Barely two months ago, I had a dinner in New York City with an American journalist, and I cannot forget his view about the presidential election.
“I don’t care what the polls say, that guy can’t be the president of this country,” he declared, a furrow defining his disgust. His tongue could not lift the name of “that guy.”
A week later, at lunch in the remodelled Union Station in scenic Colorado, another journalist showed less cheer. She, however, voiced dismay to me at the pro-Trump ascendancy. Both are journalists of over 40 years standing.
They saw an America that was morphing from an old virtue. An old virtue of civility, of mutual respect.
That virtue drowned in a resounding splash last week. Donald J. Trump of the swagger held sway, a one-man insurgency spiced by a raw vitality. He put a whiplash on the American pulse and those who doubted him woke up around the world on Wednesday morning to the triumph of a barbaric impulse.
The White House will indeed be tenanted by a new person in January, and it will not be the first United States woman president, but the man with the toupee, a puffed face and sometimes cartoonish face, a sardonic turn of phrases, with a baseball cap, with a crowd that hoots and jeers gleefully, with a juvenile energy, a billionaire who never respects women nor pays taxes, stiffs investors and employees, mocks a globalising economy but fattens on it, etc.
So, a day after, many wonder how the strongest and wealthiest nation in human history ended up with such a man as leader. But it is part complacency, and part ignorance. We have idealised America. It is a land that flows with milk and honey, where the good always triumphs over evil, where John Wayne always beats the bad guy, where Tom Hanks shines in a dark plot. They gave us Internet, aeroplane, television, Facebook, google, fast food. They coalesced forces to roast Hitler and other emblems of human backwardness. Coca-cola. Starbucks. Star Wars. How could they now vote a man that condones pugilist Putin, the nuclear-thumping dwarf of North Korea, plots to install a wall, calls Hispanics rapists, shows open contempt for blacks, would initiate mass deportation, etc.
But as the tallies finally flowed in, we discovered that this was an election in which white America decided to hug their own. But was this not the same country that voted in a black man just eight years ago? Yes, and that’s very American. It is a country that is at peace with rolling back its earlier chants. Remember Walt Whitman, its poet of democracy? He wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Yes, I contradict myself…I am large, I contain multitudes.”
But a remorse set in quickly after the Obama boon. Mitch McConnell led the Congress Republicans to boast that Obama would never get anything through Congress. They would paralyse. Not long after, a few whites banded together in Washington to inaugurate the Tea Party, a movement that became a launch pad that derailed the Obama years, inspired nativist resurgence and threw up such bigoted heroes as Ted Cruz. They lay the foundation for Trump.
The Americans who gave Trump victory had clutched the electoral college. Those who lost gave less emphatic gesture: the majority vote. So, the contradiction is in, and we have to live with it. If we go through U.S. history, it is all too familiar. He said he wanted to make America great again, a code phrase for a return to a white America. I see parallel with America of another president, less known to many Americans and even to Nigerians. He is Andrew Jackson. The similarities are striking. Jackson rose on the common-folk white instead of property rights in earlier years. He focused on whites of the Anglo-Saxon stock, just like Trump. In his electoral slugfest against Dukakis of Greek origin, George H. Bush said he belonged to “mainstream America.” Reagan landed in Alabama and proclaimed that he believed in “state rights.” Jackson promoted what historians call “manifest destiny,” that called for setting apart certain areas in the west for the whites to explore and work. He was to the Indians what Trump is to American Hispanics and all immigrants. He railroaded a law that allowed him to sweep all Indians from their residences with whites into reserves, and they packed their all in long walks and travels that left many of them and their children dead. The road has been called a “trail of tears.” He had a trail. Trump promised a wall.
That part of America rose again in different times in the U.S. history. In the 1960’s, Governor George Wallace of Alabama ran for president and called for segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” And another candidate George McGovern’s slogan “Come Home, America” is a precursor of Trump’s disdain for Pax America and the jettisoning of alliances around the world.
In a text message from the ebullient governor of Borno State, Kashim Shetima, a perceptive point is made. He writes, “by his pronouncements, Trump’s doctrine will rest on isolationism, non-interventionism and protectionism. In essence, other’s problems should be America’s…” He was also right when he wrote that “it was white America striking back…the thumping down of the American spirit and unwinding all the gains of 50 years.”
But there are other points. While we expect great from America, we should at home muse over our own troubles. The whites fight back but in our local elections, we are no better. Not long ago, we lit with delight as we corralled Ghanaians out of our shores. We vote according to what tribe or religion the candidate professes. We should not be too hard on the Americans. We are no better. In the last Lagos State elections, the Southsouth and Southeast folks gave the impressions they could outvote the indigenous Yoruba and impose their choice. The indigenes coalesced and had their day.
We are trying to indigenise rice production, the same way Trump wants the jobs back from China. It’s a nativist impulse that arises in any people when they feel threatened. This is the dark side of human impulse, and Trump tapped into it. Demagogues always do.
A critic has said Trump did not mean his rhetoric. Others took it literally rather seriously. But his followers took it seriously but not literally. I hope so, because that’s how I saw Soyinka’s red card promise. W.S. is a dramatist, and I saw the theatre once he uttered it.
Trump is a businessman, and many critics have said, he will run a transactional government. He hypes it, calls for the skies, but settles for something acceptable. We hope, in the end and for the love of all, we get something less apocalyptic than we heard on his hustings.