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Trump and the limits of a ‘failed experiment!’

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In the torrent of thoughts on the 45th US President, Donald J. Trump, and his presidency, one line stands out in its clinical precision. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, January 17, 2021, former Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, said he hoped that the American people had learnt their lesson, i.e., that the entire Trump phenomenon was ‘a failed experiment!’ According to Johnson, ‘Four years ago, we engaged in a very dangerous experiment by electing someone who was utterly unqualified for office, who had no moral or legal compass and frankly had impulses toward fascism and autocracy.’

While the verdict of history on President Donald J. Trump and the mandarins of the Republican Party, who had the power to rein him in but chose to enable him, is self-evident and unmistakable, it was brought into bolder relief by the January 6, 2021 ‘Insurrection in Washington.’ This, willy-nilly is the one epochal event by which the Trump presidency, and what has come to be known now as Trumpism, shall be measured forever. As if to deliver yet another stunning verdict on this very unusual outing in public office, at least by Western standards, the death toll in the coronavirus pandemic, which could not have been more mismanaged, topped the 400,000 figure just before Trump exited office. How would history forget this, of a president who knew the gross danger of the virus as it broke out, yet lied to Americans, and by implication the world, that it was not as bad as the ‘fake media’ made it to sound, and at any event, it would soon fizzle out, ‘like a miracle!’ Suffice it, therefore, to add just a further perspective to the millions of pages that have been, and would still be generated on this enigma of a character, and player on the global stage; and what himself, in a rare moment of relative sobriety afforded by his farewell speech, characterised as, ‘not a regular administration.’

Mine of course, is not a political treatise. It is also not to absolve the US of guilt in its long years of gunboat diplomacy, which had seen to the destruction of far too many regimes – some of them promising, some despicable – across the Global South. It is to simply note the place of, and celebrate leadership, statecraft, self development, and character, including empathy and sensitivity to other peoples’ feelings on the part of leaders, in and out of government. These are the qualities Trump lacks, beyond measure! For sure, there cannot be too much vitriol directed at an unrepentant racist who could not even disguise his disgust and lack of respect for those who do not look like him.

Capacity gap
The bottom line to all of these is that Donald Trump was unfit for the job of president when he found the office thrust upon him. As one leading Nigerian newsmagazine, now defunct, I guess, said of a former leader, rather than grow to the height of the job that he had, Trump pulled the US presidency down to his own Lilliputian level. The rest is history; but recall that not a few players in the US political process made this point so coherently and succinctly during the 2016 run. I recall the warnings of people like Barack Obama who insisted that the man who would eventually succeed him was completely unqualified for the job; and who by some sheer coincidence, was running against someone described by the same President Obama in this profoundly humbling manner: ‘There has never been a man or woman, not me, not Bill (Clinton), nobody more qualified than Hilary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.’ Obama may have sounded hyperbolic in that speech, but no student of history should have any difficulty in concurring, that indeed, Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) in 2016, was unquestionably one of the best prepared ever, for the job of president of the United States! This, of course, does not suggest that all her ideas and policies are agreeable; but now imagine the irony of such a person losing an election (despite a three million popular votes lead) to a Donald Trump!

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It remains a contested terrain, but my hunch is that the racist and misogynistic currents that unfortunately run so deeply in the American society, as well as the very modest sophistication of the US electorate, precipitated that type of electoral outcome, which was to all intents and purposes, an embarrassment of sort. That Trump still managed to chalk up some 74 million votes in the November 2020 election, in spite of everything, is not too far from these realities. Also culpable is the presidential system of government, which alone could have thrown up a Donald Trump, and into the Oval Office! I make bold to aver that such a thing is hardly imaginable with the Westminster (parliamentary) system, which possesses the inherent mechanism to sieve the wheat from the chaff as everyone climbs the leadership ladder. Without any offense meant, I doubt if a Trump could have made it to the office of Prime Minister in Britain. He wouldn’t have, as the system would have purged him way before he got near the exalted seat.

