The whole world was stunned by the January 6 storming of the United States Congress by a mob inspired by President Donal Trump whose tenure expires this morning.
With that attack and subsequent events, what is happening today in Washington can hardly be described as a peaceful transfer of power.
Not with the nation’s capital looking like a war zone. Some have said the green zones in Iraq and Afghanistan were probably not as militarised.
After decades of fighting terrorism abroad, the United States may have begun to take seriously the threat of domestic terrorism, which, in any a case has always been a virulent organism in its political ecology. Whatever eventually happens, the militarisation that is a disturbing feature of the inauguration of Mr. Joe Biden as president would be remembered as the beginning of that process.
In effect, Trump has burst virtually all the time-honoured American norms.
Meanwhile, the responses to the horrific footages of what happened at the Capitol on that day have come from allies as well as those the United States regard as “adversaries” on the global stage.
In particular, the responses from Africa have a tinge of undue self-flagellation. For instance, some Nigerians simply echo the American critics that the criminal action of the extreme right-wing supporters of Trump was reminiscent of “third world” politics. Some have even said Trump must have some “African blood” in him to behave the way he has done in the last four years of American history.
Public intellectuals have indulged, perhaps unconsciously, in this baseless Africanisation of the Trumpian tragedy.
This denigrating culture of tracing the ownership whatever that is horrible in human civilization to Africa should be categorically rejected by self-respecting Africans. There is simply no historical basis for this racist characterisation of the developments in American politics.
It is so unfortunate that out of sheer hunger for exogenous models, the African elite still looks for inspiration from even the ugly face of American liberal democracy.
Talking of historical parallels, there is no precedent for American citizens over-running the Capitol on the direction of the president. When a similar thing happened in 1814, it was the British that burnt the White House. In the case of the January 6 invasion, Americans citizens violated the Capitol and five lives including that of a police officer were lost.
Trump is not totally an aberration in American politics. He is a product of the contradictions which have laced through the history of his nation across epochs. The man is both a symptom as well as the cause of what’s ailing the American society and polity. So, it would be undialectical to say that Trumpism has no deep roots in American history.
Yes, it is advisable in the situation that observers should not approach the verdict of history on Trump in haste. A lot still needs to be studied and understood about what is happening to America.
Reflecting on the Cold War the British military historian, Michael Howard, cautions as follows: “Instant judgment always tells us more about the person judging than the situation judged.” In many respects Howard’s admonition is relevant in the American situation. After all, despite the incoherent campaigns he ran for the 2015 election, he won by virtue of majority of the electoral college votes even though his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, had more popular votes. For all his serial assaults on American institutions and values, more than 70 million people still voted for Trump in the last year election. The number of his votes is the highest scored by a candidate coming second in presidential elections in America. He got the huge votes despite the unpardonable incompetence displayed in the management coronavirus crisis in which hundreds of thousands of Americans had died. He ignored science and politicised the pandemic. Can you imagine Barrack Obama with such a performance in his first term and still winning another election?
The political base of Trump is endemically racist. His fascist supporters still believe the lie that the election was “stolen.” As the mob showed with their confederates flags and hangman’s noose on the Capitol, they were inspired by the legacy of racism in America.
America may have electorally got rid of Trump for now; but the indications are that Trumpism would flourish for some time to come. It is Trumpism that has crippled the moral strength of some Republicans in the Congress to defend the integrity of the institutions in which they are players. Trumpian enthusiasts have projected that the Trump’s fanatical base would determine the electoral fate of many politicians in the Republican Party. Now, the system of education that produced many of those who worship in the temple of Trump has been part of the American history.
Trump has legitimised racism by his words and action. But the systemic racism in the American society predates the Trump days.
Trump escalated the racial tension in the country. He called fascist elements attacking the Black Lives Matter protesters “good people.” He referred to the African continent as a “shithole.” He smiled at his supporters at a rally when they chanted “send them back” in response to some female American federal lawmakers of African origin who were critical of Trump’s shenanigans. These and other acts of Trump have only demonstrated in a more poignant way that America would have to come terms with the factor of racism that is deeply rooted in its history.
Last year, the Black Lives Matter movement drew attention to this question that has plagued the fabric of the American society for centuries. The voices of the multi-racial protesters reverberated in cities on both sides of the Atlantic. The memories of the Transatlantic Slave Trade were painfully evident during the protests.
The Trump campaign has contested the election in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan more fiercely than other states.
