A Despot in America

I am despondent and in shock after Tuesday night’s election results in the U.S. I had thought I would wake up Wednesday morning with a narrow Clinton victory and a sense that America had dodged a bullet. A Trump win was unfathomable to me – and now I must contemplate the unthinkable: Donald Trump as my president.

What do you do when a narcissistic, racist, nativist, sexist bully wins the fight on the playground and seemingly half the crowd was rooting for him? The short answer is that you get up, think hard about what just happened, go back to work, and continue to fight the good fight. Nonetheless, I really didn’t need another existential reminder that the most qualified person doesn’t always win, and that fear, manipulation and power sometimes rule the day.

The charitable side of me would like to believe that this was a working class revolt against neoliberal policies over the past 35 years that have enriched a few and made the livelihoods of many more tenuous. What sickens me, however, is the way that white, working class angst became intertwined with xenophobia, racism and sexism. Trump let a lot of demons out of the closet – and these will be hard to put back.

The fact that Trump, and his Republican backers, have normalized an alt right discourse is deeply troubling. Everything our children have learned about mutual respect and empathy seems in jeopardy if the leader of the country has such disregard for basic principles of human decency and constructive dialogue.

It saddens me that internationalism and multiculturalism have taken a big hit in this election. While I didn’t always admire every aspect of President Obama’s foreign policy, I greatly appreciated his attempts to articulate a more humble American stance in the world in which we were a team player rather than a cocksure braggadocio. He also had a way of speaking about race that was simultaneously calming and reassuring, yet productively thought-provoking. Little did I know or understand just how many Americans found this threatening.

Trump’s call to return the American economy to its former greatness is delusional. While I am no fan of economic neoliberalism, I also realize that we cannot go back to an earlier era when manufacturing was more dominant and those with a high school education could prosper. The way forward was to stress education and pull more people into the knowledge economy or the highly skilled trades. Trump’s economic plan, if there is one, is an anachronistic pipe dream.

And don’t even get me started about the environment. Having an outright climate change denier in the White House is a terrible blow for the planet and extremely bad news for the American scientific community. I’ve worked closely with the US National Science Foundation over the years and I shudder to think what will happen to this agency’s budget as anti-intellectualism, and a fundamental misunderstanding of science, takes deeper hold in Washington.

What scares me most about Trump, however, are his despotic tendencies, his ignorance of the rule of law, and his willingness to trash democratic institutions for his own gain. I, sadly, have some experience with despots as a scholar who has worked in Africa over the past 30 years. I’ve seen good and bad leaders come and go in various African countries, and I’ve been shocked when fear, discontent, and xenophobia drove certain constituencies to support coups d’états or leaders with dictatorial tendencies. What we learned last night is that the American electorate is no wiser or careful than any other population. Fear, and its associated demons, have had the final say in this election. This is humbling to say the least and, once again, I will have to explain to my international friends how we could make such a terrible choice.

I really do worry about Donald Trump having the controls to our nation’s nuclear weaponry; I really do fear that Trump will run roughshod over our constitution; and I am concerned that the economy, race relations; and the environment are going to get a lot a worse before they get better. It is for these reasons that I will fight like hell to protect the progress out country has made to date – and to try to minimize the inevitable damage that such a reckless leader will inflict on our country and the world.

Fear is a destructive animal that lurks in all of us. Trump tapped into that fear and rode it to victory. But deep down, I truly believe that fear will not have the last word. Yes, it’s dark now, but I see this as a somber chapter in a longer American narrative about change, adaptability and hope

6 thoughts on “A Despot in America

  1. Thank you for your words Bill. I am currently in Burkina trying to talk this out with folks here. They have some good perspectives, and have helped me remind me that the fight is harder than most of us wish. As MLK said, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. It seems longer right now than I could have imagined, but we it will only arc toward justice if we do that bending. And as the tailor across the street from me said, “Il faut continuer à pedaler. Sinon, le velo va tomber.”


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