Personal Reflections of a Lebanese American on Trump Power and Civil Discord
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Americans are divided on many basic issues and President Trump has reinforced this tension. Trump is both a contributing factor to America’s pain and a symptom of its dysfunction. The fact that our commander in chief is still popular with a large segment of the population is sobering. The take away message from the Trump phenomenon is that excessive presidential power is costly, which brings us to the subject of impeachment.
The impeachment inquiry is gathering momentum. His foes and friends alike, in the House and Senate, are furious with him for ordering the withdrawal of US forces from Syria. His impulsive move paved the way for a ruthless Turkish invasion to target an ally and a war proxy- the Kurdish presence in northern Syria.
Surprisingly, growing opposition in Washington seems only to make Trump more popular – for the moment- with his base, a symptom of a deeper political problem. A large segment of American society is alienated from beltway politics and feels threatened by the increase of new immigrants. The political divide separating Democrats (who are shifting somewhat to the left) from Republicans (who are shifting more visibly to the right) has reached a dysfunctional level.
And now it gets personal. The image of America is changing for immigrants. I left Lebanon at the start of a fifteen-year civil war, in 1975, seeking security in the US, where my wife was born and raised, and where I had done graduate work. As a naturalized citizen, I am now distressed to see American society divided along ethnic, religious and racial lines. I saw the consequences of fratricide in Lebanon.
I worry about the future of our children and grandchildren in the US. I observe exaggerated fear of immigrants. I witness an electoral process dominated by money and media empires which are obsessed, repetitive, polarized and provocative. I observe recurring domestic terror, addiction to gun ownership and economic dependence on arm sales abroad. There is an escalating national debt, an expanding military budget and an unsustainable health care system. I watch religious leaders engage heavily in regressive politics. The economy favors the rich; criminal justice favors incarceration over rehabilitation; and foreign policy favors sanctions over diplomacy. Finally, passion for cheap energy has led our president to abandon a historic global agreement on climate change.
I share the sentiments of the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable whose lamentation is captured in the title of her recent article: After Years in Afghanistan, I‘m Coming Home to an America I Do Not Recognize. She writes: Now, from a distance, I have watched my prosperous, law abiding society turn into a battle ground, with mass shootings in schools and malls and places of worship, diatribes drowning out debate, online anonymity unleashing vengeful fantasies, institutional safeguards being jettisoned, the press pilloried as a public enemy, and people hesitant to speak to strangers in checkout lines.
In serious analysis examine systems. My past experience in Lebanon has led me to the conclusion that the sectarian massacres which occurred in the civil war did not reflect the mental or moral degeneration of Lebanese society as much as the collapse of their national security. National instability underlies political anger, not loss of sanity or morality. Today, I watch two Americas, each labeling the other “crazy.” Few are willing to admit that it is extreme politicians, Trump being an example, rather than lack of personal maturity which split society into hostile camps.
More personal reflection. Over the past forty-five years I have lived in several regions of the US and in Europe. Having experienced three distinct cultures, the Middle East, Europe and the US, I have developed an appreciation for political systems which do not entrust the head of the state with excessive power. Strong presidential power, built into the American political system, exposes the country to executive overreach. Trump’s current disregard for the legislature and the press exemplifies the danger of excessive presidential power.
In Switzerland presidents rotate positions to maximize representation and limit executive power. In that country, where I worked for seventeen years, I experienced the near anonymity of the nation’s top leader. For this Lebanese American the humility of presidential status was a revelation.
America’s problems are solvable. While Americans are sharply divided on guns, health care and immigration, the Swiss seem to have found moderate, workable solutions for these issues. Every Swiss citizen enjoys full health insurance. There are no slums there. Guns are largely used to defend the borders- not for personal safety. And Switzerland absorbs immigrants systematically by categorizing them according to international laws of migration and refugees. Every resident is accounted for in state files and classified for eligibility for a work permit. Most foreign residents are eventually naturalized as citizens after spending a minimum of residency period and gone through a social integration process. Immigrants are not considered a tool for cheap labor, to be rejected when employment opportunities change.
It might seem unfair to compare a small country like Switzerland with the US. However it is to be noted that this thriving country has been able to integrate communities which speak four languages into one nation. The Swiss economy’s capacity to generate prosperity among all communities is perhaps the most significant factor of societal integration. The supremacy of law in the Swiss society makes all citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious background, identify with the state and the nation.
Like other north European countries Switzerland has a mixed economy with generous safety nets. There is no taboo on socialism and there is no aversion to capitalism. Americans need not fight about the value of a mixed economy, a reformed immigration system-which serves the economy and culturally enriches society-, and finally, new legislation which keeps America’s borders safe and regulates use of personal guns.
On every issue which divides America, President Trump has been an agitator rather than an agent of moderation, reconciliation and problem solving. He has assumed a powerful post of leadership and abused its relatively ambiguous limitations.
With a Republican-dominated senate, the impeachment process could affect the image of our president but will not oust him. Our next commander in chief must have the skill to shepherd the nation to a landscape of hope and reconciliation.
Inspiring national leadership is critical for reversing the existing trends.