HRC actually challenged Americans, in a manner that sounded now so prophetic, to imagine a Donald Trump in the Oval Office, directing US response to a crisis! Even those who had no overriding reasons to be partisan; people like Mitt Romney of the Republican Party, now a Senator; and the one who later made a 180 degree turn to assume the position of Trump’s chief enabler, Senator Lindsay Graham, were unequivocal in their assessment of the rookie politician that was soon to bestride the American public life for four years like a colossus. They referred to him as, among others, a conman, liar, misogynist, and fraud! I did an article for several Nigerian newspapers, which The Guardian, Thisday, and Vanguard published January 22, 2017, titled ‘From Obama to Trump: A helluva Transition.’ Therein I tried to project the nature of gangsterism Trump was going to wrap governance in, as well as the imminent disruption of the global order consequent upon his presidency. Four years on, so complete was Trump’s failure that not a few thought resignation, in the twilight of his presidency, was inevitable. Some even suggested suicide could not be completely ruled out – all, prognosis that fly in the face of Trump’s arrant lack of neither self-censorship nor shame!

The American Project
Somehow Trump got elected, with no record of exposure whatsoever to public service, at any time, in his entire life – not via the military, not the more conventional government bureaucracy. He got elected anyway, through an electoral system that now calls for serious review if the process is to move closer to the ends of popular democracy. So, Trump was effectively an outsider, with at best a fickle understanding of the nature of the US political process, and how it works. He does not even understand the totality of what can be characterised as the American project, and why the country has to do several of the things it does around the world. That explains why his style was as unorthodox as his lack of purchase on statecraft stank to high heavens. I mean, to imagine a US president rooted for NATO withdrawal from Germany; US pull out of South Korea; break up of EU; and a precipitate withdrawal of US troops away from the Kurds. All of these depict a president who had little or no understanding of the place of America in history. He could not understand that a country that makes up just four per cent of world population must do all of these, and more, if it must continue to consume no less than a quarter of all global resources. He does not know why US should be in Germany or Korea. He simply does not know, and indications are that Trump had his nose too much in the air to be taught by the experts, for whom he had little or no respect. He thus continued to blunder from pillar to post, pretending, as Michelle Obama aptly put it, to be doing the work of president.

All of these account for why Trump left office as arguably the most divisive of presidents the US has ever had. To imagine a US president would give so little regard to facts, and rather do what one of his most ingenious aides, Kellyanne Conway, dubbed ‘alternative facts,’ seek to put down critical institutions of US democracy like the intelligence apparatuses; disparage Americans in military service, including those that had paid the supreme sacrifice, as ‘sucker and losers,’ regard the media as enemy of the people; consistently bluff Congress and disregard its subpoena; wallow in the abyss of wanton racism and the most despicable of bigotry; and give voice to extremists that had long been on the fringe of society. At the end of the day, Trump sought to overturn an election that he had lost so resoundingly! These, under normal circumstances, would be unspeakable in the American political process! They were things no one could have imagined prior Trump. They depict a character model that was not thinkable for the big job in the White House – an institution Americans had, perhaps justifiably, showcased for more than two centuries as the very citadel, and bastion of moral rectitude. Trump blew all of those assumptions in four short years; and then sought to arm-twist the system to get for himself a second term! How dangerous for an American president who once lauded Chinese Xi Jingpin when the latter undercut his country’s constitution and did away with term limits. US President Trump tweeted that someday, Americans would want to take a look at that model – for possible replication, of course! With that, no one should say, truthfully, that Trump’s January 6th instigation of the ‘insurrection in Washington’ – which to all intents and purposes was an attempted coup d’état – came as too much of a surprise.

Resilience of American institutions
One thing that cannot be missed in all of these, however, is that it is a testament to the resilience of the American political system that it, by and large, succeeded in standing up to Trump. It made nonsense of his calamitous attempts to damage American democracy. At the time it mattered most, American institutions of democracy stood up as one and pushed an undeserving man to the exit door, and in a most ignominious manner, setting a record as the first president to be twice impeached, and this time, with a most bipartisan vote ever!

