ENGAGEMENTS With Chidi Amuta
The world has been aflame this week with expressions of consternation over last Wednesday’s political drama in Washington. The images of Donald Trump’s mob of irate supporters breaching the perimeters to storm the Capitol in Washington amounted to a wild desecration of the prime holy place of democracy.
By motivating and inspiring this hubristic act, Donald Trump was scoring a number of damning firsts: He staged and failed in a coup against a sitting government, the one he heads. He sponsored and inspired the invasion of Congress, the first time since after the invading British forces in 1814. He sought to overturn the result of a free and fair election that took place over two months earlier with clear results.
Understandably, the insurrection in Washington has shocked a world long used to seeing the United States as the citadel nation of liberal democracy. Understandably, the emphasis in responses to the chaotic drama has been on the plight of democracy itself as both a concept and a system. From Moscow to Beijing and from Tehran to Caracas, America’s adversaries have seized the occasion to gloat over the apparent devaluation of western democracy in its best place. Others have even used Trump’s questioning of Biden’s clear victory to doubt the integrity of the American electoral system. On the contrary, the best democratic nations in the world like France and Germany have condemned Trump’s actions while reaffirming their faith in democracy as a system, culture and tradition. The classic irony of this moment, however, is that on his way out of the front door of the White House, Donald Trump has vastly devalued and demystified the nation he vowed to “make great again.”
Perhaps the cumulative outcome of Donald Trump’s misrule and serial shenanigans can be seen as a consequence of a glitch in democracy. But strictly speaking, this can only be in the sense that Trump emerged from a presumably democratic process. On the contrary, the tragic failures of the Trump presidency are squarely the results of the foibles of one man, Donald Trump. He literally defrauded the system and rode on the back of democracy to foist his ill digested personal autocracy on the democratic edifice of America.
Of course democracy as a concept and a system cannot go completely scot free from the Donald Trump debacle. American democracy is built on the integrity and credibility of certain institutions on which the system depends first to select “fit and proper” leaders and, secondly, to run an efficient rule -based government that delivers good governance. In the emergence of Donald Trump as the candidate of the Republican party in 2016, American democracy failed. A system that allows a deranged demagogue to pass the test of personal scrutiny in its leadership selection process must hold itself responsible when things go awfully awry. That system or significant aspects of it must be overdue for internal revision.
The political party remains a cardinal pillar of democratic leadership selection. Every now and again in history, however, democracy delivers an illegitimate child. Adolf Hitler was one. Closer to this copy is Silvio Berlusconi, another licentious and noisy moneybag. Here was another, Donald Trump, a loud mouthed and unstable Manhattan real estate mogul with scant knowledge of world affairs or government except as a target for unrelenting vitriol and abuse.
The emergence of Donald Trump as US president remains a historical accident . Garrison Keillor wrote back in The Washington Post of 9th November, 2016 : “Raw ego and proud illiteracy have won out, and a severely learning-disabled man with a real character problem will be president.” Easily one of his signature verbal indiscretions was at the final presidential debate when he interrupted Hillary Clinton: “Nasty Woman!”
In the run up to the 2016 US presidential elections, the Republican primaries weeded out other more credible, ‘fit and proper’ persons to settle for Donald Trump. While the primaries lasted, all the negatives of a Trump candidature were on full display. He had not paid his taxes (business and personal) as and when due. He had frolicked with any number of women of easy virtue. He had made a series of recorded uncomplimentary and disrespectful comments on women and persons with physical disability. His associates read like a directory of the infamous and the crooked. His business practices had been proven to be less than transparent all around the world. His racism was copiously evident in both his previous pronouncements and treatment of employees in his real estate business. Similarly, his extremist views indicated clearly that he would lead a divided America. His lying streak was conspicuously evident in the statements he had made on the Obama identity issue, on Hillary Clinton’s controversial emails, on the multiple exaggerations and false claims about his net worth which proved to be vastly wrong.
In spite of this catalogue of personality and character deficits, the Republican Party went ahead to choose Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. That was the effective backdrop to the serial disaster and perennial danger that Trump became as president of the United States. From the outset, therefore, the political party as the bedrock institution for leadership selection in a democracy failed. Once elected, Donald Trump overran the party and replaced its leadership and bureaucracy with his cronies and personal faithful.
The party itself is now a victim of its oversights and systemic pitfalls. Never since the 1892 humiliation of Benjamin Harrison has the Republican party been so roundly defeated in the Presidency, Congress and Senate elections in one term. There is a cruel logic by which we can even say that the Democratic party never had a better campaign manager than Donald Trump!
Usually, when a political party suffers such overwhelming and humiliating defeat, it tends to reorganize and bounce back stronger as the Republicans did after Barry Goldwater was defeated in 1964 and the Democrats after Walter Mondale’s defeat in 1984. This time, there are doubts as Trump has weakened the party both organizationally and as a popular movement. It has shrunk into a bigoted army of white supremacists, dangerous extremists of all hues and gangsters with an unclear agenda.
