ENGAGEMENT With Chidi Amuta
In a matter of days, America’s democracy will self -correct and present a bulky casualty. Mr. Donald Trump’s presidency is unlikely to be revalidated for a second term. As the various polls indicate once again, the American electorate seems poised to deal the disruptive Mr. Trump a merited ‘F’ grade.
The imminent calamity is unlike 2016 when Mr. Trump defied the projections of most pollsters to clinch an electoral college based victory. Then, he was untested and something of a fresh vacation from the humdrum predictability and boring correctness of political Washington. For most of the rural populace and the unschooled artisans and calloused work hands in rusty industrial cities, he represented something of a hope for the renascence of classic America as it once was. Now is different. He has presided over the world’s most powerful and richest nation for four turbulent years mostly with tragic consequences. Mr. Trump is leaving the White House in smoky a trail of serial disruptions, scandals, epic incompetence and divisiveness.
In many ways, Mr. Trump’s imminent humbling is more than a personal travail. Democracy itself is on trial. So are the many issues that define its credibility and global preference. Even Alexis De Tocqueville, the French writer and definitive authority on American democracy (Democracy in America) did not foresee the aberration that periodically, democracy will present a defective outcome. The people will go out to elect a leader who ends up as the opposite of their best intentions. Ironically, only democracy can correct its own mistakes at the next election. In many ways then, this US election is a classic test of democracy’s self -correcting capacity.
The dastardly rehearsal for the impending anti climactic moment for Mr. Trump is the last four years in which he literally subverted the most powerful political office on earth. For a rare moment in the history of the world’s beacon of democracy, the electoral process had produced a president who was a cross between a third world autocrat and 19th century European fascist dictator. While Trump held sway, the world held its breadth out of the fear that a highly unstable deviant genius in the White House could press the wrong button on the nuclear code with dire consequences for mankind. Every moment of the Trump presidency was minimally nightmarish and sometimes apocalyptic.
In his ill-digested bid to ‘make America great again’, Mr. Trump spent a whole four years regaling his countrymen and indeed the whole world with glimpses of his troubled mind and arguably demented vision. It was a tragedy foretold and a disaster perennially in the making. Perhaps the greatest triumph and vindication of the liberal international order that was instituted after the Second World War is the fact that the world survived the disruptive tsunami of the Trump Presidency and now looked poised to reestablish a disrupted world order.
For four years, the world has been treated to a quaint mixture of adolescent bluster and crude reality television entertainment as political leadership. Where his support base and the rest of America expected purposeful conservative leadership, Mr. Trump offered an overdose of unthinking posturing and showmanship. In a country where fact and statistics constitute the bedrock of governance and public policy, Mr. Trump offered an unrelenting cascade of lies, half truths and phoney figures to back up claims fueled more by a bloated ego than realities on the ground.
To Trump’s curious credit is the emergence of the novel concepts of ‘alternate truth’ and ‘fake news’. Under Trump, fiction came to compete with fact as the currency of public affairs. The credibility of the media as an institution of free democratic society came under systematic and unrelenting assault. Not even the American political establishment was spared the scalding marks of the Trumpian blitzkrieg. He routinely insulted the leadership of the Democratic party just as much as he disoriented and astonished the leadership of his own Republican party. By the pre- election convention of the Republican party in 2020, the party of Ronald Reagan had shrunk to the party of the Trump family. Over 70% of speakers at the convention were either members of Mr. Trump’s family or his direct cronies.
Yet it is in terms of serial policy failures and administrative incoherence and mayhem that Mr. Trump is most likely to be remembered. In four years, he failed to fill more than 60% of jobs in the US government system. He hired and fired key White House appointees with the regularity of underpants. Renowned professionals, decorated generals and other persons of high repute who came to serve under his administration either left in frustrated anger or were unceremoniously humiliated out by the temperamental fits of an egotistic president.
His campaign promises ended up more as advertisement pay off lines than well thought out policy propositions. He was going to build a wall at the US-Mexico border at Mexico’s expense to keep illegal Mexican immigrants out of the US. 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 went knocking on doors in search of illegal immigrants before a court halted Mr. Trump. Never in the history of the United States has the policies and executive actions of any president been subjected to such serial litigation in various courts as under Trump.
His international disruptive value was endless. For a nation whose history is rooted in a network of alliances and alignments across the globe, Trump ended up converting more allies into potential adversaries in four years than American has known in 75 years after World War II. His personalization of foreign policy was bound to escalate global tension. In an unusual transactional approach to foreign policy, Mr. Trump sought to make nations pay for their international defence and security obligations especially within the NATO orbit.
Mr. Trump failed to realize that as US president, he was the inheritor of the historic burden of sustaining global order and security as handed down by successive presidents since after the Second World War. By rolling back the bulwark of US security guarantees to its allies, Trump was literally permitting nuclear capable and wealthy nations like South Korea, Germany, Japan nd perhaps Saudi Arabia to develop the appetite to acquire and use nuclear weapons. He made no secret of his admiration for all manner of autocrats and dictators to the discomfiture of time honoured American values. He openly admired and worshipped Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jung Un and Mohammed Bin Salman.