A couple of months ago, soon after he was unceremoniously thrown out of his position, former Acting FBI Director, Anthony MacCabe was unequivocal on CNN, on the prodding of an interviewer, that indeed, the US intelligence community had reasons to believe that Donald Trump had become a threat to America’s national security! For those who cared to listen, it was evident at that point that go, Trump must, from the White House. As if that was not enough, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, declared early November 2020, thus, ‘We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.’ On November 13, 2020, I remarked in a tweet that ‘The sense in General Milley’s averment is unmistakable. One has to be a rookie, a complete outsider, to the American political process to contemplate staking out a position against an election already won and lost.’ Trump, I concluded, ‘has zero chance of remaining in office beyond noon January 20, 2021.’

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The overriding point here, as I had demonstrated elsewhere, is that Trump is a greatly flawed character. It is trite that he did not leave America better than he met it – in terms of quality of public service, cohesion of the American society, the economy (beyond the interest of the 1%), race relations, projection of long held American values abroad, strengthening of the Atlantic alliance, and even in the Middle East where he constructed a ‘peace’ process that practically disregards the interests of one of the principal stakeholders – the Palestinians. I say it again, Trump’s foreign policy betrays the fact that the man does not just understand the American project. Simplicita! There is the temptation to think that he is successful to the extent that on his watch the US did not start a new war, but as I had noted in a WhatsApp commentary, it is very well known in the diplomatic community around the world – both at the levels of praxis and pure intellectualism – that the only reason there was no war in the Trump era, was because everybody saw in him a dangerous player, one who could, without compunction, fire a nuclear bomb! He had wondered aloud anyway, on the hustings, why America would invest so much in a bomb it never intended to use! Note the extent to which Europe went in carefully managing his handling of the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) to not spiral into full blown crisis. Not a few leaders of nations, many of them America’s traditional allies, made both public and personal appeals to Tehran not to escalate when Gen. Qasem Solemania was murdered on the say so of Trump. Thus, that the world is not at war is neither consequent upon Trump’s sagacity nor act of responsibility. It was because everyone knew they had to work together to stave off the real and present danger that a convoluted US electoral system inflicted upon the world. At home in the United States, the anti-war constituency was almost certain he would make a mess of a new war; thus the bipartisan initiative to make the three Generals – John Kelly, James Mattis, and H.R. McMaster – stay and ‘manage him’ for as long as practicable. The correctness of this position can be gleaned from the manner the self proclaimed ‘war time President’ fought the Covid-19 war.

The only reason the coronavirus pandemic is sweeping through the world today is the failure of American leadership. If the US, under Trump, were in its place, it would have moved swiftly to lead the world out of the crisis – as it did on Ebola, Zika, etc. That’s what global leadership is all about. One can go on and on about this unusual presidency, but suffice it to note that on his signature campaign lines – ‘build the wall,’ for which Mexico was to pay, dump the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), rein in North Korea and Iran – Trump didn’t deliver. The man failed in every respect; and he couldn’t have succeeded anyway, given his temperament, ignorance, egoistic nature, and moral depravity.

It is worthy of mention here that what many African pundits, who are so enamoured of Trump engage in, is false equivalency. As I had noted elsewhere, this is about taking up issues tangential to what is in discussion, just to moderate the easily recognisable limitations of the guy in question. This is akin to what in Nigeria’s popular media, was once referred to as Afghanistanism – a distraction from the real issues at hand! I had asked them these questions. Does the fact that America has historically conducted a violent foreign policy vis a vis many other countries make Trump’s racist outbursts or his misogynistic proclivities acceptable? How does Bill Clinton’s tryst with a Monica Lewinsky confer legitimacy on the arrant incompetence of a Trump? How does the fact that Reagan invaded Grenada equate destroying the basis of America’s global power (which you may not like, but can’t run away from) by trying to undermine NATO, destroy WHO during a pandemic; or withdraw from a global climate accord? How does Obama’s calamitous outing in Libya and Syria get elevated to the same level of an American President fawning over Russia – his country’s traditional rival and adversary of consequential proportions? What we are dealing with here is a morally repugnant character, who is not only so ignorant, but too egotistical to know or accept. The good thing is that, no amount of false equivalency can raise Donald Trump up, to the level of an hero, or paper over what he has come to represent in history. He is a man whom all objective, informed, and evidence-based analyses are casting as the worst president ever in US history! Virtually all US allies, at least the most consequential ones – on all continents, nations and organisations alike, expressed relief that Donald Trump ended up as a one term president, and one twice impeached.

