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Fear and Loathing in Middle America

22 min read.

Ugly notions of war, pointless yelling about dishwashers and light bulbs, Lionel Richie songs, and visions of Nancy Pelosi in a sweltering cage. My bizarre night at a Trump rally.

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Fear and Loathing in Middle America
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Note from a resentful and sequestered journalist:

It’s a real downer to be so perpetually right about this man all the time. Years ago, on a cruel Wednesday in November, the morning after Trump ‘won’, I had a brief conversation via Facebook with a family member.

He stated: “What a disaster.”

To which I replied, “No, the disaster is yet to hit us.”

What a f***ing drag to be correct. The rally took place six months ago, for all I know, the VIRUS could have been banging around the corridors of that ugly squat Milwaukee structure already. At the time, it was one of the darkest eight hour periods of my life, a look into the other side only to find out that it was even worse than my ‘good liberal’ sensibilities could have fathomed.

At the time of writing, I thought, perhaps I’ve gone too far with this one, crossing the Rubicon of objectivity. It turns out, no one quite went far enough in putting this man back into his place, and because of it all wishes of him slithering away seem a distant hope.

The Trump supporter, the ones that attend such rallies and wear big middle fingers that read ‘HERE HILLARY!’, the ones who’d show up to a rally in the depths of a frozen January, seemed as though they’d follow the man of the long ties over a cliff if he’d merely pointed that way. There was something strange hanging in the air that day, like the feeling that the other shoe was about to drop, and do so squarely onto the bridge of one’s nose.

Sixth months later, the country lays tattered and beaten, split asunder by denial and modern political ineptitude swirled in with the Trump ethic’s engrained cruelty. It was certain then that this was going to be an absolute emotional suck of a presidential campaign – one that would drag the country backwards in some inexplicable way yet to be revealed. Turns out, it was every way imaginable, even some from a nightmare. The US now sits at the end of the barrel of one man’s ego, stuck in quarantine from the scourge of COVID-19, still arguing about masks for f***’s sake, the highest death tolls globally by far and Disney World throwing open its doors to keep the shareholders smiling via Zoom.

I thought at the time, watching that audience and their fervor, Trump would surely win the election. I no longer think that, but it might not matter. The damage was done a long time ago, it just took a germ, a knee in a man’s neck and decades of malignant systemic bullshit swirling together to prove it out.

It turns out some dumbness is terminal after all, but everyone was too worried about the “good of the country” to listen.

***

MILWAUKEE, January, 2020.

F*** Your Feelings: Donald Trump 2020. Indeed. A truer sentiment couldn’t have been more reflected in the teeming mass of humanity that writhed back and forth between segmented caution tape lines in the January deep freeze of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now, such heinous slogans were made for opportunity; it was $20 (CASH ONLY!) and printed onto T-shirts, flying off a folded table as fast as wind-chapped hands could clamour for them.

It was the first thing that I saw as I came bounding out of Major Goolsby’s Bar and Grill. I’d ventured into it to use the toilet (to avoid the horrors of portable loos used by thousands of waiting Trump supporters, many of whom had camped out on an overnight drunk in the line). On my way to the exit, I bumped into a table with six sorority age women, all silently eating Authentic Tennessee honey BBQ chicken wings and staring off idly into space; one of them wore a sign draped around her neck that said: First Time Voter, All Time Republican. None of them even looked up as the table rocked violently.

There were some 5,000 people out in the line, even this early, some two hours before the doors were set to open. I was wearing Republican “cosplay”, a green polo shirt, pressed khakis and a backwards Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball cap (an effort to make me look like a good and decent suburban conservative). These items, along with my winter-pasty Irish whiteness would serve me well; I could slide right in with these people and blend in, as long as I didn’t say something tolerant and flag myself.

Within seconds of diving into the midst of the queue, flasks came zipping from hidden pockets; whiskey and vodka flowed out in bright red half litre frat-boy “solo cups”. This was it, the centre of the universe for those yearning for the long-dead America that President Ronald Reagan destroyed in the 80s and then took credit for inventing; this was a carnival for depressed suburban accountant dads, their well-coiffed wives and an assortment of Northern US weirdos (like rednecks, but with strange heavily-nasal accents), ones that looked as though they’d simply hopped out of deer-hunting season and hustled fixing carburetors to scrape together just enough gas money to get to the Tuesday day-drinking. All around me, people were pounding back booze like the end was nigh, and with the helicopters swirling back and forth overhead, I couldn’t say it seemed they were far off base.

