Good Night, Mr. Trump


In a few days time, America’s meritocratic political system will present a bulky casualty. Mr. Donald Trump will in all likelihood fail the examination of a system that really scrutinises those who aspire to lead the nation. As the various polls indicate, the American electorate have largely scored Mr. Trump badly. All that showmanship and posturing will end up in a concession speech which Mr. Trump’s elephantine ego may be too reluctant to make. But the prospect of a President Trump is dead on arrival. In about one week, the first Woman will ascend the most powerful political leadership position in the world.

Perhaps all this was a well-choreographed drama of heightened expectations by a consummate businessman with eyes set on profit than on political supremacy. In a revealing expose in summer 2015, The Times of London disclosed that the last person whose counsel Trump sought by a phone call before he decided to run for the presidency was Bill Clinton. All that now belongs in a past that prepared the world for this moment.

The unlikely prospect of a Trump presidency was minimally nightmarish and even apocalyptic. In his ill-digested bid to ‘make America great again’, Mr. Trump spent a whole campaign year regaling his countrymen and women and indeed the whole world with glimpses of a tragedy foretold and a disaster in the making. He was going to build a wall at the US-Mexico border at Mexico’s expense to keep illegal Mexican immigrants- a cocktail of assorted criminals- away. He would shut out unwanted aliens especially Muslims from the United States and subject those who must enter to a series of ideological pre-entry tests. An anti-immigrant task force will come knocking on nearly every door to fish out and deport undocumented immigrants from the US irrespective of whether their off spring are bona fide US citizens.

His prospective international menace was even more frightening. He would let nations with the means — South Korea, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia etc. — acquire and use nuclear weapons if only to reduce America’s financial burdens abroad. He openly admired Vladimir Putin and regretted the liquidation of Muamar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein! It is of course true that America’s foreign policy for a good part of the 20th and early 21st centuries has not been too rewarding to others. In pursuit of its national interests abroad, America has blundered variously. It has felled bloody dictators only to vicariously erect dangerous armed bandits in Iraq and Libya for instance. It has destabilised whole regions and upset traditional balances of power in Vietnam while problematising territorial disputes like over the South China Sea. But on balance, the United States in the post World War II period has been more an agent of global order than that of instability.

On the domestic front, Trump may have had a few disjointed welcoming sound bites about bringing back American jobs from Mexico and China. He probably forgot that US manufacturers shipped their operations abroad in search of cheaper labour and lower production costs following the aggressive unionisation of labour in the Ronald Reagan days. He could be excused for appealing to the popular sentiments of the unemployed for political advantage.

But the revelations about his moral indiscretions especially in his relationship with women are inexcusable. In the life of a normal male, it is perhaps healthy to stroke some breast here, thump some buttocks there or steal a peck over there, if done with mutual consent behind closed doors. But for a wealthy man to abuse his power of money and celebrity to prey on women as a sport is a reckless assault on and debasement of womanhood. To proceed therefrom to seek the most powerful office in the world is arrogant insensitivity writ large.

Mr. Trump’s singular qualification for seeking to lead the free world is his credential as a businessman. He endlessly brandished an unverified net worth which he personally put at over $10 billion. Subsequent scrutiny suggested Mr. Trump might be worth only about half that figure when you factor in all manner of accounting and exposure inconsistencies. He is still rich by any standard but his endless bragging about his wealth is very un-American in many senses.

That is the nation of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart whose choice location was behind the shop till and whose favourite vehicle was a pickup truck. That is the nation of Bill Gates, easily the world’s richest single individual who still drives himself to work and who resisted that Microsoft should buy a business jet just to ferry him to and from meetings around the world. Not to talk of the great Warren Buffet who has lived in the same modest apartment almost all his life in spite of a net worth that is over five times that of the egocentric loud-mouthed Trump. Let us not talk of the younger really wealthy Americans like Mark Zuckerberg with his $38 billion, who is so enamoured of his jeans and T-shirts that he hardly varies the colours!

In a nation that has long been greeted as the bastion of global capitalism, the minimum expectation is that anyone who hoists a business credential would at least pass the minimal tests of compliance and relative transparency. Not for Trump. He refused to disclose his tax returns and the brief details that the media sneaked out indicated that the man had not paid personal income tax for close to two decades while the maids and janitors in his gleaming high rise hotels sweated to pay personal income tax from their starvation wages.

For capitalism and American business, Trump remains a sad advertisement. Inherent in the crisis of global capitalism today is a certain moral crisis. The crisis is inherent in the global inequality, which the triumph of the capitalist free market has engendered all over the world. While capitalism has created immense prosperity for the top 2% of Americans, it has left the vast base of the pyramid frustrated, impoverished and dejected. Capitalism is therefore under severe moral pressure to don a more human face, to show greater social responsibility and indicate that the end of profit can still be served if employers of labour show a greater compassion for the welfare of their employees. I am not sure Mr. Trump understands these higher truths.

