

US constitutional arrangements are now facing arguably their most serious challenge since the US Civil War, but not because of gridlock. Nominally, the Republican Party controls the White House, the House and the Senate, which would seem to make it smooth sailing for them to implement their legislative and programmatic agenda in the face of vociferous but far outnumbered opposition from the Democratic party.

I say nominally because Donald John Trump is not a mainstream Republican; some may argue that he is not Republican at all, since he was a member of the Democratic Party until 1987, when he joined the Republican party. He was a member (and candidate of) the Reform Party from 1999-2001, after which he was again a Democrat until 2009 when he returned to the Republicans. In 2011, he became an independent, returning later in the year.

Having flip-flopped so often, his loyalties are certainly in question, but, more important, he has not been in the system long enough for the party faithful to become loyal to him. They endorsed him because he became president, but they don't support his every initiative. It remains to be seen at which point the straws of his foibles and missteps break the camel's back.

The Kingdom of Great Britain does not have a written constitution. Their government - including their Parliament - operate by a set of conventions - some written - which are agreed upon by the participants. But just as important are certain ethical and normative principles that bind British politicians and govern the British way of life, which, once breached (or more properly, once breaches are discovered), lead to public apology, censure, and maybe even resignation. In the UK, it is unthinkable that these ethical and normative principles should be disregarded, and the Westminster system would break down if that ever happened.




The USA and Jamaica have written constitutions, and an effort has been made to codify all the rules and conventions that govern political practice. But you cannot write down everything. In the USA (and Jamaica), there are still ethical and normative principles of which every politician and public servant is expected to be an exemplar. This is where President Donald Trump (and many Jamaican politicians) has fallen short.

Trump has failed to publicly release all his tax returns, which is not a legal requirement, but accepted conventional behaviour. There is horror in many circles that he has not done so, but there is no legal recourse.

Trump seems to be intermingling his family business with US government diplomacy, which enters the realm of conflict of interest. Many are horrified, and Trump is quite open and unashamed about it. The question is whether the Republicans would censure a president from their own party.

There seems to be evidence that Trump has been consorting with the enemy, even as far as sharing classified information with them. It appears that Trump is using his executive power to subvert independent efforts to investigate his activities and those of his associates. There is evidence that he may have tried to influence the head of the FBI to drop an investigation, and then when the FBI head asked for more resources to continue the investigation, Trump fired him.

Because they are in the minority, the Democrats are powerless to do anything. And the party of which Trump is now titular head, holds the reins of state power. There seem to be few - if any - checks and balances in place on the power of the president.

This is the biggest test of the strength of the US constitution since the southern states seceded to form the Confederacy. We in Jamaica must watch this scenario carefully, for if the US constitutional arrangements are able to constrain or even neutralise the Trump menace, it may be of use to us in our own struggle with political corruption.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to