It is true that US foreign policy has often had a destabilizing effect on parts of the world. It has felled bloody dictators only to allow the rise of dangerous armed factions in Iraq, Libya and parts of Syria. It has destabilized whole regions (the Middle East) and upset traditional balances of power in Latin America (Venezuela, Cuba) while problematizing territorial disputes like in Yemen and over the South China Sea. Mr. Trump’s temperamental diplomacy merely exacerbated these trends and made the world a more dangerous place.
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 unionization of US labour in the Ronald Reagan days. He could be excused for appealing to the popular sentiments of America’s rural folk, farmers, rust belt technicians and non -college majority for political advantage.
Trump’s appeal to base instincts of racism and white supremacy weaponized American society against itself. He inherited a relatively united country and a healthy economy from Barack Obama but ended up creating a divided nation in which skin colour and systemic racism ignited a series of clashes and civil protests. In a belated attempt to appear like an advocate of law and order, Mr. Trump employed the strong arm tactics of autocratic dictators to quell the very riots and protests his divisiveness had ignited. He called in federal troops into the streets of Washington and other troubled cities to teargas peaceful protesters. He vicariously supported police brutality and the frequent street executions of mostly black citizens for minor infractions in various cities.
Revelations about his moral deficits especially in his relationship with women are legion. Nearly every high profile defendant in cases involving sexual offences and financial crookedness in America in the last four years either involved a Trump associate or made mention of Trump’s links with the accused. Mr. Trump’s all too frequent flirtations with all manner of criminal schemes ended up sending more than half a dozen of his associates to jail for offences ranging from perjury, forgery, money laundering to multiple campaign fund infractions. Mr. Trump’s closeness to these convicts was sometimes so close that only the of his office prevented him from being thrown into jail.
Mr. Trump’s singular qualification for seeking the job of US president was his over advertised standing as a successful real estate businessman. He endlessly brandished an unverified but over bloated net worth. Even then, he mystified his tax returns and muffled his massive exposures to banks. Though Mr. Trump’s endless bragging about his wealth remains very un-American in many senses.
This, after all, is the nation of Sam Walton, founder of the Wal-Mart behemoth whose choice work location was behind the shop till and whose favourite transportation was a pickup truck. It is the nation of Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest single individuals who still drives himself to work and resisted that Microsoft should buy him a business jet 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. Let us not talk of younger really wealthy Americans like Mark Zuckerberg with his $38 billion net worth, who is so enamoured of his jeans and t-shirts that he hardly varies their 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.
Mr. Trump brought into the White House his personal creed of ‘transactional everything’. Not for him the nuanced refinement of political rhetoric. Not for him the candour and modesty of high office and immense power. Not for him the depth of knowledge on policy issues that should guide the business of governance let alone the higher requirements of diplomatic candour needed in managing the world’s most powerful office.
I doubt that Mr. Trump understood the higher need to protect capitalism from its own excesses. Instead, he proceeded head-on to pursue policies of protectionism, isolationism and shutting out immigrants and competitive trade arrangements with other countries. Some of these agreements had enabled American business to embrace global competitiveness. He would erect trade and tariff barriers against China, South Korea, Japan, Mexico and even Canada only to replace them with unworkable lopsided transient arrangements. 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.
Of course Trumpism as a decadent iteration 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 long standing institutions of state. The rhetoric is a drive for ‘change’ from politics as usual to transactional politics, a shorthand for political anarchism. It is an autocratic populism that demolishes but hardly has a plan to reconstruct.
In the case of Trump and the United States, however, the pursuit of policies and rhetoric that promotes isolationism and shrinkage run counter to the bedrock of the founding vision of America, a robust civilization founded by immigrants with a global world historic mission and vision. 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 creedal nation into a global civilization. It was designed as diverse, expansive and inclusive force for global good, not the bastion of smallness and divisive meanness that Trump reduced it to.
In America’s presidential system, the title of “Commander in Chief” has more than a ceremonial purely military meaning. It places on the shoulder of the president the burden of defending and protecting the nation from every threats: military, climatic, epidemiological and even doctrinal. Unfortunately for Trump, while he was busy retooling America’s awesome war machine for strategic military eventualities, the Coronavirus struck. It was perhaps the unseen enemy of this virus that has dealt the lethal blow to the Trump presidency. Owing squarely to Mr. Trump’s recklessness and plain incompetence, the US has recorded the highest figures of infection (over 9 million) and death (9over 225,000) of all nations of the world. Mr. Trump’s leadership in this historic national emergency is a grave embarrassment to the world’s richest and most advanced nation.
There is therefore a larger sense in which the imminent US Presidential election is a referendum on the Trump presidency. The imminent rejection of Mr. Trump at the polls would be a loud rejection not only of his decadent brand of conservatism but also of his embarrassing incompetence. It is the fitting punishment for a commander in chief who could not protect himself, his family and the White House from a virus that small nations had under control.
From the myriad negatives of the Trump Presidency the road map for the first term of the imminent Biden presidency have been sketched. Even if Mr. Biden had no agenda of his own, just a serial reversal of most of Trump’s footprints is work enough.