The imperative of reform
All said and done, the truth is that the denouement of the US electoral and indeed democratic process had been long in coming. Now that Trumpism has made some of the more critical contradictions in the system quite obvious, the American political establishment must gear up for the needed reforms without which the integrity of the system would remain heavily compromised, and its whole survival put in danger. Although the former Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell, undoubtedly one of America’s shrewdest political operators, has noted that the pattern of the voting in the 2020 election suggested that neither party had the mandate to effect sweeping ideological changes, ironically, that precisely is what America needs at this moment. This is why it is good that the Democratic Party is not just now controlling the presidency, but indeed, Congress. That arguably gives the Party this critical mandate, and so unique an opportunity to move quickly, rally Americans together in the two years before the mid-term elections, and push through many of the reforms that would diminish the possibilities of Trumpism forever in the US political process. If the Dems fail to move in this regard, there may yet be fire still on the mountain, as their control in Congress may fizzle out at the mid-term elections in two years’ time. The possibility of a return of Trumpism would then not be completely unimaginable. This is the sense in Donald Trump’s hint that he would be back ‘in some form,’ as he made his final exit as president out of Washington DC.

There are a few lessons in all of the foregoing for us in Africa in particular, and indeed elsewhere. First is that democracy is a process, a journey, and not a destination. Every democratic system must therefore keep working on its democracy to deepen it. If the type of violent attack Trump and his henchmen undertook on January 6 was possible in the US, no country in most parts of the world is immune. Secondly, there is no system that is so solid that cannot be damaged by a determined bigot. That is why all hands must be on deck to keep such elements out of power. This was what the French political elites pulled through a few years ago when they quickly came together to prevent populist Marie Le Pen from taking power. In the runoff election that brought Emmanuel Macron in as president, all the more serious political tendencies sank their differences, and rallied the French nation away from Le Pen’s incendiary National Front.

The third lesson for all is that ultimately, the success of any system and institution depends on the acts of few very good people, individuals of conscience and integrity that are sold out to defending a system when it faces existential threats. Now, we’ve often heard people talk of the cruciality of strong institutions. The validity of this thesis has just been demonstrated in the manner the American system stood against Donald Trump’s thinly veiled efforts to damage it. It is, however, important to appreciate that strong institutions do not get built, but on the shoulders of strong, visionary, courageous and committed individuals (leaders). Strong institutions do not just drop from the skies; they are products of years of toiling and sacrifice by positively inclined individuals who, invariably, have got to be strong, and public spirited! Without those public servants across board – election management officials, the judiciary, media, members of the armed services, etc. – who stood against the shenanigans of Trump, the American democratic process would have been completely overwhelmed and laid to waste. So, while we pander after strong and resilient institutions, we must acknowledge that the route to strong institutions is great and strong individuals, who oftentimes have to be leaders – of peoples and processes. Institutions, by the way, are neither buildings nor departments of government. Rather, the concept, institution, speaks to the sacrosanctity of processes and procedures, of laid out laws and regulations, for getting agreed missions pursued, and outlined objectives accomplished, oftentimes in a polity.

The fourth lesson. Reforms are a normal process in any political economy. As nations, including those that had been at this for centuries, operate their constitution, certain imperfections become obvious. It doesn’t make sense denying such. What serious nations do is to isolate such limitations, from time to time, and address them comprehensively. It is all part of the process, which in American parlance is referred to as the drive ‘towards a more perfect union.’ Failure to do such, and at the nick of time, reproduces crises, some of which may indeed be of existential dimensions for the system. This is the sense in which the restructuring advocacy in Nigeria, for instance, with all its promise of inclusivity, must be thoroughly interrogated in the context of the desire for transitioning to a united and thriving federal Republic.

Prof. Femi Mimiko, mni, is of the Department of Political Science, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
E-mail: femi.mimiko@gmail.com. Twitter: @FemiMimiko


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