By Osmund Agbo
There is a veritable cottage industry of hand wringing over the troubling state of American democracy today. Rightly so. Donald Trump, supported by his coven of witches, has been conducting a series of stress tests on one of the world’s oldest democracies. He and his cohorts are ceaselessly unleashing a barrage of attacks that strike at the very core of the nation’s great institutions.
Trump’s political career began with the advocacy of birtherism; the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and so unfit to be the president. But long before birtherism, the American government took him to court for fighting to keep blacks out of his buildings. At another time, he had called for the death penalty on blacks involved in the Central Park Five incident who were later on exonerated. Trump’s campaign was inaugurated by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against those he called Mexican rapists and was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “cucks.”
Though, no one widened America’s fault lines and profited off of it like Trump, in all fairness, the problem didn’t just start with the mercurial 45th president of the United States. It has long been years in the making and he just built a thriving business out of it. In his book “The People vs Democracy, the German-born American scientist, Yascha Mounk, described how the rise of populism is owed to a number of structural reasons, including the stagnation of living standards for ordinary people, rapid cultural and demographic changes, and the rise of social media.
Although Donald Trump’s name is most synonymous with authoritarian populism, the man who popularized this brand of neo-conservatism in politics was Pat Buchanan. The ideas that Mr. Buchanan hashed out in his campaign for president in 1991 was never that appealing to the impressive majorities that Reagan and Bush won in the 1980s, but it nonetheless, left the fringes to take the center stage as the core of the Republican party in the decades that followed, effectively dislodging Reaganism.
Pat Buchanan consistently railed against the American immigration system and called it disgraceful. He was the feisty, anti-democratic, outrageous, race-baiting figure that Americans came to know in the 1980s to early 1990s who drew inspiration from the campaigns of the Alabama segregationist, George Wallace, and David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Like Trump, he built his political reputation not through service but through media, a novel approach for a presidential candidate. In reaction to his surprisingly strong showing in the 1992 New Hampshire Republican primary, the Party adapted its platform to call, for the first time, for physical barriers which he called structures” at the border.
A good number of White Americans believe that whites today are facing persecution in a country built by their forefathers. Radio and television talk show hosts spend an entire segment openly propagating an unfounded replacement theory; the idea that somehow, blacks and other people of color are being primed to take over America from whites. At the core of Donald Trump’s supporters are disgruntled low income and sometimes middle-class Americans, facing poor economic prospects and disadvantaged by the rising tide of globalization. His populism appeals to them and they are ready to ride and die with him. They are also more than willing to take up arms in defense of white nationalism.
Trump and Bannon are both insatiable wolves who have no qualms profiting off of those that believe in them, trust in them and most importantly, support them with their hard-earned money. But many of their followers, either do not have any idea of who the men are or chose to ignore their infractions for what they represent to them. In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own. But not all his supporters are racists, white supremacists and ethnic bigots. With his uncommon brand of populism, some in and outside of America genuinely believe the man is out to save the world.
Trump is the only American president who has been in court more than out of court since leaving the presidency and faces a real prospect of an indictment and possible conviction. Bannon in August 2020, was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering in connection with a purported charity that raises money to build a wall on the US southern border. In a textbook picture of pay-to-play, Trump pardoned Bannon, sparing him from a federal trial. But the man is back and now facing fresh charges in a New York court for similar offences and was led away in handcuffs early last month. It turns out that in America, Federal pardons do not cover state offenses.
One of the key characteristics of populism lies in a leader’s belief that they, and they alone, truly represent the people. That explains why Trump has kept clashing with more than century old democratic institutions over the course of his presidency and after. Whenever he ran up against the limits of his constitutional powers, he balked at the idea that somebody else—a judge, a bureaucrat, or a member of Congress—could tell him what to do. He attacked the press who questioned him and attacked civil servants who worked for him. He admired dictators and shamelessly profited from his public office. He repeatedly lied to the public for his own pecuniary gains.
Faced with a choice between their president and the Constitution, a good number of Americans chose Trump and supported insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol. But it’s also important to note that a great majority of the population is horrified by these events. Even as congressional Republicans have mostly stood by their leader as he attacked democratic institutions, a great majority of Republican senators ultimately voted to certify President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory.
The difference between a functional democracy like the type we see in Europe and North America compared to the dictatorship in most of the global South is what the system relies upon to function well. Whereas the former has strong institutions that to a large extent protect the nations against treachery and manipulations of vile men in power, the latter relies on one man (president, king, supreme leader) or group of men.
Successful democratic systems, someone noted, are not designed for governments composed of ethical men and women who are only interested in the public good. If leaders were always virtuous, why then do we need to institute checks and balances in place?
On the argument over which one should come first between strong institutions and good leadership, we would be pursuing something similar to the chicken or egg controversy. That said, there is no question that no matter how strong a system is, it could be subverted by an immoral leader buoyed by a bunch of the unsophisticated. The matter of Donald Trump is a great case in point. Great institutions need good leaders who believe in them to work. Great leaders, in turn, rely on strong institutions to emerge. The roles are complementary.
Today, in the midst of uncertainties of whether or not American democracy would endure, the nation’s strong democratic institutions have come to the rescue. But systems and institutions desperately need men who are willing to stand up for them and make them work. The fact that Trump did not tear down the major guardrails of democracy does not mean that all is well with the old system in the United States.
Of all the solutions put forward to address these monumental challenges, implementing term limits for political office holders is the one way America can raise men with balls; those who could ride against the tide of authoritarian populism and protect the world’s oldest democracy.
In a democracy, I like to imagine the system as a woman that sired many offspring called institutions. This woman protecting those crucial guardrails of democracy, is the last man standing in America today.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com