Politics in the Age of Trump


I arrived here in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Tuesday for the second “Fellows Alumni Reunion Conference” of the Harvard University Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs with the theme, “Confronting New Realities in an Uncertain World”. With experts drawn from within Harvard and around the world, we will spend the next three days engaging such issues as Europe After Brexit; The Middle East in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring; Is Globalization at Risk?; Africa in 2016: Challenges and Opportunities; China in the World; Religion and Politics; Latin America at a Crossroads; Trade in the Current Election; Human Rights and International Politics; Putin’s Russia; The ‘War on Terror’: Responding to ISIS and Other Global Threats as well as Broadening Social Inclusion and Resilience in Successful Societies. However, as interesting as those issues are, I am almost certain that the dominant topic would be the United States presidential election coming up next Tuesday.

It is interesting that when the first reunion conference was held in April 2013, it was dominated by discussions over the terror attack at the Boston Marathon which prompted a lockdown of several towns within Massachusetts on the second day of the event, as we were all marooned at our hotels and places of abode. With our session this year coming less than a week to the American presidential election, the dominant issue will most likely be Mr. Donald Trump and what he brings to both the American and international politics.

Whatever happens on Tuesday night, as far as this election cycle is concerned, the Republican contender is already the star of the show and the impact of what he has done in this year-long campaigns will reverberate across the world for many years to come. Trump has practically legitimised so many things that were hitherto considered anathema for those seeking political office. He has advertised nothing but vulgarity about women and his wealth. He has promoted hate speech, bigotry and name calling, not only of his opponents but even of the physically challenged. He has offered empty platitudes in place of programmes. And he has publicly boasted that he could even commit murder in broad daylight and such egregious act would not affect his rating at the polls. The sad reality is that, in a way, it is true!

Following his victory at the Republican Nomination earlier in the year, Jonathan Freeland wrote a brilliant piece for ‘The Guardian’ of UK titled, “Welcome to the age of Trump” where he argued, and I agree completely with him, that whether he wins or loses, the rise of Trump reveals a growing attraction to political demagogues across the world and points to a wider crisis of democracy. “…this fury is not confined to the US. There are versions of it surging across the world, hot with wrath at the status quo. In almost every case, those voicing it claim to be speaking for the people and for true democracy. But in their most extreme forms they threaten to shade into something darker: a revolt against the norms, the agreed boundaries that make democracy possible”, wrote Freeland.

Even if Mrs Hillary Clinton—another unpopular contender whose main support base is being driven more by opposition to Trump than enthusiasm for her—eventually wins, the damage done to the image of America in this election cycle will take many years to repair. Now, the world knows elections can be “rigged” in the United States not only by the media and vested external interests but also by such institutions as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The greater damage is that Trump has given ammunitions to autocrats across the world whose creed has always been that in seeking and retaining power, only the end should justify the means. It should also worry us in Nigeria.

On one of those online political forums that I belong, a respected former senator wrote last weekend: “With what the American EFCC (aka FBI) has done to Mrs Clinton, it is now clear that politics is the same everywhere and we are not doing anything wrong in Nigeria.” If we want to stretch that further, the argument would be that “with what Trump is doing in America, it is clear that politicians are the same all over the world so Nigeria is no exception to excesses.” In aspiring for leadership, Trump is now the new normal!

For sure, a serious interrogation of the leaders on our continent will reveal that many of them have sought and retained power using the Trump template. It requires no rigour since in any political arrangement, there are always constituencies that feel alienated by “others” which they usually blame for their woes. The difference between “Them” and that “Others” could be in the colour of skin, the religion they practice, cultural affiliations or social status. Politicians like Trump, who populate Africa, have no qualms verbalizing the anger, hate and resentment of those groups to advance their own careers while dividing the people along dangerous fault-lines.

In rallying such base, people like Trump know the buzz words. He will send the immigrants away. He will take America from “Third World” back to First World. When he becomes president, shop workers will go back to saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”. Here, I must state that as a Christian, I also feel irritated when I hear Happy Holiday rather than Merry Christmas but does that now make Trump the champion of the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? Does he even understand the essence of that faith?

I am not to judge but if his comportments are anything to go by, Trump cannot be a Christian—at least not by his works. Or for that matter, his words!
In his new book, “What is Populism?”, Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University and a Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, interrogated the rise of Trump and others like him who use “We versus Them” rhetoric to mobilize support. And it is worrying that such extremists are moving from the fringes to becoming the dominant force in many countries.

Earlier in the year, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland posted a shocking result at the German regional election. In France, the Front National has in recent years been steadily gaining grounds. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is on the ascendancy, securing 18 seats, second only to the ruling regional conservatives at the last election. Last year also, the far-right Danish People’s Party (DF) finished second at the general election after winning 37 seats in the country’s 179-seat parliament. In the course of the campaigns, its leader, Pia Kjærsgaard said most remarkably that she did “not want Denmark as a multiethnic, multicultural society”.

Following the Brexit vote in May, I had written about how the British referendum could embolden right wing politicians who are spreading hate and intolerance around the world. “Indeed, the result may echo significantly in the United States where Mr. Donald Trump, the erratic Republican candidate for the November presidential election, was one of the first to congratulate Britain for ‘taking back their country’, in apparent reference to the anti-immigration sentiment that fuelled the Leave campaign and is driving his own aspiration for the Oval Office,” I wrote then.

Now, the world has only six days to find out. But perhaps because so much seems to be at stake in the election, not only has the American media taken sides, political partisanship has been taken to an unprecedented level. It’s almost like the Trump virus has infected several newsrooms in the country. Yesterday, the New York ‘Daily News’, for a second time in 12 days, splashed across its front page this bold caption: “Damn Right, We’re With Her! News double down on endorsement of Clinton for president—it’s that important”.

In the four-page editorial that follows inside, the newspaper repeated its earlier words that Trump is a “liar, thief, bully, hypocrite, sexual victimizer, and unhinged, self-adoring demagogue.” All those big words to describe just one man! Yet, notwithstanding such resentment that Trump has attracted to himself from the American establishment, he still commands a huge following that could be a disruptive force after the election even if he, as it looks increasingly likely, loses on Tuesday.

All said, the real challenge with the new populist movements spreading across the world is that their leaders simply prey on the weaknesses of the establishment to rise to power only to showcase their essential emptiness. But it is very troubling that we are witnessing the ascendancy of divisive demagoguery of the sort that can plunge the world into an unintended global conflagration. It is likely to begin with divided national societies, torn apart by the negative forces of racism, xenophobia, bigotry and intolerance.

That then explains why the thought of a Donald Trump at the apex of global power with access to the most awesome arsenal that humanity has assembled dramatises this fear even further. Therefore, even as a non-American, it is my hope and prayer that Trump loses come Tuesday.

Web Portal Searching
Following mails from readers about how to access my old columns, it is now possible to search through my work on the web platform by using the search box at the bottom-left menu bar. Interested readers can search through contents using the title of the article, keywords or phrases from the article. Meanwhile, more of the 2003 columns have been uploaded for the benefit of readers.