The Trump Test for American Democracy ,by Simon Kolawole

I grew up being made to understand that everything about the United States of America was a model to the rest of the world. “In America” was a constant recourse in public discourse — whether we were talking about democracy, constitutionalism, federalism or public accountability. Anything American was the best for the world. It was one country where every detail of the life of a top public official, or an intending one, was examined by the media and the public. It was one country where if the president or governor was accused of impropriety with evidence, the next line of action was resignation. Even a stained presidential or governorship candidate would withdraw from the race.
I recall, as if it happened yesterday, the case of Senator Gary Hart in the run-up to the 1988 presidential election. He was rated as the frontrunner in the Democratic Party. Suddenly, rumours started popping up that he was having an extramarital affair with Donna Rice, a young activist. Although he flatly denied having liaisons with her and there was no concrete evidence beyond circumstantial facts, Hart had to withdraw from the race amid the unrelenting media scrutiny. The impression I got, even as a teenager with negligible understating of politics and political intrigues, was that America was a country where ethics actually mattered in the choice of public officers.
Let’s say the American democracy of today is not what it used to be and the adventure of President Donald Trump is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, threats it has had to navigate in centuries. As Americans prepare for the 2024 presidential poll, the whole world is watching how they will handle the “Trump Test”, which I would vaguely describe as when a rabble rouser, or — to be charitable — a non-conformist urinates on an established democratic order. Every system — be it political, economic, social or technological — must undergo its own crisis or face a litmus test at some point in time. It is a fact of human evolution. We cannot avoid or prevent it. We only have to navigate it.
The US situation is complicated by the fact that Trump’s opponent, President Joe Biden, is apparently not in a good state of health. He is 81. If he wins, he will be 82 when he starts a second term in January 2025 and will be 86 when his tenure ends. He is already the oldest to be sworn in — he was 78 in 2021, beating the record set by Trump who was 70 when he was inaugurated in 2017. To be clear, Biden’s problem is not his age. It is the uncertain state of his health, both physical and mental. His performance at the CNN debate, where he said many things that even his most loyal supporters admitted they could not comprehend, set off an alarm bell in his corner. This can’t be downplayed.
With Biden’s refusal to withdraw from the race — something we used to say only of a typical African leader who would prefer to be referred to as “late president” rather than “former president” — he appears to be putting personal interest first. Ageing is a normal human process and it is nothing to be ashamed of, strictly speaking. He can argue that while he has indeed had his moments, he has not broken any law — either legal or moral — and he can still hold his own. That is probably why he is insisting on remaining in the race despite his poor debate outing and unflattering stand in the opinion polls. It is now left to 160 million American voters and 538 electors to determine his fate.
Trump is currently favoured to defeat Biden in the November 5 election. And that really worries me. I will explain why — it has nothing to do with my political bias. Personally, I have become so disillusioned with politics, home and abroad, that I am no longer passionate about any party or candidate. In Nigeria, the mindless killing of nine youth corps members by a political mob in Bauchi in the 2011 general election killed something in me. I just can’t get over it. This has been worsened by the perennial deceit upon deceit in the Nigerian political games. I can’t deal. Abroad, the rise of far-right wingers and conspiracy theorists disheartened me. I have become a dispassionate onlooker.
I worry about the return of Trump mainly because many developing democracies look up to the US for inspiration and now they have bad examples to learn from. I was having a little discussion with someone who tried to justify some nonsense in Nigeria by saying “it happens even in America”. Before now, “in America” meant something good, something enviable. Role-modelling is nothing strange in the human society, whether at personal or national level. We compare systems and services and try to challenge ourselves to be as good as others. In my previous article, I compared the UK bureaucracy with that of Nigeria and challenged the government to reform our system.
Trump represents everything the typical African politician stands for: lack of values, disdain for accountability, emotional manipulation of voters, cheap propaganda and grandstanding. Ahead of his election as president in November 2016, Trump rode on anti-Islamic sentiments (he promised a travel ban on Muslims from some countries), racist messaging (“take back America” apparently because a black president, Barack Obama, was in office for eight years) and misogyny (he spoke condescending to a female interviewer and questioned if she was on her period). This was not the “in America” that I used to read about. In times past, he would have lost the election. No, he won.
During a pre-election debate with Mrs Hilary Clinton, he openly asked Russia to hack her e-mail. Ages ago, that was enough to cast him out of the presidential race or ignite voters’ revolt. No, he won. He was accused of sleeping with a porn star. He did not deny it. He was accused of saying he loved to grab women by their privates. He did not deny it. It appeared the more dirt was raked up about him, the stronger he became in the presidential race. His eccentric support base continued to grow and he kept saying the basest of things, tinged with fake news. Many saw him as an embarrassment to the US, but it mattered little as he got the strategic votes that he needed from his likeminded fans.
Being president did not mellow him or refine his character. He continued to say outrageous things, some blatantly racist. He described COVID-19 as “Kung Flu” — in obvious reference to its suspected Chinese origin. On national TV, he proposed ingesting Dettol as a treatment for COVID — right in front of disease experts. He was recorded allegedly asking for votes to be manipulated in the State of Georgia to help him overturn Biden’s haul in the 2020 presidential election. When he lost to Biden, he blatantly refused to concede, instead assailing the integrity of the ballot by insisting — without proof — that the election was rigged. That is exactly what a typical African politician would do.
