He might have been more famous for Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Hook, or Mrs Doubtfire but for me, the best film Robin Williams ever made was Man of the Year. Like all the best films, it received overwhelmingly negative reviews and made almost no money. It tells the story of an American TV satirist and stand-up comedian (modelled on talkshow host Jon Stewart) who runs for the White House. He wisecracks his way around the country – and then wins. And then he steps down – saying he just wanted to make a point that more people should vote, spend more attention to living in a democracy, then hands over the reins to someone else.
The film was on late at night a few weeks ago, and I caught the end of it. Then I switched over to Fox News, to see what mistakes America had made in the last half an hour – and there was Donald Trump. A small part of me still hopes we’ll wake up one day and he’ll have gone – got bored, gone clinically mad, or the Republicans might break with centuries of tradition and kick out all the racists. No, Trump just keeps going, and I suspect he won’t tell us it was all a joke like Williams did. He’ll stride into the Oval Office and start pressing the buttons.
“Democracy is a joke,” announced the Chinese government earlier this month, “Just look at Donald Trump!” Somewhere in the greatest democracy in the world – ‘murica, a Republican Twitter troll stabbed his keyboard, and wrote “YEAH BUT IRAN!”
The astute readers will note that Iran and China are different countries, but they’re not in the right-wing American imagination – they’re lumped in there with North Korea, Russia, Cuba, and the enigmatic “Iraqistan”. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this gang of Stars and Stripes loons the Yeah-But-Iran brigade – and they’re the ones that have ruined America, not Donald Trump. If anyone criticises American democracy – the stock response in Washington since Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech has been “Try going to Iran, then see if you think America has a bit democracy.”
These are the people who reply “Yeah but Iran!” when you query why it can cost between $500 million and $1 billion to become President of the US. They reply “Yeah but Iran!” when a recent study by Princeton University showed America was an oligarchy not a democracy. They cough “Yeah but Iran!” when asked why being Catholic, Muslim or Jewish is fair game for negative campaigning, and “Yeah but Iran!” again when President Jimmy Carter told Oprah Winfrey last year that the introduction of secret money into American politics meant the democratic process was now a complete sham.
So how healthy is America’s democracy? She may have a generally free press but it’s barely functioning as an accountability tool – caving to profit-making incentives rather than producing public-interest journalism. She may claim to have an independent judiciary – but the political appointment of Supreme Court judges and the fame motive of county prosecutors are appalling. She may claim that everyone has the vote, but an office on Wall Street does appear to give certain individuals more votes than others. And she may claim to offer equality to all citizens – unless you’re Mexican, Muslim or not a Bible-thumping Protestant who doesn’t own a passport. And let’s not get started on Guantanamo Bay.
The American elite (media and political) have spent so much time criticising other countries – comparing themselves to torrid dictatorships as a way to make themselves feel good, they’ve forgotten to tend to their own. And like all things American – this comfort-blanket attitude to democracy is spreading. Israel compares herself to obviously undemocratic neighbours in a bid to justify the poor state of her own democracy. The UK is currently attempting to teach “British Values” in our schools; no doubt this will create the same false sense of comfort about how wonderful we are. France claims to be a democracy but her government has spent the last six decades lying about her collaboration with the somewhat undemocratic National Socialist Party of Germany – and, sure enough, racist parties like Fronte Nationale are still a beating force in Paris, Marseilles and beyond.
And that’s what you get if you’re response to legitimate criticism is “Yeah But Iran,” ‘Yeah But Saudi Arabia,” “Yeah But Islamic State;” a proto-fascist like Mr. Trump, slipping in the back door while Republicans obsess over how wonderful they are. It’s OK, real democracies don’t resort to violence to settle political disputes. Except perhaps America, which already has more guns per capita than Yemen…
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.