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The rules of the game, leading up to the American elections the anomalies of Trump the candidate.

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Tempo di lettura: 7 minuti

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Italo-Australian historian Gianni Pezzano reminds us that the important rules are not always written, but are those of the codes of behaviour that cannot be written because there are no words that regulate civil behaviour that is the very platform of Democracy, in any form.

By Gianni Pezzano

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In the film “The best of enemies” Italian actor Alberto Sordi plays Captain Blasi who commands a company of Italian soldiers battling an English company led by Major Richardson played by another great actor and personality David Niven. At the end of a series of skirmishes the two commanders no longer know if they are in Italian or British territory and therefore who are the prisoners and who the captors. In the course of the negotiations for surrender the Italian captain asks the English commander for the “honours of war”, the recognition of the brave and fair behaviour of the defeated troops by the victorious soldiers, a negotiation that forms part of the story of the film.

The honours of war form part of the behaviour of soldiers that cannot be found in the official military manuals. In spite of this the salute is given in many meritorious cases, such as that given to the Italian Folgore Division by the British troops at the end of the Battle of El Alamein. This unofficial code, yet one that is no less onerous for the soldiers, is important because it is in effect the first step towards the pacification of the relationship between the sides after the war without which a lasting peace would not be possible. History is full of cases of ex combatants who became close friends, or of others who committed acts of charity in the countries of their ex enemies.

In the same manner Rugby has the so-called “third half” which plays a very similar role because it allows the players to intermix amicably after a game and to be able to find once more the sense of fair play that sometimes is forgotten on the playing field. These interactions between ex protagonists are not required, or imposed by authorities. They are the concrete recognition that, deep down, all the participants in bitter conflict have points more in common than ideological, sporting or even political differences.

This is the measure by which to judge the developments in the American presidential campaign which will conclude on November 8th, next. In the course of time potential candidates and consequently the public have demanded a certain level of behaviour of their candidates appropriate to their potential role as the country’s President. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks we have seen one of the candidates, Republican Donald Trump, decide not to follow these unwritten rules.

Let us begin with the first refusal by the candidate, that of not making his tax returns public. Although the publication of the tax returns is not obligatory, this practice demonstrates the willingness of the candidates to subject themselves to public scrutiny. In addition, the tax return shows with cold and impersonal figures the truths and falsehoods of the candidate’s personal declarations. It had been more than forty years since a candidate refused to make their tax returns public and Trump’s refusal has put into doubt his credentials as a successful businessman. Worse still, his admission during one of the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton that he had not paid federal taxes in decades and that this was proof of his intelligence created disarray even amongst the leaders of his own party. In fact, his nominee for Vice President, Michael Pence, made his own tax returns public with a word of advice to his Trump to do the same. At this point of the campaign nobody expects the republican candidate for the White House to take this step.

However, there is another unwritten rule of presidential campaigns that Trump refuses to respect, at least up till now, that of the losing candidate to concede defeat when the result is clear to all and before the formal declaration of the new President. Worse still, he made the situation even bitterer by pointing the finger at presumed plots and electoral frauds without proof and even before the vote. The republican candidate did this despite the fact that that the tradition is not a simple act of sportsmanship such as the example of rugby, but an act that signals the end of the political hostilities and is therefore closer to the example of the honours of war.

To understand this difference we need to bear in mind some facts about American politics. The United States of America is a country with a violent political past, not only in the race for the White House, but also because it still feels the weight of the Civil War a century and a half ago and it has still not resolved all the paradoxes that led to it. The call for States’ rights in the United States, the official reason for the secession of the Southern States, is still felt deeply in the South and for this reason there is no federal electoral law in the country and therefore the States administer the presidential election according to their own rules. Naturally these differences make that presidential race even more bitter.

In some states, especially those that unleashed the war, the battle for the voting rights of the minorities such as the African-Americans and the Latinos is still being fought and these are at the centre of Trump’s accusations.  There are even now voting laws that try to limit access of the minorities to the polling booths with the pretence of literacy tests, and clean criminal records, false reasons to cause fear amongst potential voters. These laws are regularly challenged by the Supreme Court that annuls them. Then, just as regularly, the state authorities invent other regulations to reduce the electoral presence of the minorities.

In addition, the rise of extremist groups of a certain form of Christianity within its ranks has created a crisis in the Republican Party that now finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis such that some its leaders tied to the Evangelical churches have maintained their support for Trump even though his personal behaviour is not in line with the scriptures that many of them use in their political battles.

The active role of these churches should not surprise readers. The country was founded by a political class formed of descendants of Protestant sects that fled Europe to escape religious persecution, by Catholics and also other Protestants. For this reason there is a strong Protestant work ethic in the United States and explains why many American politicians are rich with entrepreneurial backgrounds. This Protestant work ethic explains the birth of the so-called “Tea Party” within the Republican Party eight years ago which fought against federal taxes in favour of lower state taxes. The presence of this group is now recognized as the beginning of the divisions within the Party which led to the candidature of Trump. These religious pressures are the basis of the fears of many within the party with the real risk of abandoning Trump in the last phase of the electoral campaign.

Next November 8th there will also be elections for the Congress and the Senate, currently controlled by the Republicans, which risks losing this control as a result of Trump’s terrible polls. In particular, the Republicans fear the loss of the Senate because it is the House of Parliament which approves the presidential nominations for the Supreme Court. Over the last few years the Senate has opposed any attempt at approving “liberal” nominations in the fear that the Supreme Court would then approve laws that are pro abortion, pro gun controls and equal marriage rights, all themes that are close to the evangelical wing of the Party. With a win by the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton the Republicans see the possibility of a Supreme Court that will be hostile to their ultraconservative positions. These religious struggles are at the roots of some of the protests during the pro Trump rallies and which are up till now are only verbal.

And it is to avoid just this possibility of violent consequences to the electoral results that the unwritten rules of American politics require the concession by the defeated candidate. It is considered by almost everybody as the first step towards a peaceful transfer of power to the new President, no matter who it is. In fact, despite its defects and weak points of the American political system, it is normal for Presidents to choose Secretaries from those of the other party with important experience and credentials in their fields of work. By this means the new President shows that he will be of service to the country as a while and not only to his own party.

The sense of the ethical transfer of power is found within the American saying, “There is only one thing worse than a bad loser and that is a bad winner” The concession of defeat means two things. First of all he tells his voters to accept the electoral result and to recognize the legitimacy of the election of the new President. Secondly, it avoids the possibility that a rash President uses the occasion to denigrate the defeated candidate and so raise the ire of a part of the population against him. In a country which has seen the assassination of four Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy the consequences of such behaviour could be truly tragic.

The whole world is now watching the American presidential campaign with an eye that is more critical and worried than usual. For nearly a century the President of the United States has been considered the leader of the “free world” and therefore holds a key position in international politics. This year the presence of an unconventional candidate with no experience of the control room creates the risk of even further destabilization of the world stage. In any case, the behaviour of each candidate, in victory or in defeat, will determine what sort of presidency we will see for the next four years.

Let us bear these facts in mind as we watch the last two weeks of the American presidential campaign unfold. But above all, let us remember that the important rules are not always those that are written, but that code of behaviour that cannot be put on paper because there are no words which can regulate civil behaviour which is the very platform of Democracy, in any form.

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