As it stands there are at least two lawsuits claiming that President Donald Trump has broken the amoluments clause of the US Constitution, separate House and Senate investigations going on into the interference of Russia in the Presidential campaign and connections to the Trump team, and former Director of the FBI James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have also testified before the Senate into actions of President Trump. Clearly what's going on is an absolute horrorshow but this kind of thing is likely to repeat itself over and over again until the next Presidential Election or the incredibly unlikely event of Trump's impeachment. The former is more or less guaranteed if someone runs against Trump in the 2020 Republican Primaries and the latter is unlikely because in impeaching the President, the members of Congress face their own electoral wipeout in the 2018 House Election; the portion of the people who voted for "President Trump" would most likely see his removal as a betrayal of justice and they'd respond accordingly through the ballot box.
And yet there was an interesting contrast across the Atlantic in the fallout from the British General Election. Almost immediately after the election, when the Tory party lost a great deal of its advantage in the House Of Commons, it immediately had to start thinking about making a deal with the DUP to retain power, people were calling for Prime Minister Theresa May to be removed from Number Ten and someone else given the job.
I have been reading through the Federalist Papers which were written by Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, and the overwhelming tone that I get from them is that while the framers of the US Constitution wanted to keep the boundaries of power in check, they also wanted to retain a military style of command with someone like a General in charge of the day to day running of the administration of government. I suppose that this made complete sense when you consider that they probably had George Washington in mind when they wrote the Constitution and it probably worked incredibly well when he ran for President unopposed. Mind you, in 1800 the political infighting almost instantly turned into a horrorshow of its own once Washington decided that he'd had enough and wanted to go home.
Meanwhile across the sea in merry old England, the mother of all parliaments at Westminster already had been through a difficult time and had been reborn after England's own Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Its solution to the question of how you remove someone who is sitting in the seat of power is not only simple but as Westminster's children have proven, is sometimes necessary.
The procedure for removing the President of the United States is both protracted and arcane. To date, not one President has been successfully impeached, though a few have come close. Andrew Johnson's impeachment was put to a vote in the Senate which failed, Nixon resigned before he could be impeached and there simply wasn't the wood to get Clinton impeached and that attempt also failed. In my lifetime, in Australia, there have been no fewer than four Prime Ministers who have been removed from office and replaced mid-stream by the parties that put them there. One of Tony Benn's questions to ask power was "How can we get rid of you?"¹ and I think that the Westminster System of parliamentary government consistently answers this question eloquently.
The United States Federal Government vests the entire of the responsibility of the executive in a single pair of hands who lives outside the Congress. Ostensibly this is supposed to ensure a separation of powers but owing to the fact that to pass budgets, the President needs approval from Congress if it originates from them or the Congress needs approval from the President if it originates from them, it is like both ringmasters of government in this three ring circus are pointing Smith And Wessons at each other.
Meanwhile in a Westminster parliament, the executive is vested in the cabinet which sits inside the parliament. Unlike the United States where the President can literally select anyone they like, irrespective of how brilliant or rubbish they might be and for any cabinet position, the entire cabinet which also includes the Prime Minister must come from the elected members. There is literally nothing in the Australian Constitution which says that there even has to be a Prime Minister and it isn't impossible to conceive of a situation where there isn't one, or a situation where the Prime Minister is from the Senate and not the House Of Representatives, and likewise there is also no specified way of getting rid of them if they turn out to be total muppets or tyrants.
The Prime Minister or Premier in a Westminster parliament is the leader of the cabinet and by convention is the leader of the majority party on the floor of the House Of Representatives, House of Commons, or whatever the lower house happens to be called. If America had a Westminster System of government, then the Prime Minister would be current house leader Kevin McCarthy and his opposite number as the Leader Of The Opposition would be Nancy Pelosi. Donald Trump would be the Governor General and although he would still be the commander in chief of the armed forces, he wouldn't be appointing a cabinet, he wouldn't have any executive power at all and his role of the history of Westminster parliaments around the world is anything to go by, his position would be mostly symbolic except for exceptional circumstances. In Australia you might know who the Governor General is but you'd be hard pressed to think of anything that any Govenor General has ever done in 117 years outside of dismissing a government and sitting Prime Minister more than 41 years ago.
If we assume for a second that America did have a Westminster System of government and through a series of equally as bizarre events, Donald Trump did somehow get to be Prime Minister of the United States, then I bet by now that there would have been a spill motion and his party would have dumped him like a plate of cold cuts at the National Vegetarian Convention. Australia has shown Prime Ministers the exit door in 40 days, in 7 days and in the case of Billy Hughes in one very confused morning in 1940, three hours.
There is no way in comprehension that Donald J Trump would have made it this far as Prime Minister had the United States been a Westminster parliament because the culture and expectation that bad leadership can and should be ejected, would have been part of the system. Nixon knew that his welcome had been worn out and he resigned. Entire arguments can be made against what James K Polk did but he got stuff done and then went home. Mr Trump thinks that he's doing a great job and will not resign and the Congress will more than likely not impeach him either for fear of losing their own jobs in the 2018 midterms.
Unless cases to do with the emoluments clause of the Constitution are successful then the only way that Trump will be leaving the White House is by the same way he entered it, through the power of the ballot box. Arguably this shows both the strengths and weaknesses of both presidential and parliamentary forms of executive government. A President who is outside of the system might have able to rise above the petty squabbles of the parliament and that probably has happened in the past if you consider Presidents like George Washington and Franklin D Roosevelt but even Washington despite being President before the age of political parties was still somewhat tied to the faction of Adams and Hamilton. At its worst, the President is as partisan as the rest of the whole shouting match and as Donald Trump has demonstrated, that leads to ever increasingly exclusionary politics rather than government by the most talented.
A cabinet inside the parliament is always going to face the opposition on the floor of the parliament and so the result will always be adversarial but at least the government is internally stable. Yes, it might be able to depose and replace the leader of the government in great haste but that's ultimately better than a Congress and President who are in constant war and can't get anything done.
If America had had a Westminster System of government, then Trump would have been out on his ear by now and this current period of chaos would have been over. There still would have been a great deal of antagonism and angst but it would have been a different and more stable form of angst. Stable government where everyone is feeling pain is easier to cope with than three and a half more years of complete and utter horrowshow insanity.
¹Tony Benn's five essential questions of democracy:
- What power have you got?
- Where did you get it from?
- In whose interests do you use it?
- To whom are you accountable?
- How do we get rid of you?