As America mourns and burns, US President Donald Trump continues to fan the flames of hatred and division in the country. His menacing, polarising rhetoric has sent some searching for parallels in history. They have found two pretty dark ones: Roman emperor Nero, who fiddled as Rome burned, and French King Louis XV, who warned – “after me, the deluge”.
Others have tried to make analogies with Middle Eastern leaders who are good friends with the US president. They have compared him to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Indeed, many Middle Easterners wonder how and why Americans would, of their own free will, elect a man with a penchant for Middle Eastern-style leadership.
Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, see him as a consequential president who is saving America from itself and restoring its lost glory as the world’s leading great power by ending its never-ending wars and renegotiating bad international agreements.
Trump, for his part, thinks of himself as an Abraham Lincoln. Except better and greater. He has repeatedly compared himself to the highly admired 19th-century US president. He has boasted of being like “honest Abe” and claimed falsely that his poll numbers were higher than his, given that there were no polls at the time of Lincoln’s presidency (1861-1865).
He has also claimed in a recent interview conducted in the shadows of the Lincoln memorial, that he has been “treated worse” than Lincoln, even though the 16th US president was assassinated basically for ending slavery.
Paradoxically, the only true comparison between Trump and Lincoln rests in their “polarisation” influence. Relative to past US presidents, experts say, Trump and Lincoln are by far the most polarising.
Well, because Lincoln alienated many white landowners to end slavery and unite the country. Trump, for his part, is alienating people of colour to divide the country and get re-elected.
America may have suffered dearly under Lincoln, but it got only better afterwards, much better.
Under Trump, America is suffering, and it is getting worse. Much worse.
For three years, under the pretext of “Make America Great Again”, Trump has pursued fractious policies on healthcare, immigration, climate change, Europe, Jerusalem, and the pandemic, to pander to his base and appease his privileged class of millionaires and billionaires.
In the process, America has become anything but great again. Rather it has gotten more racist, again. It is as if Trump has taken it upon himself to reverse Lincoln.
And the result: The economy is in tatters, unemployment is at an historical high – with 41 million jobless and counting – and the stock market is shaky.
Yes, the pandemic is partially to blame, but Trump is politically accountable for its mismanagement.
That is why his numbers are slipping in every poll, leaving him trailing behind the rather old and subdued presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.
This is driving Trump mad and has pushed him to start shooting in all directions.
He has accused the Obama administration of an unclear set of crimes under the umbrella term Obamagate. He has cast doubt on the integrity of the forthcoming presidential elections. He has repeatedly attacked China and accused it of deliberately spreading the novel coronavirus and causing a pandemic. He has also defunded the World Health Organization (WHO) and officially ended US membership in it. And unable to convene the G7 annual summit in June, he has lashed out, calling the group “outdated”.
But clearly, Trump reckons nothing is more effective at polarising the American public and saving his falling ratings than playing the race card.
He has called people protesting the police killing of African American George Floyd “thugs” and warned that when “the looting starts the shooting starts”, echoing the words of a southern police chief during the civil rights era.
As per usual, Trump has tried to clarify and justify, knowing all too well he has already muddied the water and let the alligators loose. The move is clearly meant to present him as the protector of the white majority.
Since the 2017 events in Charlottesville, Trump has defended white supremacists and taken a condescending, some insist racist tone, on events that have divided America over the past three years. He has now blamed the anti-fascist movement (also called Antifa) for the violence during the protests and has declared he will designate it as a “terrorist organisation”, except that it does not really exist as an organisation and he has no constitutional right to do so.
Trump aims to split Biden’s electoral base of Black people and moderate whites, by promising to restore “law and order”.
Needless to say, “law and order” is paramount, but in this context, it is a mystification of public anger against continuing police violence and racism, which is meant to trigger a “whitelash” by making middle-class whites scared of angry Black people.
Will it work?
Trump is unrelenting, and many are listening with nostalgia, as he preaches the gospel of “once upon greatness”, when white power was unchallenged and Black people sat at the back of the bus.
He is reviving and exploiting the dark side of American conservatism, namely, racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ethnonationalism, misogyny, and ignorance.
None of this is new, and no one should act surprised. He has done it repeatedly long before and long after he ran for office.
Almost every one of his tweets and utterances provokes a deplorable aspect of the American story.
Everything is permissible; all means justify that one end – winning.
Four years ago, Trump promised Americans that when he became president, “we’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning”.
He won, and they got sick and tired.
Tired of him promoting lies as truths, appeasement as toughness, ridicule as respect, and weakness as greatness.
Never has the American leadership been the laughing stock of the world as it is today.
No wonder America is not looking so hot nowadays, well except in Israel. And Americans are not feeling great either.
In fact, from the looks of it, they are miserable, angry and utterly sick of Trump’s bullsh**.
But Americans are not looking for sympathy and do not like to be pitied.
This is especially the case because America is still free and industrious. Just as it elected Trump, it can un-elect him.
But the question facing America today is not who, but rather what comes after Trump.
Lest we forget, Americans elected twice an eloquent Black president before, and many had high hopes for him.
Barack Obama made some progress, but it was under his watch that mass shootings and police brutality escalated, prompting mass protests and the establishment of Black Lives Matter.
He tried to make policy changes, especially through executive orders, but Trump was able to reverse many of them, using the same presidential powers.
So the “mendacity of hope” paved the way for the “mendacity of greatness”.
Real change will take more than a vote; even more than the removal of Trump. If Obama could not reshape the system, rest assured Biden will not be able to either.
Real political change needs popular mobilisation of the grassroots, and that will take more than sporadic demonstrations. It would take a national movement.
Almost six decades after the 1963 March on Washington paved the way for the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964; it is perhaps time for a new civil rights movement to march on the capital.
A greater rainbow coalition of people of all walks of life, men and women, people of colour and white people, marching together to save America.
And to make it truly great.