Trump saga has much to teach us about the need to restore trust in UK politics

If ever there was a political decision that was going to raise fundamental questions about the nature of democracy, the conviction of former president Donald Trump was it. As the word “guilty” was returned when each of the 34 charges were read out, you could almost hear the nails being hammered into the democratic reputation of the USA and its institutions.

Ever since he was ousted from office Donald Trump has been the kind of public figure that all politicians dread – a relentless and obsessive antagonist who not only has immense personal power and wealth and knows how to play the system, but who also has the ability to inspire profound loyalty that only seems to increase with adversity.

Unfortunately the ‘Trump problem’ is far more symptomatic of a badly broken system than it is of any charismatic qualities of its protagonist. In a more robust and ethically sound environment of public governance a personality like Donald Trump would probably have never made it to president in the first place, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to hang round like a wounded bear continuing to cause havoc and division across American society.

Yesterday’s trial was the result of a fairly conventional investigation and assessment of a minor aspect of one man’s expansive financial affairs, and under normal circumstances would have attracted relatively little public interest. After all, few are naive enough to imagine that corporate giants get to where they are without engaging in a few misdemeanours along the way, and Trump’s payment of hush money and falsifying of his business records has been regarded by many as an almost normal requirement of capitalist commerce.

What distinguishes the Trump case – and indeed his entire post-presidency story – is that it has become a motif for the rampant distrust for politics and politicians that has seeped its way through American society. It’s a malaise that for most modern-day Americans has its roots in the Kennedy era, when civic duty and the overt accumulation of personal wealth became dangerously confused. Ironically, this tension of ideas and principles even lead to the JKF assassination, which has passed into history as the defining moment when Americans began to develop a fundamental mistrust of their government which has only grown more profound with the passage of time.

For so many Americans political trust and even democratic engagement is still frozen on Dealey Plaza on 22nd November 1963. When the Warren Commission announced after some 12 months of hard and exhaustive investigations that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman, Americans just knew in their stomachs that some fundamental flaw in their much-cherished democratic history had been exposed.

Things only got worse less than a decade later when tenacious investigative journalism by the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal, which led to the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. However, if the American public thought that some kind of political dignity and democratic integrity was going to be restored they were in for another shock. Despite the impeachment and Nixon’s blatant efforts to impede the investigation, the president wriggled free by resigning from office on 9th August 1974, and even managed to persuade his successor, Gerald Ford, to grant him a full pardon just one month later. The palour of cronyism and the abuse of public trust hung heavy over the White House but, in a now familiar ironic scenario, Richard Nixon has been filed into history as one of America’s most outstanding and influential presidents.

The Kennedy and Nixon eras not only broke a country’s confidence in the processes of justice and democracy, but they set in motion a relentless decline not only in public confidence in the US state, but in the moral expectations of those who later came to govern. The sad irony is that whilst there have undoubtedly been countless individuals who’ve moved into US politics for the most altruistic of reasons, the public perception of the institution has declined to a level where beneficent governance has become a virtual impossibility.

This is very much something that Donald Trump has understood – and manipulated – from the outset. At the core of his entire political career has been a fundamental desire to undermine the process of democracy, playing on the profound mistrust of the political system that has become engrained in the American psyche. The fact that he actually lost an election only served to underscore his paranoia about the system, and the public’s mistrust of the democratic process. The fact that he can still run for president even as a convicted criminal, and even if he goes to prison, demonstrates just how difficult it has become for democratic institutions to deal with rogue players even when their derangement is self-evident. The Trump saga has delivered a tough lesson to America, and it’s far from over yet. This will only happen if and when US politicians manage to restore public trust in the Constitution and the systems it gave rise to.

Closer to home, we’re also heading at a pace towards a General Election and, whilst thankfully we don’t have any disrupters on the scene, there’s also precious little evidence that any of the main parties have anything much to offer the electorate. Keir Starmer’s pledge to take the Labour Party even further to the right than Tony Blair pushed it, coupled with a Tory party that seems committed to the creation of a draconian and deeply divided society, is making UK voters wonder if there’s really anything much of a choice at all.

For Catholics in particular there has been almost nothing so far from any of the parties that synchronises with the detailed advice and recommendations published this week by Catholic charities and social organisations. In fact there’s really very little been put forward that the general public would welcome, let alone applaud, which is ironic given that the most urgent domestic issues that the country is facing are of such a magnitude that they surely transcend political differences. The leaders of all political parties could do worse than take a leaf out of Rerum Novarum: “Capital cannot do without labour, nor labour without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity”.

Although Labour is currently well ahead in the polls, five weeks is a lifetime in politics, and especially in the unpredictable and volatile atmosphere of contemporary Britain. Given the apparent lack of meaningful policies that might distinguish one party from another, It could well be that that the result of the General Election will be something less of a singular victory than expected. Whatever does transpire, the real need is for legislators of all parties to forget their old differences and divisions, and for the moment at least to work together to restore the stability and security of our country.

To be seen to be doing this would unquestionably restore public confidence in the political system, and would encourage people to re-engage with the democratic process. As one popular US president (Harry S. Truman) put it: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Putting aside personal ambition for the greater good of the public is something that has been noticeably absent from politics in most supposedly democratic countries, and it’s a malaise that is the very root of public mistrust. It has created a cult of personalism that has worked its way through all tiers of society, but it’s actually not that difficult to rectify. Whatever their circumstances the human person is hard-wired to benevolence, and it would only need a very basic shift in governance towards the common good to re-ignite the engagement of the public with the political process.

As HE Cardinal Vincent Nicols said in a video message today: “How do we seek to construct a society in which families can flourish … that’s the bedrock … the basic idea, and all sorts of things flow from that.”

Steering society from a preoccupation with ‘self’ to one that is centred on the broader good – of families, of communities and of the country as a whole – ought to be a task that politicians of any persuasion can sign up to. Let’s hope and pray that over the coming weeks we’ll see this happening.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian