The world and many Americans are reeling in shock and anxiety at the election of Donald Trump as the next president of this mighty, but deeply disunited and disoriented country. All, but a handful of, opinion polls pointed to the victory of the incomparably experienced Hillary Clinton, to the historic possibility of electing America’s first female president. But they were utterly, unforgivably, embarrassingly wrong. They couldn’t pick up Trump’s ‘silent majority’ of ordinary white voters, not just the unapologetic alt-right that quietly cheered on the boisterous candidate, who openly said in public what Republicans and racist whites say in private.
The postmortems will be brutal on the other failures of America’s collective imagination that resulted in this stunning election result: on the rapacious role of the media in selling Trump for ratings and earnings; on the shortfalls of the candidacy and campaign of Hillary Clinton; on the relative turnout rates of the Trump and Clinton supporters; on the perfidious role of Russia, Wikileaks, and the FBI. In this popular American political sport of endless punditry and second guessing, few will take real responsibility for having enabled Trump, few in polite circles will own up to having voted for Trump, much as many whites in South Africa denied ever having been ardent supporters of Apartheid as the noxiousness of the system attracted international opprobrium.
Americans chose Donald Trump, a dangerous buffoon, ill-prepared and ill-tempered for any serious job, let alone the presidency of a superpower, even if it’s one in decline. It is no prediction to expect that America’s slide into global ignominy will accelerate under Trump’s predictably inept leadership and the country’s apparently irreconcilable tribal polarizations. What does it say about a country that could elect such an unsavory character; that could turn all three branches of government to the stewardship of the Republican Party; a party that should have forfeited its right to rule for its glaring political sins of bigotry, obstructionism, myopia and incompetence.
Countries get the leaders they deserve. Only a racist electorate could vote for such an unabashed racist candidate. Only misogynists could find such an irredeemable misogynist appealing. Only xenophobes could go for such a dangerous xenophobe. Only those who don’t realize American citizenship is premised on allegiance to an idea, not common bloodlines, can vouch for a proponent of racialized notions of citizenship. Only enraged and deranged white nationalists could pick such a frighteningly enraged and deranged white nationalist. Only nativist bigots and bullies could endorse such an insecure nativist bigot and bully. Only narcissists could show preference for a tax-dodging conman with no history of public service. Only unethical people could be attracted to a pathological liar and serial philanderer. Only those who don’t believe in the rule of law could support such a lawless man. Only deplorables could elect such a deplorable leader.
Clearly, Trump’s victory is a horrible reflection to the country itself and the world at large of the tragedy and farce that is America. The tragedy that such an unfit man could succeed America’s first black president, a man of such remarkable talent and uncommon integrity, decency and commitment to public service. In a revolting twist of fate President Obama will be replaced by the godfather of birtherism, the racist lie that Obama was not American-born, a real American. Obama’s legacy will be dismantled by his nemesis. The tragedy is evident in the country’s inability, and in the Euro-American world more generally as illustrated recently most graphically with Brexit, to deal effectively with inclusion, integration, and inequality; the inclusion of racial, ethnic and religious minorities; the integration of nations under rapid social change; redressing the inequalities engendered by the economic injustices and inanities of neoliberalism, the dangerous dogma that has reigned supreme since the turn of the 1980s and robbed tens of millions of people of decent livelihoods and even their lives, of opportunities and the promises of democratic society.
And so the increasingly pauperized and neglected social classes left behind by the draconian injunctions and destructive interventions of neoliberalism turn to demagogues adept at riding on the misguided fantasies of the common man; demagogues who rail against the establishment and old or new marginal others; demagogues molded from the same cloth of neoliberal zealotry that have wrecked the lives of working people and the middle classes; demagogues who are least able to resolve the crises of well-being for their fellow citizens.
This is to suggest that some of the biggest losers from the dangerous infatuation with Trump will be his most ardent followers. African Americans have never been major beneficiaries of America’s largess, not even under President Obama, nor have the millions of Latino immigrants who toil in the underbelly of the American agricultural and service economy. Trump will not “make America great again”, but will make it hate again with impunity. He will not bring back factory jobs that assured high school educated white men middle-class lifestyles. He will not restore their racist supremacy and deformed masculinities in a world so transformed by civil rights, feminist and gay rights struggles and victories in popular culture and imagination. Indeed these struggles will be given a new lease of life by the antediluvian values, attitudes and policies of the Trump coalition in the White House, Congress and the judiciary.
For the world at large, Trump’s looming presidency elicits different fears, perspectives and expectations. There are fears that post-war internationalism will be appended by isolationism as the United States, its champion, wallows in rabid white nationalism in a world where the ‘colored nations’ are on an inexorable rise. International trade agreements, the structural face of neoliberal globalization, are under threat from a potentially protectionist administration. The recent global compact on climate change, upon which the very future of humanity and our fragile little planet rests, will face renewed obstacles from one of the world’s greatest polluters. Some predict apocalypse that the Trump presidency will lead to the demise of the West as we have known it. Some even doubt the future of the NATO alliance under President Trump with his “America First” doctrine.
Rightwing populist forces will be emboldened, especially in European democracies already rocked by Brexit. Dictatorships will cheer the triumph of Trump, the admirer of dictators and an aspiring autocrat. Putin’s Russia that has done its best to influence the US elections through cyber destabilization will be especially enchanted. The shambolic and invective-ridden US elections have been godsend to Chinese propagandists about the bankruptcy of American democracy and superiority of the Chinese system.
The same sentiments will find expression in African and other democracies and dictatorships around the world. The structural and ideological underpinnings of US-Africa policy will not change much from the swings of the humanitarian and security paradigms that have been dominant over the past half-century. However, the developmental and democratic inflections that sanitized these policies in the last three Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations are likely to lose their currency.
Overall, the loss of the US democratic model may be a good thing for democrats and democracies in other parts of the world especially in the global South including Africa. The Trump conjuncture detoxifies democratic theory and governance from the intertwined tyrannies of American universalism and exceptionalism. It demonstrates the hollowness that there exist ‘mature’ democracies that African countries should import as turnkey projects. It opens up space for serious and creative construction of African modes and modalities of inclusive, integrated, innovative democratic developmental states and societies. With Trump’s election, everyone now knows if they didn’t before, that the American democratic emperor has no clothes. Let’s proceed to make our own democratic clothes befitting our histories, struggles and desired futures.
On a more personal note, I found the election of Trump shocking but not entirely surprising. Shocking because like many people I believed the polls. Unsurprising because having lived in the US for two decades I came to realize how deeply racism, sexism, and xenophobia are entrenched in American society and imaginary. That is why I was so relieved to relocate to Kenya when I was fortunate enough to get a university leadership position where I could do my job and live without the debilitating psychic costs of always defending my humanity and professionalism as a black person. But when I lived in the United States, whose citizenship I carry, I also came to value, and will always do, the traditions of struggles for a more inclusive union by the marginalized minorities and women. These struggles are likely to be rekindled and reenergized by the retrogressive and historically renegade Trump presidency.
History is indeed a house of many mansions, where tragedies open new avenues of struggle and possibility. The Trump presidency won’t be an exception.