Are there any nations today — with the possible exception of China — not struggling with what must be called a fitness problem they have no answer for?
As the situation in Algeria continues to evolve and accelerate, Al Jazeera reports that “Algeria’s army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah has called for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to be declared unfit to rule the country, following weeks of protests against the ailing head of state’s decision to seek a fifth term. ”
In the US, Hayley Miller in the HuffPost covers the fallout from the conclusion of the Mueller report that has delighted the White House but dashed establishment Democrats’ hopes by failing to find President Donald Trump guilty of collusion with Russia in the manipulation of the 2016 election. Miller posts an indignant tweet by Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy calling for Democratic Representative Adam Schiff’s public humiliation: “It’s also time for @RepAdamSchiff to apologize for deceiving the American people. He has proven himself unfit to chair the House Intelligence Committee.”
At the same time, satirical late night comic Stephen Colbert, who has built his brand around making jokes based on the idea that Trump is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet, swallowed his embarrassed disappointment and “brought out a large whiteboard full of reasons why Trump is “unfit” to be president.”
In the UK, the number of people in recent days to affirm that British Prime Minister Theresa May is unfit to manage Brexit includes any number of editorialists and politicians, as well as Brexiteer Nigel Farage, some cabinet ministers and a member of the audience for the BBC’s Question Time.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In Darwinian terms, unable to compete in the race with other individuals to reproduce and generate a population in one’s image; lacking in fecundity. In political terms, unable to credibly play the role of a leader who can shape the public’s values in the leader’s own image and perpetuate that image as an ideal.
All these examples show the variety of ways in which a leader can be judged unfit. One clear fact emerges: There will never be a lack of judges.
The case of Bouteflika in Algeria is the most extreme. Since “fit” is a synonym of healthy, some seem surprised it has taken six years for the Algerian body politic to notice and make a point of the obvious and radical failure of health in their president’s body and mind. But, of course, a regime controlled by the military gave its people few opportunities to exercise their skills of medical diagnosis, and fewer again to express them. Now that at least one military leader has chimed in with the people, the political transformation — if not impending revolution — they have been calling for has begun looking like a real possibility.
All the other cases appear to be far more ambiguous, but they share with the Algerian situation an atmosphere of existential crisis. Trump has been an ongoing psychodrama for the American people since well before his election. That his own party and his opponents have been drawn into the psychodrama without knowing how to respond tells us a lot about US political culture today and even more about US culture in general.
Many forget that it was David Cameron who created the situation for Theresa May being unfit to manage Brexit. They find it harder to forgive her persistent belief that she is managing it and can bring it to a positive outcome.
At the end of the day (if that hour ever actually comes), all three nations — Algeria, the US and the UK — are undergoing a historical drama of major importance that will have repercussions beyond their own borders.
That would surprise no one in the case of the US, which decades ago established itself (at least in its own mind) as what it believed was a kind and loving empire. It needed Trump’s narcissism to help the “exceptional” nation to begin to understand that that very belief was a symptom of its own narcissism. Trump has insisted on “America First” as a slogan to guide foreign policy. But that is precisely what almost all Americans, whatever their political allegiance, believed without having to shout it in unison at aggressive political rallies. Hearing the shouts and seeing the result of Trump’s application of the principle have made people — though certainly not his base — aware of the tragic absurdity of the well-established meme of America’s benevolent leadership of a world hankering to be just like the US.
Is Trump “fit” to be president? He proved himself fit, in the social Darwinian sense of the word, to win elections and to get people, including the liberal media, to kowtow to him where it counted. For it is the media that continues to promote the idea of America First, though they believe that their version is more human than Trump’s. And the profoundly disappointing denouement of the Mueller report, contradicting what the Democrats thought was proof that Trump was committed to “Russia first,” has opened a new path to the re-election of a president deemed to be deeply unworthy as well as unfit.
As for May, as the seconds tick off toward the closing bell of the final round of the Brexit bout, most of her own party as well as the entire opposition, to say nothing of the negotiators from the European Union, are “fit to be tied.” Whatever happens, it is likely, at best, to be a split decision; at worst, a double knockout. But even with a split decision, the future looks grim, not just because the economic forecasts have for the first time made it clear to the British people that it will cost them dearly at a very personal level, but because any vestige of trust in the political system and the people who populate it appears to have vanished beyond any hope for redemption.
So these three stories — of Algeria, the US and the UK — though completely independent of each other, according to an internal logic particular to each one, “fit” together in an odd way during what will certainly be seen in the future as an odd moment of history. Similar phenomena are coming to the fore in Emmanuel Macron’s France, in Matteo Salvini’s (or perhaps Giuseppe Conte’s) Italy, Narendra Modi’s India and Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan, to say nothing of Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, which in many ways is the most extreme example but paradoxically the most stable over time.
None of them have worked out what “fitness to govern” might actually look like.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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