By Dr. Chidi Amuta
The United States presidential election in November is looking more like a referendum. Though intended as a democratic ritual, it could end up as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism. That at least is what the rhetoric and track record of the two most likely contenders now suggests. With his resounding victory in both the Iowa and New Hampshire caucus primaries, Mr. Donald Trump is galloping towards clinching the Republican nomination. Both Wall Street and Main Street America have in recent times been gripped by the trepidation that a return to the Trump nightmare is well within the realm of possibility come November.
On the other hand, an unchallenged Mr. Joe Biden is the undisputed choice of the Democrats. It is not just a disparity in partisan alignments that is tilting the election towards a referendum. It is the untidy manners and track record of Mr. Trump that is upsetting democracy’s apple cart in the place where it matters most. In the process, democracy in America seems to be on trial with the menacing silhouette of a home grown autocrat in the mIrror.
Mr. Biden has consistently presented as the candidate out to defend and protect classical American democracy. Somehow, the aggressive comeback campaign of Donald Trump has projected democracy and its very survival as the central issue of this campaign season. Ordinarily, Biden and Trump should have been dueling over abortion, the crisis at the border, unemployment figures, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the like. Biden should have been busy defending his policies and programmes in the last three years. But the re-emergence of a bullish Donald Trump has more or less made Mr. Biden the candidate of Democracy and no more. In the last campaign season, Trump gave Mr. Biden Covid-19 as a campaign gift and invariably lost the election to mostly on that account. Against a rampaging bull of a belligerent and autocratic Trump, Biden has no choice than to dig into the trenches as the mortal defender of democracy and the liberal heritage.
As things look now, Biden wants to protect and preserve American democracy as we have come to know it. The rule of law, respect for individual rights, diversity driven by the understanding of America as a nation of immigrants, belief in the sanctity of the ballot as the determinant of who rules America, the requirement for decency as the unwritten code of conduct of those who must rule the free world and, above all, the projection of American democracy as a beacon to the rest of the democratic world. Implicit in the ritual of America’s democratic election every four years is the understanding that each election renews hope in democracy and strengthens democracy as a universal aspiration that holds out a promise for the free world. Somehow, Joe Biden has come to be the personification of these values and aspirations as well as an inspiration to all those who hold America tacitly responsible for the survival of global democracy and the enlargement of the coast of freedom all over the world.
Mr. Biden’s strengths as a symbol of democracy are ironically embedded in his perceived weaknesses as a person. He is not a demagogue. He is not necessarily a charismatic orator nor an electrifying presence. But he is a reassuring grandpa figure, the adult in the room as he was indeed in the Obama White House. His calming composure and attention to details is compounded by his long familiarity and multiple roles in the history of American democracy and the highpoints of America’s exploits on behalf of democracy around the world. If indeed America needed am embodiment of information and experience on the challenges and triumphs of democracy around the world, Mr. Joe Biden provides a ready historical centerpiece.
However, many fear that Mr. Biden has not been sufficiently reassuring as a defender of democracy in terms of his performance on the job. The essence of democracy is ultimately in the ability of an elected sovereign to deliver on the expectations of a specific electorate. Mr. Biden is sometimes accused of the weakness that Mr. Trump frequently accuses him of. This can only be in the sense that his confrontation of autocrats has not been quite surefooted. He has largely ignored the baby tyrant in North Korea, been less than bullish in his psychological duels with Mr. Putin and has not quite campaigned openly against Mr. Trump’s anti democratic trail in America itself. He has allowed Mr. Trump to monopolize the use of fear rhetoric frighten ordinary Americans. In addition, a good deal of the economic recovery under Mr. Biden in the last three years has been rather tepid and reversible.
Mr. Donald Trump has become etched in the imagination of Americans and the democratic world as something of an enfant terrible of deviant democracy. Mr. Trump’s initial emergence was greeted with some excitement as a refreshing departure. A Manhattan business man was heading for Washington to infuse the can do ethos of American capitalism into the boring On the contrary rigidity of Washington’s politics of same old correctness. At that point, Trump was an embodiment of the American dream and dictum of “In Gold We Trust” was emerging as president. The assumption was that the pursuit of happiness through hard work and the building of wealth would lead to the spread of prosperity for all hard working Americans through the example of a different type of President. After all, Trump was reputed to have built his humongous wealth and prosperity through hard work and entrepreneurial bravado. No one knew what a Manhattan real estate entrepreneur would make of the White House. But the risk fitted into the adventure prone American mass psychology. “Sure, why not?, was the refrain in bars, restaurants and subways.
Mr. Trump looked at Washington and saw mostly a political swamp that needed to be drained. And he assigned himself the task. Between the White House and the Capitol in Washington, there is a cultural assumption that the politics of American democracy is a cultural ecosystem in and of itself. Washington has its meta language, its traditions, its conventions, codes and manners. Mr. Trump was aware of the outlines of this political ecosystem but said he was determine d to replace same old Washinglton with a new spirit. But he had no name for his new system nor had he thought it through in any systematic way. He was later to come face to face with it in a historic collision that left a political and physical carnage. By the end of his turbulent and chaotic first term, America was a junk yard of its former self and no where near the threshold of a new republic.
His first catastrophic tenure ended up enthroning an American version of illiberal democracy. To a large extent, he came to embody the antithesis and corollary of classical American democracy. Mr. Donald Trump was stubbornly recalcitrant, unrepentantly rebellious and unrelentingly bullish in his affront of the best traditions of democracy. He constantly sought to bulldoze his views through Congress, adopted abuse and insult as his standard political language. He posited the demagogue and thug as the archetypal leader, a model from the authoritarian play book.
