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US democracy is stronger than it looks

United States president Donald Trump desperately wants to stay in office, and he is using the full weight of the presidency to try to make it happen.

He has staffed the judiciary with political appointees. He has fired dissenters in his administration and the civil service, replacing them with acolytes. He has bent media empires to his will — Rupert Murdoch has much to answer for — and harnessed the power of social media to amplify his propaganda. He has stoked racial divisions, persecuted immigrants and pardoned war criminals.

In recent weeks, he has used his powers to attack, with no evidence, the election results that proved he lost. He has said the vote was rigged, and that his second term was stolen from him. He has urged his supporters — the 74-million Americans who voted for him — to reject not just the result but the entire electoral system that produced it.

And, when a tiny fraction of his supporters did precisely that, storming the US Capitol building to prevent the electoral college vote on Wednesday, this most communicative of presidents suddenly lost his voice. 

He did not speak out against the rioters before it was too late — even then, he described them as “very special” and said “we love you” — and refused to deploy additional law enforcement to protect American democracy’s most vital institution.

There is no doubt that this was one of American democracy’s darkest days. But if this was an “attempted coup”, as some prominent analysts and media houses have labelled it, it failed.

Only a few hundred pro-Trump rioters breached the Capitol’s defences. A popular revolution this was not. And after security forces regained control of the Capitol building, the electoral college vote went ahead, and Democrat Joe Biden was confirmed as the next president of the US.

In an even more damning indictment of Trump’s legacy, Wednesday was also the day that his ruling Republican Party lost control of the senate, thanks to surprise victories for Democrat candidates in by-elections in the state of Georgia. That gives the Democrats full control of the US government — the presidency, the senate and the house of representatives — for at least the next two years.

Trump is raging against this new reality. As he does so, he is doing further damage to the institutions that safeguard American democracy. And yet, the real story of this electoral cycle is that those institutions have held firm: that despite his best efforts, a rogue American president cannot keep himself in power.

Much-maligned as it may be, it was the “mainstream media” who relentlessly exposed Trump’s lies and deceptions, holding his powers to account and showing up his blunt propaganda. It was local organisers all over the US who took full advantage of the country’s freedoms of expression and association to educate and mobilise voters across the political spectrum. 

The country’s political opposition provided a viable alternative to Trump and campaigned tirelessly against him. The courts and the judges who preside over them repeatedly threw out spurious legal challenges to the election results, no matter how much pressure the president put on them.

Just imagine what opposition leaders like Bobi Wine in Uganda, or Tundu Lissu and Zitto Kabwe in Tanzania or Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe could do with these kinds of freedoms. But they face their own rogue presidents; presidents who have constructed political systems to keep themselves in power indefinitely; presidents whose powers over their countries are far greater than those wielded by the American president over his; presidents who brook no serious challenge to their authority.

There can be no doubt that America’s governance system is deeply flawed and unequal and in urgent need of reform. But it is also extraordinarily resilient. The checks and balances worked. 

By the end of the month, a new president will be in power — one chosen by the American people in free and fair elections — and Donald Trump will no longer control the levers of power, no matter how furiously he might tweet otherwise.

Simon Allison is the Mail & Guardian’s Africa editor and editor-in-chief of The Continent

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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