In those states the black votes are believed to be significant for Biden’s victory at the electoral college. The thugs who attacked the Capitol wanted to upend those votes in particular in favour of Trump. Trump asked an electoral officer in Georgia to “find” him some votes so as to defeat Biden!
Perhaps, the irony of the reference to 1876 by Republican lawmakers should not be lost on keen observers of the American scene. That year, a presidential election was disputed. The Democratic Party conceded the claimed votes of its candidate, Samuel Tilden to the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes. The federal government withdrew troops from the south that was under the control of the Democrats. The bitter consequence of that compromise was the end of the Reconstruction Era. The promise by the Democrats to protect the civil liberties and political rights of the blacks were not eventually fulfilled. At that period of American history, the Democrats operated on a platform of white supremacy. At the end, many black people were disenfranchised.
Besides, even the anachronistic system of electoral college and subsequent approval by the senate smack of huge democratic deficits. Why should the votes of people already counted by the legitimate election organisers be subject ultimately (even for ceremonious reasons) to the approval of a few citizens in the Senate. Trump attempted to exploit the loopholes in this electoral circumlocution with the abortive coup of his thugs. Besides, it is less than democratic that the candidate with the highest popular votes could still lose the election. That was the fate of Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2015; both of them were Democratic candidates. This is unlike the Nigerian system in which a candidate with the highest number of votes and who scores 25% of votes in 2/3 of the states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory is declared the winner. That appears a more straightforward and a more democratic process. By the way, it would be unthinkable in some quarters that there is anything America could learn from Nigeria. In such quarters, the natural order of things is for Nigeria to seek inspiration from America.
As a matter of fact, the turmoil of Trump’s final days was to some extent predictable; so also were the chaos and unpredictability that defined his administration that was largely run on Twitter.
The garrulous and incoherent campaigns of Trump spurred an observation in this column on November 16, 2015. That was a few days after the 2015 presidential election in the United States in which Trump emerged the undisputed winner and Mrs. Clinton congratulated him. The projection was made in the piece entitled “America’s Different Election,” as follows :
“In no way could the last week election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States of America be called a tribute to liberal democracy. The months of campaigns preceding the unusual election witnessed an egregious debasement of the much-advertised liberal democratic ethos of the West. “With the emergence of Trump, America has lost his claims to moral leadership of the world.
“A nation having as its Commander-in-Chief a racist, bigot and misogynist, at once, cannot be universally accepted as a moral and political leader. America’s unsolicited lectures about liberal democratic values, decent elections, freedom, globalisation, civility, humanity etc. will henceforth loose some audience around the world. As the African Legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, would put it, the rest of the world (especially the emerging liberal democracies) might soon be telling America that ‘teacher, don’t teach me nonsense’.”
Incidentally, a year before Trump’s election there was the publication of a book by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama.
As if he had envisaged the emergence of Trump and the political disaster of his final days, Fukuyama identified the “decay” of the American political system in the book entitled Political Order and Political Decay.
The scholar puts the matter like this: “Decay by definition is occurring in the United States today, and is the result of the intersection of two forces. On the one hand, American society has changed. It has become more polarized and class-ridden; Americans are sorting themselves out residentially in ways that make it easier for politicians to appeal to ideologically pure positions on the left and right. At the same time, there has been a huge increase in the number and sophistication of interest groups, which have been liberated from constraints on their rights to spend money on political campaigns by a series of Supreme Court decisions.”
Trumpism is a manifestation of the decay in the American political order.
The old idea of the role of the individual in history should be brought to the fore in pondering the Trump presidency which, according some polls, has the lowest approval rating ever. The West used to lecture African countries that they should build “strong institutions” instead nurturing “strong leaders”. In four years, Trump has almost pulverised some American institutions by infecting them with the virus of right-wing populism. The symptoms of institutional decay could be seen in police officers implicated in the attack on the Capitol. The virulent ideas have become so penetrating in American institutions that the National Guard had to be screened by another security agency because some men in uniforms were suspected to have links with the fascists.
Doubtless, strong institutions are important; so is the strength of character of the leader.
One lesson of the Trump era is that, over and by all things, a president should inspiringly give moral and political leadership in the substance and style of governance.
Racial and class divisions have always been part of American history. Trump has only worsened these contradictions.
President Biden, therefore, has his job cut out for him: he should work sincerely for the unity of his nation on the basis of social justice and in an atmosphere of peace.