Red. It was all I saw. Not just the colour, but also the blinding feeling of it. Guys were hyped, this was their guy, a rock star idol straight out of the late 1980s, throwing a free festival for them. Simply everyone had on some kind of apparel. They’d all bought in and thrown down cash on this shameless shill; paying a billionaire to sport his likeness.

Scarves, hats, stars and stripes, camouflage MAGA jackets, signs, lewd buttons, T-shirts (several of them) that read in bold letters: Hillary Sucks, but Monica BLOWS.

That’s what it was, although I realised it too late: I didn’t match the crowd. For one hundred metres in any direction, everyone was branded and I wasn’t.

People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.

A fifty-five year old goateed man, while pulling a canned beer (the fifth I’d seen, but judging by his slur, the thirteenth of the day) from a cooler, saw this lack of conformity and my long hair and started in: “Man, I bet one of those liberals is going to raise their dumb f***ing head and say something. They always have to talk about their stupid feelings.”

People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.

I grinned a shit-eating grin and shot back, “I bet it’ll be a whole bunch of them.”

He lifted his shades and glared at me, beers and years of boredom behind his eyes. “You’re not one of them, are you?”

I had a vision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when people who don’t match up with the aliens are pointed and shrieked at by gaping horrific mouths. I looked back at him stone-faced. “My man, I’m a Christian soul, but you couldn’t pay me to pray for that bitch Hillary.”

He glared back, reading my face for a long moment before smiling slightly and tilting his Bud Light: Lime beer.

There was a lot of fear in this crowd; it was almost palpable. Several attendees made comments about having to “come out” as Trump supporters to family, friends, and co-workers. They all gave stories of heavy alienation. I’d had similar conversations with young and gay kids from the Deep South state of Georgia – tales of shunning and fearing disownment.

Perhaps this wasn’t quite the audience for an impassioned discussion on historical disenfranchisement of minorities; to this line, they were the marginalised. It was obvious that they finally felt listened to, they all seemed to have the same giddy expression of a secondary school student who just found out that she had a date to the dance.

The irony was thoroughly lost on all of these Trump supporters, however, as they failed to realise that victimisation isn’t equal. It is clear from the crowd that a chief principle of a Trump crowd is playing to that ugly “woe-is-me” part of the lizard brain. In Trumpville, you really did get a raw deal all your life; you sad-sap white-male-of-the-first-world-making-60K-USD-a-year you.

Not only this, but it was probably a Honduran who delivered that shitty bargain up hot and steaming while stealing your jobs while you kept going to work every day.

Life, for some, just isn’t fair.

Dear God, these well-fed victims were all drinking like it was pre-prom and it was all downhill from here in life. I watched five middle-aged women in matching navy blue TRUMP 2020 shirts shotgun beers and then immediately throw the cans to the ground, only to pass a bottle of Fleischman’s: Wisconsin’s Number 1 Vodka! around in a circle; polishing it off in a mere two laps.

The scene outside was, to put it mildly, deeply strange. It was the same kind of weirdness that one would encounter heading into a rock-metal concert in the deep American South – shit always gets heavy in the event’s parking lot; it is where the broke get loaded and the swag hustlers push their wares.

Now the feeling echoed eerily similar. Seven songs played in a sort of ramshackle list, but not in any rational order – songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock would play twice in four tracks, followed by Elton John (not with permission to play his music) and, most jarringly, the Village People’s Macho Man, a famous gay anthem of the 70s.

Such musical eclecticism led to tableaus playing out before me; such as watching two pot-bellied, white-goateed men wearing matching ‘hristians for Trump! T-shirts, dancing and smiling with each other whilst holding hands in a sort of circular country jig.

I should have brought a flask myself, especially as I saw a young girl with an Iranians for Trump sign pose for selfies with overtly fascinated war-mongers in the line.

The music was split through every thirteen minutes or so by a pre-recorded public announcement. A woman with a voice similar in tone to Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale would suddenly exclaim:

“Hi and Welcome to this patriotic campaign rally to re-elect Donald Trump, featuring your Commander-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump! We thank you for coming out to show your patriotism and your pride. Donald Trump cares about your First Amendment Rights….almost as much as he cares about your Second Amendment Rights! But there are some people who want to take advantage of Donald Trump’s patriotism by interrupting his speech during the rally! If you see protesters, don’t get violent, just hold up your complementary Trump signs and yell TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP! The police will be around to collect them shortly! Thank you and Keep America Great!”

