Ever since I first visited the USA, in the days of Kennedy's cardboard Camelot, I've loved the country and hated a lot of its politics, including some of its politicians. Its self-styled conservatives are often radical fanatics of the Right. Its noisiest liberals can be streaked with intolerant fanaticism, and were so long before Hillary Clinton listed many simpler souls as 'deplorables'.
I have no love for President Trump, though I have felt more disappointment than hatred ever since his inaugural address aggressively spurned the opportunity to bind up some of his nation's self-inflicted wounds. But there isn't enough recognition, whether within the United States or among critics and candid friends outside, that neither President Trump nor those who love to hate him created all the problems which his style of politics has aggravated.
Some of problems which intensify the 'culture wars' of American society have obvious solutions. The Democrats might find a candidate for 2020 with the potential of F D Roosevelt in 1932 – even though no such hero is yet in sight. Unlikely as it seems, the old-style Republicans (now reinforced by Mitt Romney in the Senate) might, if Trump's presidency becomes untenable or unbearable, muster the strength and will which they conspicuously lacked in the 2016 primary season. Many of those who probably voted for him as the lesser evil – among them my conservative American friends – view him with a mixture of distress and perplexity. They are, as the Rodgers and Hart ballad once put it, 'bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.' And there is another faint hope: just possibly tactical judgement or weight of years might mellow Trump as he seeks, or even wins, a second term.
But there are deeper problems of American government and politics which are being both aggravated and obscured in the way that so many of the battle-sites in this 'culture war' are grouped around the president's policies and his abrasive style. They are problems largely overlooked or sidelined in liberal America's present obsession with the politics of racial and sexual resentments. For the USA remains trapped by the problems of its archaic constitution. Because it is a written constitution, written a long time ago, it needs to be creatively and continuously re-interpreted to serve as the fundamental law of a modern nation. It may even need to be distorted, because parts of it are precisely worded in response to late 18th-century conditions and arguments which are no longer relevant.
Freedom of religion (or irreligion), and the relation of the public powers to 'faith communities,' have to be related to words stemming from the disestablishment of a denomination. Gun laws for urban jungles and suburban badlands are considered as if they had constitutional relevance to the demands of mainly rural and often frontier communities in Rip Van Winkle's time. An ancient constitution and elderly amendments have to be bullied into giving guidance on modern disputes about the law on abortion, marriage, and equal opportunity.
One inevitable and obvious result, apparent long before Trump's time, is that the courts and judges, especially the immovable oracles of the Supreme Court, not only determine the law but define the course and limits of legislation. Over many years there has been a judicial takeover on matters which would be more appropriately settled by congressional legislation, recurring elections, and the less than absolute presidential power of veto.
A less obvious result is that the extreme politicisation of judicial appointments – evident both in nominations and obstruction of them – threatens to make nonsense of the vaunted theory of the 'separation of powers.' The threat is not mortal, for judges whose politics eased the way to the bench remain lawyers at heart and may like to assert their independence of previous patrons, but it is one of several warnings of the dangers of written constitutions and the strange devices required to keep them flexible: an ugly situation not yet out of hand.
The same could be said of the presidency itself. It is both the symbolic focus of national identity (as the Crown is for us) and the tool or target of political faction. It is questionable whether it is now fit for both purposes. The English writer Walter Bagehot once famously suggested that a constitution needed dignified and efficient parts, by which he meant the British monarchy and the government carried on in its name.
The obvious charge against Trump is that his style risks being both undignified and inefficient and goads his opponents into a frenzy which does further damage to the country's harmony and reputation. But similar risks are inherent in the American system – evident from the time of Washington's successor, embarrassing in such different pre-Trump presidencies as those of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and overcome with some difficulty even in such notable reigns as those of Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and F D Roosevelt.
When Democrats and Republicans admit to the occasional difficulty of respecting the presidency and loathing the president they prefer to blame the tenants of the White House rather than the terms of the lease. Their attitude is understandable, given the difficult and ponderous process required to amend the constitution and the way American historians, political scientists, and journalists have all tended to celebrate the growth of federal government, the strengthening of presidential executive authority, and the suppression of any tendencies towards cabinet government or for secretaries of state to play prime minister. (It is perhaps a pity that the one who most spectacularly tried was W H Seward, who conspicuously underestimated the incoming President Lincoln.)
The young American Republic wanted an elected executive monarch on a fixed-term contract and its subsequent evolution seems to rule out not only a dignified above-politics presidency of the modern German style, but the French one, where even de Gaulle opted to devolve much of the work and some of the blame on to a prime minister. It is too late to change now.
The one area where some Americans, especially currently frustrated Democrats, seem ready to acknowledge flaws in an archaic written constitution for the Trump era is a possibly irrepressible conflict between demands for simple majority rule and the needs of federalism. Mrs Clinton got more votes in 2016 than Donald Trump, but not in the 'electoral college.' The Democratic 'popular vote' in the midterm elections deserved (say Democrats) more gains than were actually achieved – grumbling as British parties do when feeling ill-used by the ways or anomalies of our parliamentary democracy.
Were they to be writing a new constitution, the modern Americans would doubtless drop those legal fictions of electoral collegians gravely pondering how to cast their votes and they might argue whether Nevada should count for as much in the Senate as California or Texas. Even then, they would probably conclude that a federal union demands that states' rights take some precedence over direct democracy. But a new constitution would surely only follow a new revolution, no more likely to be provoked by the eccentricities of Donald Trump than of Bernie Sanders.
If Trump becomes unbearable he will be disposed of, as the much more capable Richard Nixon was, by the forms of law and constitution. If there is a Democratic administration after 2020 there may be some discussion and even initiative over direct election of the president but the process is likely to be slow and the outcome uncertain.
America has more immediate troubles to face. They are rooted in attitudes, divisions and resentments for which neither the Trump presidency nor the straitjacket of the ancient constitution can be directly blamed. The sad fact is that, at a time when the country needs a great conciliator and a truce in its 'culture wars,' it got a smooth-talker in Obama and then a provocative brawler in Trump.
We should pray for better times in the United States, softer words, and more sense on all sides – assuming that the Supreme Court has never ruled that such prayers threaten the constitutional separation of church and state.