The United States has always grabbed global attention for just being what is it—the United States. The mightiest military power, the biggest donor for many countries, rebuilder of Europe after the Second World War, the biggest funder for many UN bodies, the self-appointed global policeman, the ever-anxious do-gooder, the unthinking bungler into things that it understood very little, the warmonger par excellence, the biggest arms seller, home to the highest number of Nobel Prize winners, the country with some of the world's best universities, or the most diverse population, who are most easy to strike up a conversation with compared to people anywhere else in the world—the list goes on and on.
The coming of Trump added an altogether new dimension to attention grabbing. First out of curiosity, then out of disbelief and finally out of fear, we all listened, read and followed with ever-growing anxiety what President Donald Trump said or did. What perhaps rang the alarm bells the loudest for the rest of the world was when he pulled out of the Paris Accord, the agreement which the US had played a crucial role in preparing, and to accommodate which the world had made so many concessions. His withdrawal decision was whimsical, unthinking, disdainful of collective global engagement, and a shameless surrender to the polluters.
It was four years of disbelief at full stretch. But then Trump said, "Wait! What have you seen of disbelief?"
The more he talked about possible massive election fraud, the more we thought it was his usual banter. Then the election came. And then the results came in, and the final unbelievable game commenced.
Without a single iota of evidence, he called the election "rigged" and wanted its results overturned. His supporters went to the courts of every battleground state and lost. The vote recount in one state produced the same result. To add to the disbelief, about 126 House Republicans and 17 state-level attorneys general signed a petition to the US Supreme Court appealing, on fictitious grounds, that millions of ballots were fraudulent. He also suggested on Twitter that two of his own party governors from Georgia and Arizona be thrown out as they had allowed his victory to be "stolen".
The heartening story behind Trump's attempt to dismantle the US electoral process is that of the resilience of the US system backed by institutions, courts and of course more than two hundred years of tradition. Against Trump's still-unexplained hold over a large section of American voters (74 million) and a significant section of the Republican Party, the US institutions held, including the administration and especially the judiciary. Even a call to the White House and an audience with the president of several state officials—state bureaucrats who oversaw the elections—did not make them budge, replying that "no new evidence has been brought to our attention to necessitate any change of our position." His appointed Attorney General William Barr himself went public against his president saying that there was no evidence of voter fraud, prompting Trump's ire and leading to his resignation.
Trump predicted that the election may go to the US Supreme Court and thus was in a hurry to make it a full bench of nine justices. Being a "transactional" person, his view was that all those whom he appointed would automatically rule in his favour because they "owed" him their jobs, revealing his own thoughts about the most venerable of American institutions, the Supreme Court. When the court ruled against him, he tweeted, "Disappointing, no courage…"
The flip side of Trump's absurdities is that it has woken us up to the fact that democracy, like liberty, requires "eternal vigilance" (Thomas Jefferson), and that we need to constantly strengthen the beliefs, values and institutions of democracy to keep it alive and functioning. I think the American voters, as well as voters in every democracy, owe it to Trump to reawaken ourselves to the fact that holding elections and depending on everyone to accept the outcome and play by the books is not enough.
He made us realise, once more, that democracy is a composite of a system with several parts including the constitution, the parliament (for those who follow the British Westminster system), the elected upper and lower houses, other legislative bodies, and of course the courts. The "will of the people", as expressed through voting, has to be then upheld through a whole range of institutions in case a charismatic, demagogic and populist leader tries to overturn the process.
What is remarkable is the role played by the judiciary in the US. Trump supporters went to court in every battleground state—Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin—and in every instance, the courts promptly and decisively dismissed the charges of election irregularities, thereby freeing the process to move on. There were multiple cases in each state and all of them were dealt with expeditiously. The aforementioned petition signed by 126 House Republicans and 17 state attorneys general also got thrown out of the Supreme Court in record time.
The process was clear, unambiguous and, most importantly, prompt. Judges responded to the fact that time was of the essence. It is the delays in handling and resolving election-related cases that often jeopardise voters' will and keep it from being properly expressed.
Here lies the importance of the independence of the judiciary. Not only in the election-related cases, but throughout Trump's tenure, it was the courts that kept the administration from doing too much damage to rule of law which is the hallmark of US society, especially on immigration and deregulation. Starting from the banning of travel from five Muslim countries and other restrictions and cancelling visas for international students to the treatment of immigrants and separating children from their parents at the US-Mexican border, it was the courts that stepped in each time the US president tried to reach too far out with his executive fiats. According to the Washington Post, federal courts have ruled against the Trump administration at least 70 times, and the ruling came from judges from all over the country and appointed by both the Republicans and the Democrats. In analysing 60 such cases, the newspaper found 19 related to environment, 14 to immigration, 12 to health care, 7 to sanctuary cities, etc. Thus, the judiciary restrained the executive when it came to questions of the constitution and the existing laws.
Through this election process, the US courts have emerged as a great defender of democracy, the election process and the rights of the voters to have their say in deciding who their leaders will be. Without a robust and fully independent judiciary, the US political system, especially its electoral system, would have collapsed with the most unforeseen and perhaps tragic consequences for freedom and democracy not only for the US but, in terms of demonstrative effect, for the rest of the world as well.
From Trump we learn anew something that we have been told a thousand times, something that we knew from our own experience, something that every democratic constitution repeats ad infinitum—that for democracy to last and flourish, we need an independent judiciary. This is the most pertinent lesson for us. The state of our democracy today can be directly linked to the state of our courts.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.