A nearby bystander muttered, “The Iranians are smart man, they knew we’d have blown them into a sandbox, just like those f***ing terrorists in Iraq.”

Jesus, this was going to be a long several hours out here, and the temperature was starting to drop. The wind picking up and sucking through the office blocks along the Milwaukee River, before swooping downwards to smack us.

Any faithful Midwesterner will tell you that the winters here are an atrocity, enough to make you curse your ancestors. Anyone you catch outside enjoying themselves in such foul climate is to be avoided, as they are probably up to no good. The bitter cold brings out the bitterness in people, a sentiment that was now being leaned into heavily.

Towards the front of the line, assorted hired security heavies were yelling, “WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO EAT, DISPOSE OF IT NOW! THERE ARE NO HANDWARMERS ALLOWED. THROW THEM AWAY NOW!” Soccer moms began to heft back entire sachets of wine; Skinny Girl Margaritas, martinis in water bottles, whatever their acrylic nails could reach.

The dirtiness was astounding towards the end of the queue; garbage cans overflowed three-fold their capacity and it was clear that many had brought chairs with the full intention of abandoning them. Folded camping chairs lay in piles, covered with soon-to-rot picnic platters of mysterious orange cheeses with Wisconsin-Made! processed beef summer sausage. Glass was everywhere, smashed into near dust on the ground. I had a terrible vision of being knocked to the ground by an overzealous ca -mechanic sporting a MAG’ Hat, crushed under feet pounding towards seeing their false idol spit foul-smelling lies through a loudspeaker.

Now was not the time for such thoughts; it was time to smile and nod. Agree tacitly, scream inwardly: individual thought is strongly frowned upon in such crowds.

Three hours in and I finally made it to the door, a great inward wind tunnel sucking us all into its void towards several polo shirt-wearing ex-military types guarding a metal detector.

***

Now, when I’d heard of this spectacle guised as a legitimate political campaign rally, I acted quickly, signing up for a ticket online and spelling all of my details out with precision. If I were to subject myself to this Trumpian f***ery, I planned on coming correct and not being turned back rudely at the door.

I had assumed that security would be bordering on a prison camp, a Kafkaesque mess of purity-by-campaign-slogan hat. I’d scrubbed my pockets of all potential liberalisms and half-suspected to be found out for malicious statements I’d made about the “administration” in mid-2017 while drunk on White Cap in Nairobi.

Instead, there was no check – I was simply whisked through and searched thoroughly, pushed along further down the tunnel, like they needed the numbers and were filling the seats with any hapless idiot dumb enough to cut back on their hourly wages long enough to attend.

It played into the sudden rush of realisation as to just how disjointed and chaotic the whole thing was. Just like that, I was in, surrounded by cowboy hats and camo, although I noticed that all talk of “open carry” and “2nd Amendment Liberty” was quickly discarded in the name of the safety of The Republican Party.

There was a strong sense of unity in the Panther Arena, a bizarre squat throwback to 1960s’ mid-size- market indoor coliseums; a beautiful modern facade outside, but once in, a droll concrete oval, with little character, only awkward scarlet TRUMP! posters to dot the walls.

Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.

I found a seat to the stage left of the podium, some twenty metres away. I wedged myself between middle-aged conspiracy theorists and pondered my options. Who could I kick aside if someone yelled “GAY!” in the middle of this throng and caused a fear-driven stampede? The 60 year old singing I’m Proud to be an American! off-key while ogling the blonde FOX News anchor standing at the crowd fence down towards the floor seemed a prime target to trample over.

“God damn, would you look at her, she’s got the tits of an angel!” the singer was whispering in my ear. He was the kind of awkward older Midwestern man you never want to be spiraled downwards into a conversational hole with, “She’s fair and balanced alright. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

I suddenly had the bad image of tens of thousands of once-decent Middle Americans being seduced by electric sex and overt racism over the entire eight-year run time of the Bush administration. I swallowed a grimace and leaned back towards him. “I heard that Roger Ailes (the now deceased CEO of FOX News) willed them to her.”