Not for Trump the nuanced refinement of political rhetoric. Not for him the depth of knowledge on policy issues or indeed the higher ideals of diplomatic candour. He shot straight from the hip or groin whichever prompted him first. I doubt that he understood the imperative for the future leadership of the United States to provide leadership in mitigating capitalism’s risk of latent self-destruction. Instead, he would pursue policies of protectionism, shutting out immigrants and competitive trade arrangements with other countries, agreements that enabled American business to embrace global competitiveness. He would erect trade and tariff barriers against China, Japan, Mexico and practically every other nation that his narrow perspective saw as a threat to America’s economic supremacy. For the United States, this meant a recourse to the early 19th century populism of Andrew Jackson who appealed to ‘the common man’ or the protectionist isolationism of the 1930s associated with men like Smoot-Hawley and Charles Lindbergh.

Even if Trump were to be the finest of businessmen in America, the contest that he waded into remains first a political one. The rules of business and those of politics are divergent. A businessman who decides to go into politics must first learn the idiom, methods and idiosyncrasies of politics and politicians. Trump began to fail the moment he decided that he would introduce the methods of his brand of business to change American politics and politicians. He said he wanted to straighten out Washington. He would get Congress to rubber stamp his whims, caprices and prejudices; he would make ‘great trade deals’ on behalf of the USA, the way he had done for Trump Incorporated. He would deliberately overdraw on the national debt and then default (or declare serial bankruptcies as in his own businesses) in order to negotiate a discount later etc. In short, he would bring America back to ‘profitability’ or greatness a la Trump Incorporated.

But alas, no one in his nebulous campaign had the courage to tell Mr. Trump that nations are not businesses. They are political entities that exist to manage the expectations and meet the needs of the greatest majority of diverse peoples. Nations are successful not when they make a ‘profit’ but only when they are managed by politicians to meet the greatest expectations of the greatest majority.

By their nature, nations and their governments are wired to do things that would look stupid to business leaders and the boards they serve. Governments build big houses that no one would live in or asked for. They waste big money on silly elaborate ceremonies that feed the pomposity of state occasion and sate the idiocy of officialdom. If you subtract the foolish things governments pay for from the sensible few things they do, nearly every government in the world would return a profit in a business sense. But government is government: a carefully structured and universally licensed and accepted foolery.

Of course Trumpism as a decadent variant of conservatism has had its followership not just in the United States but elsewhere by other names. Its primary appeal is the urge to constrict national spaces and resources to a native square. The nation state becomes more or less a tribe of narrow-minded demagogues, a playground for opportunistic troublemakers and part time political rascals intent on hacking down the traditional establishment. The rhetoric is a drive for ‘change’ from politics as usual to political anarchism. It demolishes but has no plan to reconstruct.

The ready and lazy excuse is that global recession with its attendant unemployment, inequality and declining opportunities has made it imperative for nations to retract inwards in the direction of primordial, even nativist reflexes in order to protect their own. Unfortunately for the likes of Trump, the strategies for pursuing Trumpism would necessarily include racial intolerance, anti-immigration, xenophobia, torture of terror suspects and a regress to legitimised authoritarianism.

In the case of Trump and the United States, however, the pursuit of policies and rhetoric that promotes these negative values run counter to the bedrock of the founding vision of America. America was founded as a nation of immigrants, a place of great diversity and immense opportunity for those ready to work. Its strength and purpose derive from these fundamental values, which have catapulted it in a quarter of a century from an experimental nation into a global civilisation. It was designed as diverse, expansive and inclusive force for global good, not as shrinking bastion of smallness and meanness.

Trump and his brand of conservatism represent a threat to America’s founding principles. He put forward and spent one year canvassing this ideology of shrinkage and meanness to the pleasure of a minority of unschooled Americans most of whom have little or no idea of global geography. This was rather to the discomfiture of the vast majority of decent Americans: Women, Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists and persons with college education whose demographics overwhelm Trump’s misguided malevolent crowd.

There is therefore a larger sense in which the imminent US presidential election can be seen as a referendum on Trumpism. The imminent rejection of Mr. Trump at the polls would be a loud rejection of his decadent brand of conservatism. Already, the reversals in the British economy as a result of Brexit are lesson enough that xenophobic rascality of the sort that has come to be associated with politicians like Trump and his friend Nigel Farage of UK’s UKIP have no place in a world that shares common misfortunes and seeks common triumphs.

•Dr. Amuta is Chairman, Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd, Lagos, Nigeria