In his choice of leadership models around the world, Mr. Trump consistently showed a clear preference and open admiration for the worst autocrats and dictators. His chosen models have been Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jiping of China, Kim Jung Un of North Korea, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Tayeb Erdogan of Turkey. Against these authoritarian models, he has excoriated the past leaders of his own country like Barrack Obama, George Bush Jr. and the Clintons. He cherished and admired the traditions and habits of dictators including reckless abuses of human rights. He openly admired elaborate parades and open displays of military power like those in Moscow’s Red Square and imperial France.
Most leaders who crave a second shot at power usually show signs of some repentance or maturation in their intervening period outside power. Not for Donald Trump. It would instead seem that the last three years have only served to reveal, through the American judicial system, the real tragic essence of the identity of Donald J. Trump. He has faced investigations for storing classified official documents in the bathrooms of his Florida Maralago mansion. He has faced countless judicial indictments over his role in the January 6th mob invasion of the Capitol. He has been indicted for lying abut the net worth of is businesses. He has been variously indicted for a business campaign funds in payments for the services of porn artists and for defaming and harassing numerous women. His serial indictments for electoral offences in a number of states are on record just as some states supreme courts have ruled him out of the ballot in their states. The vast majority of lawyers who staked their reputation and professional careers to defend or associate with Trump have ended up in jail themselves. Only Trump, courtesy of the elastic immunity of his office as a former President is still walking free but vastly injured and deformed. Yet, America’s rule of law provisions and strict judicial codes have not yet established anything that could possibly stop Donald Trump from standing in the November elections as the candidate of the Republic party. The man remains fit to run for as long as he is not yet in prison uniform.
Yet there is an undeniable level of populism that has trailed Donald Trump ever since his chaotic first tenure ended. For a president who was impeached twice by the House of Representatives and only saved by the Republican Senate majority, his political base remains strong. It is a base of the vast majority who probably never went to college, work long days in factories, live mostly in rural America and are predominantly white, cocooned in the illusion that America was once the exclusive homeland of white middle America. They dream of a land with little immigrants, that abhors persons of colour and those who do not look like them. But that is an illusion, a myth spurned by Trump and his mobs of rough thugs and supremacist bands.
In pursuit of his bigoted image of America, he has set up and inspired any number of white supremacist militias and street terror gangs. He has promoted any number of toxic conspiracy theories and pioneered countless divisive loyalties. The Proud Boys, QAnon, Make America Great Again (MAGA) Brigade etc. In response, other groups like African Americans and Hispanics have set up self defense outfits and groups (Black Lives Matter etc), creating a very divided nation out of what used to be a multicultural and integrated nation of diversity. Even in his Republican party, Trump has splintered the GOP, alienated the mainstream Republic party elite and driven them to fringes of silence. The mainstream of the party is now occupied by Donald Trump and his attack dogs and racist thugs.
Trump’s belief in electoral democracy begins and ends with elections if they end up re-anointing him as ‘winner’. For him, ‘winning’ in a democracy is triumphing over opponents and vanquishing political “enemies”. This is why he stopped at no excess in meddling with the presidential elections of November 2020. He endorsed all manner of conspiracies, election meddling antics, and open attempts at rigging which led to the fiasco of an attempted ‘coup’ of the Capitol invasion and storming of January 6th 2021.
What is remarkable about Donald Trump’s career to date and which has converted the next election into a virtual referendum is that he has hardly changed in his rhetoric, beliefs, defining warfare concept of power and overall style. He has remained insolent, abusive, uncouth and thuggish as ever. More dangerously, Trump has remained unrepentant in his divisive views of the American nation. He wants to shut the borders, preside over the largest immigrant repatriation and deportation in American history. He has branded immigrants from Africa, Latin America and nearly everywhere else as toxic presences who are ‘poisoning the blood’ of his phantom pure idyllic America. The implicit racism, bigotry and decadent nationalism are right in your face.
The implications of a relapse into Trumpism in the United States for the rest of the world are too stark and frightening to contemplate. Trump will throw Ukraine under the bus and celebrate the triumph of Putin’s “Mother” Russia even if only to annul the emergence of Zelensky as a global super star and hero. The Palestinians had better forget their lifelong dream of an independent homeland. He will return to North Korea with a more elaborate utopian computer animation of what the Hermit kingdom will look like in return for dining with America. The hope of African countries (“S…hole countries”) for greater economic leverage in a new world of free enterprise and democracy would end up in the thrash can. An endless trade war with China will rage and bring world trade to a standstill. Europe will pretty much be on its own on world affairs, deprived of America’s historic trans Atlantic solidarity and support with which Europe stopped Nazism, Fascism and communism on their tracks for the decades after World War II. NATO would be deprived of American money if only to strengthen Putin as a counterweight to European strength and expansion.
China, Russia and their allies in the emergent axis of evil are waiting with optimism for the return of Vladimir Trump to the White House. That would give authoritarianism a major leverage in the the coming world contest between liberal democracy and authoritarianism.
But the statistical reality both globally and in the United States is hugely in favour of the triumph of democracy and freedom. The inevitable defeat of Trump in America’s November elections will herald a setback for the advance of authoritarianism as a counter force to the global wave of democracy.
Dr. Amuta, a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic, was previously a senior lecturer in literature and communications at the universities of Ife and Port Harcourt.