He looked back at me, slightly perturbed. It was a gentle reminder that this was not the crowd for sarcasm.

And what was this crowd exactly? Down on the floor seemed to be the most “out there”; the veritable roadie of the Trump supporter, the parking lot people. From my perch, I could see conspiracy theories in print, awkward hats, and oh, so many atrocious haircuts.

Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.

Collude This, Bitch! The letters were in glitter and framed a middle finger on a T-shirt; complements abounded to the wearer.

I sat in that sweaty seat, mainlining coffee as various campaign hangers-on came around and repeatedly asked me to volunteer, which I claimed I already had outside of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. A couple seemed to doubt this, but I just shrugged and went back to pretending to enjoy the music. In this crowd, ignorance is woke.

Speaking of which, why this music? It was a major theme from the entire proceeding. Why are they playing this right now? It wasn’t just that the artists being played had expressly told the Trump campaign to f*** off under threat of litigation, it was the odd mix of it. Nessun Dorma was followed by REMs’ Everybody Hurts, followed again by Proud to be an American. The music rang out as though an American-idol obsessed 13 year old had made a mixtape; there was no thematic tie at all; the music rambled the same way Trump did. Was the audience being subconsciously primed for a stream of continual disjointed thoughts?

Paul McCartney had just began singing the refrain to The Beatles’ Hey Jude when the music suddenly cut out, the recording coming to a screeching halt, leaving a brief void of silence and nervous laughter, only for the concert speakers hanging from the ceiling, at a volume that could only be described as apocalyptic, to blare forth the opening chords of Lionel Richie’s Hello badly shaking the molded plastic seats down to the screws.

It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.

And the arena kept filling up. Early on, as I sat idly in my seat, clasping a Trump sign that an overzealous young Republican had thrust rudely into my hands, I smirked and thought of Trump’s repeated crowd size claims; the ones that made it seem he had an underlying issue with how big things are…

Now, however, the room continued to engorge, with people seemingly streaming in from God knows where, many piss drunk already.

“Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”

My ears ringing, I made my way back out for another cup of drastically overpriced coffee, poured by a mostly black concession stand staff that seemed absolutely dead set on avoiding making eye contact with any Trump supporting patrons.

Who could possibly be intimidated by a man with seven AR-15 rifle pins on his skull-and-bones T-shirt? It is his God-given right after all, just as long as the guns don’t get into the hands of the minorities. There were a great many fashion statements seemingly derived exclusively from intimidation, a lot of awkward male posturing, a great many uncouth phallic references, both intentional and not.

It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.

The majority of the Republican leadership in Wisconsin is, above all, boring as an insurance salesman’s pitch during a heatwave. They meander through talking points, drone on about “fiscal responsibility” and yammer endlessly about “how every life is sacred” before “praying for the troops” who are “keeping us safe” in whatever military conflict has 100x the non-American casualties this week.

This is standard Bush-era, post-9/11 fare.

As such, these typical right wing tools seemed dreadfully out of place following the Trump campaign managers who came out to pounding 70s rock anthems before throwing T-shirts into the crowd at a high velocity and condemning the soul of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to burn in hell for eternity.

Everyone in the crowd sensed it; this was the state-fair/semi-professional stock car race/fireworks accident turned sentient and rampaging its way to the stage: the anticipation was now so thick that with each bland nothingness let forth from one of these faceless suits at the podium, the tension steadily built.

***

It was as if Wrestlemania was here and everyone wanted to be splattered by blood. This was no space for a PG rating.

“Hurry the hell up,” I heard the creepy old man next to me mutter as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said some boring thing about bombing Iran if they didn’t “respect agreements”.

Yes, indeed, just ignore all serious things by those who can make such decisions and get to the main event. Politics isn’t political to this crowd. This is only entertainment.

After Vice President Mike Pence took the stage, briefly unbuttoned his jaw and let loose an incredibly boring vision of the world ending for 22 minutes, it was time for it.

Feet stomped and jaws clenched. Elvis was in the building. Then, as Michael Jackson’s Beat It got cut and switched over to a blaring rendition of Proud to be an American, Donald Trump himself awkwardly popped out into view from behind a curtain, emerging to his comfort zone, announced by a lisping voice booming through the PA system.

He tottered around for some minutes, gesticulating wildly while the 10,000-strong crowd went somewhere well beyond ape-shit in pandemonium.

