The Trump era is over. But the fight for democracy is just getting started

The past four years with Donald Trump as president of the United States has been a taxing and trying time — for America and defenders of democracy worldwide. From the moment that Trump emerged to take the presidential oath of office, he began espousing dangerously authoritarian rhetoric and conjured a dark vision of “American carnage”. Incidentally, this projection turned out to be one of the few promises that Trump managed to keep during his tenure.

As an American who has worked to promote democracy and human rights abroad, it was devastating to be confronted with sustained attacks against our democratic culture — as flawed as it may be. From the unprecedented onslaughts against the free press, which Trump and his allies deemed “enemies of the people”, to the constant undermining and politicisation of the rule of law, the very foundations of American democracy began to crack. The cascade of White House scandals, the brazen corruption, and the full-on, often literal embrace of despots and despotism took its toll — emotionally, psychologically and, at times, physically. I could go on, of course, but those familiar with authoritarianism know its telltale signs.

I have always greatly respected my friends and colleagues abroad who have made it their life’s mission to confront these nefarious forces, often at grave personal risk. Far too many over the years have paid the ultimate price, having been killed or disappeared for having the audacity to stand up against indignity and injustice. Now more than ever, I appreciate their sacrifices — some of whom in Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Uganda, for instance — have been leading this fight for decades, battling the same strongmen who have occupied office longer than most of their fellow citizens have been alive. Their persistence and strength to carry on against all odds is overwhelming. I would dare say that these efforts are superhuman, but that would be a disservice to the very human struggles that they have consistently undertaken — and often won. 

I was especially reminded of these fights happening “over there” around the days and hours of our own election last week. During this short time span, a dizzying series of disturbing events unfolded across the African continent.   

Pro-democracy opposition leaders in Cameroon, Uganda and Tanzania, as well as in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar, were rounded up, arrested on trumped-up charges, and in some cases physically assaulted and later hospitalised. 

Police and state security officers in the West African nations of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea surrounded the homes of main opposition leaders, effectively placing them under house arrest. 

And in Zimbabwe, the government’s crackdown on critics picked up pace yet again, with the country’s most prominent journalist being arrested for exposing state corruption. 

Meanwhile, back in the US, after several days of counting the votes, it became increasingly clear that Trump would be a one-term president, and that now president-elect Joe Biden would be the victor. As of writing, Trump, buoyed by the intransigence of his congressional allies, our own secretary of state, and conservative media, has refused to recognise Biden’s victory. They have claimed, without a shred of credible evidence, that the election was stolen or somehow illegitimate — a page straight from the dictator’s playbook. 

In response, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, tweeted that Trump had gone “full Robert Mugabe”. Although I understand the inclination to compare Trump to dictators of the past, I also take issue with these sorts of assessments.

This appraisal unfairly shifts attention away from America’s own flaws and shortcomings — all of which have become obvious to anyone paying attention. In this way, the US is uncritically portrayed as inherently good and “over there” as inherently bad by comparison. This is a mistake. 

What is unfolding in the US today is not so much a different reality from the examples noted above. Rather, they are better viewed, in my estimation, as different points along the same spectrum. The situation that Americans like me are currently facing should indeed serve as a reminder to all of us — in the US, Africa and elsewhere — that one should never take progress for granted. One should not assume that democratic headway is inevitably linear or otherwise pre-determined. The US under Trump, and Tanzania under President John Magufuli, are among the more recent troubling examples of this reality. 

Democratic erosion can happen rapidly and anywhere. And it can have deadly consequences. 

This is perhaps why I continue to receive often exuberant messages from political leaders and activists from across the African continent, eager to see the US turn the page on the Trump era. Perhaps they are more attuned to, and appreciative of, the collective nature of our struggles against misrule and against despotism in its various forms. 

“Good morning and congrats.” (Nigeria)
“This is a fantastic day for the world.” (Tanzania)
“You have taken your country back. We are proud of America. Now the world can relax.” (Gambia)
“Americans have spoken! Congratulations!” (Malawi)
“It is done … This opens a new era.  I am very hopeful that this will be an opportunity for our struggle.” (Cameroon)
“Congratulations to the fine people of the United States of America. We welcome you back to the world.” (South Africa)
“America has triumphed. America has returned.” (Mauritania) 

Put simply, those who put their lives on the line to fight for democracy, and for the common good, know that a respected and robust US — with all of our flaws, mistakes and missteps — is good for the defense of democracy and human dignity worldwide. They know that a receptive ear in Washington, a public recognition of their struggle and a platform for their voice often helps to quite literally keep them alive to fight another day. Too often over the past 46 months, those crucial avenues at the White House, in particular, had been effectively sealed off. Now, that will soon change and the scales will be tipped back in our favour, if ever so slightly.

The coming years will indeed be a critical test for all of us, regardless of where we may individually fall on the global map. The looming threats to democracy, and to the human rights that we all equally share, are real and they are growing. To meet these imminent challenges and to keep the threats at bay, we must roll up our sleeves together. And we must do so with mutual respect and concern.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Jeffrey Smith
Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organisation, Vanguard Africa

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