For anyone who has followed Donald Trump’s disruptive presidency, the insurrection and desecration of the Capitol is thus the culmination of the failures of the Republican party and should come as no surprise. A presidency that patented itself as a blatant deviation of accepted norms of presidential conduct and serial violation of all civilized codes of political behavior was destined to unravel. It was destined to destroy both itself and the nation that gave it oxygen for four whole years.
In the process, America’s long established reputation as a bastion of democracy has been badly shredded. Its long held reputation as a place of law and order has also taken a bad drubbing with the images of rough goons swarming all over the hallowed corridors of the Capitol trending globally. The comparisons that came readily to mind were with backward Third World countries and banana republics where the whims of elected autocrats ride rough shod over the will of the people. It is from the depths of such dismal comparisons that America now has to salvage itself. Thus, President Biden now has the additional burden of rehabilitating the image and reputation of America as a credible place of democracy and respectable domestic and international leadership. Not to talk of the lingering social and economic depredations of an era haunted by a dangerous pandemic.
The most enduring test of the credibility of American democracy and indeed any viable democracy is the sanctity of its electoral process. That sanctity is a function of the guarantee of fairness, accuracy and reliability of results of elections. That process has used the combined force of tradition and technology over the years to establish a reputation with global acclaim. Therefore, when Donald Trump targeted the credibility of the 2020 presidential elections for unrelenting vilification, he was striking at the very heart of America’s reputation as a citadel of democracy. The assault on the Capitol was only an added step in a programme of self destructive private onslaught that eroded US national credibility and reputation both at home and around the world..
The rule of Donald Trump damaged global democracy in more serious ways than just the ugly images of this week’s Capitol invasion or the sustained onslaught on the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump signaled the rise of populism and renascent nationalism as a counter force to the long established liberal order. This alternative was propelled by a new rhetoric of extremism and the unleashing of the forces of populism, neo nationalism (‘America First’), aggressive protectionism, isolationism and the promotion of ugly identity politics. Suddenly, nativism, racism and exclusionism resurfaced in the language of nations. Populist autocrats came to power in places as diverse as Hungary, the Philippines, Mexico, Egypt and Brazil.
One outcome of this return of populism that has infected global democratic culture is the rise of mobs as a force of public opinion and mass protest. The mob as an irrational force of public protest is often fuelled by an equally irrational sense of entitlement which then dredges up racism, ethnicity, old style nationalism and all manner of ancient sentiments. Mobs patrol the streets, mouthing a new rhetoric of hate and separatism. Mobs speak mostly the language of violence and hate. In the national space, in the compelling defense of counter truths and contrary sentiments, opposing mobs emerge to defend their equally legitimate civil rights. The normal exchange of views and perspectives in a democratic society is replaced by violent clashes of rival mobs in the streets. At best, they hide under the general convenience of freedom of expression and right of protest. Security of public and private property is jeopardized while the official forces of security and public order are stretched to the limits. The public places of even well established democracies become battlegrounds for the rival forces of populist insurgency.
In the case of the United States, the rise of Trumpian populism has divided American society into factions and vicious tribes. White supremacists and extremist rough necks have emerged with confidence to challenge the will of a diverse polity. Emboldened by a presidency that champions and even sponsors their values, they have in the past four years waged a relentless combat in the streets of major American cities to reclaim the American heritage as their factional entitlement and racial heritage. This is the force that inaugurated the false narrative of stolen ballots and rigged elections. Trump and his acolytes sold this false narrative for partisan and personal gains.
At this transitional moment, the damage that Trump has done to America’s democratic credentials require three paths to restitution. First, the actions that Mr. Trump has taken against his country are consequential. In order to discourage future instances of such bad behavior, the system ought to exact clear personal sanctions on Mr. Trump. These should be both political and legal. The invocation of the 25th amendment that throws Trump out of the White House even if for the last one week of his presidency would put an end to his nuisance presence in America’s political landscape. The possibility of an impeachment process is ruined by a limitation of time. Even after he leaves office, Mr. Trump ought to be kept busy in the law courts especially for crimes like attempted treason, insurrection and sedition from which he cannot possibly pardon himself in advance.
Secondly, for the American democratic system, the major challenge is the reinforcement of political meritocracy in the leadership selection process of the political parties. For a political meritocracy that produced the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush Snr. or even Ronald Reagan to end up producing an abysmal Donald Trump is perhaps the greatest degeneration of contemporary American democracy.
Thirdly, for the incoming Joe Biden administration, the burden of remedying the destruction wrought by Trump must begin with bridging the social divides created by Trump. Thereafter, Congress must re-examine the weaknesses in the system that make it possible for the world’s most acclaimed democracy to allow for the emergence of a demented fascist authoritarian as president of the United States and leader of the free world.