Things only got worse. By convention, American states give all their electoral college votes to the candidate that wins in a state. Trump tried to break the tradition as his strategists sought to get some states won by Biden to split their votes. The height of it was on January 6, 2021 when the presidential results were to be ratified by US Congress at the final stage of the processes ahead of Biden’s inauguration. Trump’s supporters attacked the US Congress. Vice-President Mike Pence had to be smuggled out of the chamber. On social media, Trump described the political thugs as “patriots”, further hurting the emotions of families who lost loved ones in the unprecedented attack.
Out of office, Trump has had to face numerous criminal charges, including for fraud and paying hush money. He has been found guilty in both cases and there is still one more pending on the January 6 attack on the Congress. However, there is no law in America than bars a convicted felon from running for president. The laws were made probably under the assumption that convicted felons would not entertain the faintest thought of contesting. In the America of yore, a candidate would drop out of the race on moral grounds — even if there is no legal justification for it. That was what “in America” used to mean to me. But Trump, like a typical African politician, is testing the limits of the law.
If Trump is returned to the White House, it is not just that the credentials of American democracy will be endangered. It is not just that the stock of rabble rousers will rise. It is the cheap excuses and dangerous motivation it will offer the anti-democracy elements in Africa and other regions of the developing world that I worry about. We saw how President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil tried to copy from the Trump playbook during his tenure. We saw how his supporters attacked federal government buildings in the Brazilian capital after he was defeated in the 2022 election — a clear imitation of what the Trump thugs did in the US. Such “in America” modelling is a threat to the rest of the world.
In truth, American democracy has been suffering body blows for a while — long before the Trump adventure. The judiciary is highly partisan, exemplified by the Supreme Court judges who hardly reach verdicts on the basis of justice but rather on political and religious biases. The 2000 presidential face-off between George W Bush and Al Gore was settled by the Supreme Court justices based on their partisan leanings, not the facts of the case. The court has just granted some immunity to Trump — awarding him a get-out-of-jail (pun unintended) bonus. Meanwhile, Congress impeachment proceedings are hardly guided by a moral compass but fundamentally by partisanship.
Truth be told, democracy is facing a crisis globally. But it has been mostly about representation and accountability. Citizens are disenchanted with their representatives and think the current system is not serving the people well. A Trump comes along and rides the waves. Still, the Trump crisis is in a league of its own. It is about character. He has no shame. The Leader of the Free World — as Americans love to call their president — could be a convicted felon who is fully sold to Machiavellianism. In a country like Nigeria where democracy advocates are struggling to promote ethics as a core requirement for leadership, expect the shameless politicians to imitate Trump.
The Labour Party, led by Sir Kier Starmer, has comprehensively defeated the Conversative Party in the UK general election. The manner of the victory was so chastening it could be termed a humiliation. I think the Tories paid the price for the scandal-ridden reign of Boris Johnson. The message from British voters was more like “enough is enough” or “anyone but the Tories”. It reminds me of the Change campaign of 2015 in Nigeria which was “anyone but Jonathan”. However, Starmer has been mostly ambivalent on critical policies regarding tax, immigration and healthcare. I won’t be surprised if Britons are on his neck by this time next year. He should enjoy the euphoria while it lasts. Politics.
In Nigeria, most of those who make initial comments on a national issue and stir long-lasting controversies often have two things in common: ignorance and mischief. The hysteria over the Samoa Agreement is my latest evidence. Nowhere in the agreement is any country mandated to apply LGBTQ+ rights. Yet, the internet has been in a frenzy. Many commenters have not read one word of the agreement. I know that 2027 politics has fully commenced but I think our politicians and their supporters should spare a thought for the peace of this country. In any case, we banned same-sex relationships in 2013 and there is yet no evidence than our lives are now better. Remarkable.
When you say it is peace and safety, then a sudden destruction descends. Suspected Boko Haram terrorists suicide-bombed funeral and wedding ceremonies in Gwoza, Borno state, last weekend, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. Suicide-bombing had ceased for a while and we focused our energies on fighting insurgency — which is more conventional and territorial. But terrorism is tricky as the element of surprise is always there. Soft targets are always vulnerable. Are the insurgents so well cornered now that they are forced to change tactics? Are we entering a new phase in this war? Whatever it is, the security chiefs must return to the drawing board. The war is not over. Evidently.
Mr Amos Daniel, a 36-year-old driver, recently confessed to journalists that he stole his employer’s car on his first day at work and then testified in his church that he just bought a car. “I was employed as a driver. The first day I was employed, I stole my madam’s car to go and give testimony in church that I have bought a car and it is what God has done for me,” he told the media after being arrested by the police. Imagine the full volume of “Hallelujah!” in the church after his testimony. In many churches today, the evidence that you are serving a “living God” is cars, houses and bank account balances. But to steal a car and then testify in church thereafter is another level entirely. Wonderful.

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