Let’s start with a game of “Guess the Country”. In this nation, a former head of state announces his attempted return to power, so his opponents set out to block him. In doing so, they revive past sex scandals and purported financial misdeeds related to questionable campaign contributions and gifts from foreign governments. Which country am I thinking of?
If you said Pakistan, you would be correct. If you said America, you would also be correct.
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For the US, this is a departure. Not because of the scandals, of course. From the country’s inception, many of its highest-ranking political figures have engaged in outrageous behaviour — political, financial, sexual, or combinations of the three. There were love triangles, duels, extra-marital offspring, flings with interns. Accusations of corruption date back to Alexander Hamilton, and of illicit campaign finance to Ulysses S. Grant and 1872, when his supporters diverted a tax on whiskey into the election coffers.
At the presidential level, though, the maximum consequence has been impeachment (Johnson in 1868, Clinton in 1998 and Trump in 2019 and 2021), or the pre-emptive resignation of the offender (Nixon in 1974). To jail a president was, until recently, unthinkable, no matter what one might feel regarding the individual officeholder. And this was a valuable safety measure, keeping antagonism and partisan rivalries within bounds.
If Trump’s warnings are correct and he is arrested today, it will represent a new low in a chain of unprecedented prior boundary violations, including an unannounced FBI raid on a former president’s home with guns drawn. This time, the consequences will not be pretty — for once a red line is erased, it is gone for good, no matter which party you belong to. Who will be next? The Democrats hated and investigated Ivanka and Donald Jr.; already the Republicans are zeroing in on Hunter Biden. Step by step, tit for tat, America is heading into the banana republic zone.
To find out what this entails, we need only look to Pakistan. Here, we have a political system that regularly cannibalises its leaders, jailing, executing or assassinating them with such appalling regularity that one wonders why anyone would ever seek high office. The explanation is most likely a combination of factors: idealism bordering on a saviour complex; the addictive adulation of supporters who, at rallies, can easily number in the semi-hysterical millions; the push of relatives and hangers-on all hoping to benefit; and the lure of all sorts of personal licit and illicit benefits.
Take Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who served first as Pakistan’s President and then Prime Minister in the Seventies. After being educated in the US and UK, he founded the Pakistan People’s Party and oversaw the drafting of the country’s constitution. Ultimately, however, he was deposed in a military coup, arrested, put on trial for alleged involvement in the murder of a political rival, found not guilty, re-arrested under martial law on the same charge, tortured, sentenced to death, and hanged. The man responsible for his demise was Zia ul-Haq, who became President via military coup in 1977. His turn in power ended in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, believed to have been caused by a bomb concealed in a box of mangoes.
Later, in 1999, Pervez Musharraf became President through a military takeover, cementing his position by jailing and initiating criminal proceedings against the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf was the target of multiple assassination attempts but survived them. When his excesses against political opponents became too extreme, and he was about to be impeached, he fled into exile. Upon trying to make a comeback in 2013, he was indicted by the country’s high court for involvement in political murders, including that of Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfiqar and twice Pakistan’s prime minister, causing him to flee to Dubai to avoid arrest.
This pattern of politics can only be described as dysfunctional. It operates on the basis of disregard for the rule of law, direct violent attacks on political rivals, manipulation of elections, intimidation of opponents, misuse of the judicial system, and frequent attempts to kill political figures. Its current protagonist, Imran Khan, is certainly eccentric, with marriages to a British socialite, a journalist who later wrote a tell-all about his supposedly degenerate personal life, and now to an ultra-Islamic Sufi alleged to engage in witchcraft on his behalf.
He is currently limping along with his legs in casts and bandages from a recent assassination attempt, while efforts are underway to arrest him for allegedly failing to mention an illegitimate daughter in his pre-election paperwork, selling gifts he received from foreign dignitaries, and dozens of lesser misdeeds. Khan’s supporters, meanwhile, are encamped around his home to defend him, engaging in battles with the police.
There are a number of obvious analogies to Trump: similarly a populist, an eccentric, a person swirling with allegations about his sex life, financial dealings and his family. If he is arrested today, it seems likely it will be because of hush money paid to a porn star. In response, the Democrats have spent the past months attempting to take him out of play through harassment in the courts over comparatively trivial matters. He is accused, for instance, of failing to properly register all the gifts he received during state visits.
During their time in office, politicians and diplomats constantly receive gifts of varying value and tastefulness, and it’s not the task of the recipient to register them — that’s a job for staffers. In the case of Trump, the two most significant gifts he is accused of keeping are a set of golf clubs and a life-size portrait of him, which I doubt the nation is desperate to keep.
Back in the real world, both Trump and Khan’s cases reek of a double standard, with the target personality being scrutinised for behaviour that, for better or worse, is widespread within a political elite. As for their sexual peccadilloes, in both instances these relate to incidents that are well in the past and not all that sordid. The Democrats have been scouring the nooks and crannies of Trump’s life in a determined effort to prosecute and jail him. That’s not “equal treatment under the law” — it’s a political gambit. Perhaps their campaign slogan should be: Make America Pakistan.
Meanwhile, as the Republican Party heads for the 2024 election, its most energetic slogan, inspiring hats and bumper stickers and T-shirts, is: Make America Florida. Under Ron DeSantis, Florida has charted its own course in recent years — and done very well. Its unemployment rate is at a record low, while its budget surplus is at a record high, despite zero income tax. Elsewhere, Washington DC is a mess, as is California, New York and Chicago. These major cities all sport a collapsing infrastructure, potholed roads, pop-up homeless encampments and rampant lawlessness.
Amid this urban blight, Florida appears as a beacon of hope. Its infrastructure is well-maintained; the streets are clean; affordable public transportation is state of the art; crime rates are low. Unsurprisingly, corporations as well as private persons have been abandoning ship, fleeing their foundering cities and moving to the well-run Sunshine State. The DeSantis formula — no-nonsense, frontier-America law and order fused with individualism — not only won him his recent landslide re-election, but turned the Florida Formula into the Republican vision of America’s future. Efficiently managed, pragmatic, minimally interventionist, focused on middle-ground conservative attitudes and values but strong on personal liberties, it’s sounding pretty good to a lot of people.
Whether or not Trump is locked up today, next year’s elections look to be a watershed moment. What path to follow? Will America become Florida or Pakistan?