“F*** YEAH DONALD!” a man in a bright orange hunter vest screamed out from behind me, his voice cracking as if pre-pubescent. The crowd swayed back and forth, chanting “U-S-A!” in a unified boom, surging up and forward, staring at this strange-looking man now standing at the pulpit.

It has been ridiculed in the media, but it can’t be understated just how strange this man’s posture truly is. As he launched into his self-congratulations at nearly causing a regional war in the Middle East, I couldn’t stop staring at his hips; they sat there as though they were displaced, somehow his torso shifted forward above them, requiring a stand and microphone for him to lean into, as if he wasn’t truly whole unless screaming obscenities about minorities to his converted faithful.

After brief introductions, one of the most surreal six minutes of any speech ever came flowing with such stunning speed. I was flabbergasted. With one breath, the press was cursed as “corrupt, evil, liars”. With the next, Iran was threatened with obliteration without subtlety.

The masses in the cheap seats were with him all the way.

Americans, by and large, have an ugly tinge of entitled jingoism to their conversational abilities and global view; and sometimes we just can’t help ourselves but lean into these instincts, especially when drunk and encouraged.

Many within this weird country look down openly on people from other cultures. They talk about Africa as though it is a monolith made of people below their station. As they clamoured for a fascist leader who was openly lying to them, admitting it, then asking them to clap for the falsehoods, I took a mental note of just how “superior” American Democracy really was.

“You tell them Trump!” In came the harangues and chorus of agreement. From somewhere above, faint voices began to ring out, their words unclear, their message of protest practically crystal. Two girls, probably come down from some bastion of liberal tendencies at the University, revealed smuggled T-shirts and unfurled a cloth banner that read something to the affect of NO TO WAR!

The crowd universally booed and hissed them with vicious intent. Fists waved, middle fingers straightened. Trump waved his hands about like some sort of deeply disturbed conductor, before rebuking the girls to “go home to mommy!”

“He sure knows how to tell those pussies off, huh?” The same dirty old man was trying to engage me again, now breathing seemingly directly into my eardrum.

Knowing Americans, this same schmuck sitting next to me will probably print up six or seven of Trump’s lamest threats, print them onto T-shirts and later be convicted of tax fraud when he launders prescription drug money through selling them on eBay. He’ll then be pardoned by the administration via a midnight tweet storm. The world turns onward.

The crowd was stomping their feet; sin turned Pentacostal while led by their preacher. The first thirty minutes or so could be viewed as a sort of unhinged Greatest Hits album, like watching a fading rock star, propped up on just enough speed to bang out his most well-known chords. Trump struck out at all the classic notes:

Bomb Iran? Just playing (or are we?).”

“How great is the military? Great, but only because they respect me, oh, how they respect me.”

“Aren’t Mexicans coming up from the south to surely rape your elderly first grade teacher and beat her poodle to death with a sack full of meth and drug profits? Almost definitely, but I alone can stop it. BECAUSE OF THE WALL.”

“Police are great aren’t they? It’s surely a shame that the inner cities don’t respect them enough.”

“Democrats are a vile sack of evil, trying to convict me and get me out of the White House, but don’t they know any better? I’ll never leave. Just kidding, or am I?”

“Nasty Nancy Pelosi is trying to convict me in this horrible, ugly, witch-hunt; which I openly admit guilt to, but that’s okay because I said so.”

With this last statement, the masses roared their approval. Signs were held aloft; chants of “FOUR MORE YEARS” began in earnest, only to be soon drowned out with chants of “LOCK HER UP!” aimed at the Democratic Speaker of the House.

Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life? For some reason, I thought of some dull-eyed American I’d met in a Nairobi bar back in 2013, asking me why Kenyans were so blind in their political loyalty to oligarchs who couldn’t care less if they died.

With that, as his speech rose and fell, with that awkward cadence of his, he took pause, within which a bearded hipster launched an emphatic “F*** YOU!’ from the mid-tier of the bleachers, only to be pushed slightly, and have cardboard TRUMP signs shoved into his chin. Two tired-eyed cops come and collect him by either elbow, pulling him out as he dragged his VANS sneakers along the polished concrete.

As the police were duck-walking him out, presumably to throw him headlong into a soiled snowbank, Trump paraded several of the top Wisconsin right wing establishment onto the stage; each were yanked back and forth with an extended and aggressive handshake, as though they were show dogs being broken in by their overzealous owner.

Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life?

Show of dominance. That’s what it was. I’d seen it before, when lions fight, the king has to put the lesser males in their place.

This was pure animalism in politics. Superiority had to be shown, teeth had to be bared and someone had to show the neck. The enemy had to be pointed out and shouted down. There can be no dissent in such circles – and within America, the dominant tend to have gun racks on their trucks.

While the first 30 minutes of the 87 minutes were utter lunacy, it was trackable insanity, the kind that you expect to see during a monster truck rally, a rodeo, a semi-professional wrestling title bout or a ladder match during a hailstorm in Florida. Utterly bonkers, but not unexpected.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the left turns during the middle section of the speech. The political “monster truck” that is Donald J. Trump went off script and was the campaign rally equivalent of watching a giant machine of metal and air-brushed flame patterns veer off into the crowd. There was simply no predicting where Trump’s verbal tirades would take us next.

I tried to keep track. I swear I did. I was regrettably entirely sober, wide awake, and pumped full of the adrenaline that can only come with the temptation of taking off my shoe and throwing it at Mike Pence to find out if he was in fact a mere hologram.

THE WATER!”

Trump shouted it into the microphone and let the words hang out in space, the crowd screaming, his orange tanned hands held up into the air.

“It’s terrible. The water comes down from the north, into California, but Gavin Newsom, that horrible governor, he takes the water. He doesn’t know what to do with the water. He sends the water out into the ocean!”

“The Ocean! The Pacific Ocean! Imagine that. And the fish, oh the fish, they don’t know what to do with it! Is it good water? We know, but they don’t care!”

“AND THE DISHES! Oh God, the dishes. You do the dishes once. It’s not enough. The dishwashers aren’t strong because they’re taking the water. You have to put them through one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten times! And the light bulbs! They’re toxic! You have to unscrew them? You have to unscrew them. And walk them into the dump and put them down?! Who will do that?! So we’re going to give you the water back. Through the sinks, through the showers, and through the other thing! The toilets! You’re getting the water back! And I will be the one to give it back to you!”

There was no hiding it; my jaw was agape. I truly had no idea what he was talking about. It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse. This man, rambling about sinks and light bulbs within millimetres of a full-blown war with Iran, a conflict with a people that he was truly incapable of reasoning with. They were brown after all.

F*** THOSE LIGHTBULBS!” The cry came from a bearded man, now beet-red in the face, flanked on either side by his teenage sons who stared at him, beaming.

Trump rambled onwards; all the while without any care, utterly gauche, to the extent it was damn near respectable. One thing was clear: that Trump was a total master of his craft, however bizarre and atrocious his craft might be.

As he went into his bombastic closing remarks, the thousands stayed with him, beat for beat, rising and falling, laughing on cue, cheering and booing with utter abandon – like the finale flourish of a fireworks display.

An ill-fated Bernie Bro pulled out a “Bernie Sanders for President 2020” sign. Trump looked down at him from the stage and the crowd pounced, viciously pulling at him, jostling him back and forth.

“HIT HIM!” A woman’s voice from somewhere close to me.

Two heavies came from the back down onto the floor, closing in on this long-haired liberal getting shoved back and forth; a cork in the storm.

Despite their tattoos and Bill Goldberg haircuts; I ignorantly thought to myself, “At least security is here and will save him.”

But they grabbed him all the harder, ripping his sign downwards, tearing at it and pushing him out the back. How dare he have the audacity to support someone other than the great leader?

Trump peaked into crescendo, rambling on about the inevitability of winning this year and that the best people, the chosen people, the tough people were on his side. They would take no other result; and the scrum down on the floor bellowed their support. This wasn’t politics, it was a death roll, and the grip was tightening.

The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want began to play, and with much more glad-handing, waving, and awkward displays of faux-nationalistic pride, he was gone, little more than a thin wisp of a hair plug dissapearing behind a curtain.

It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse.

The spell held over the crowd, but started to dissipate. We began to file out, shuffling bashfully towards the exits, as if we were all leaving some truly horrific live sex show in Mtwapa. In such circumstances, don’t make eye contact.

There were several black Trump supporters amongst the crowd, and more than a dozen people caught their eye, giving a little fist pump of “unity”. The underlying sentiment was to return to their cohort and tell them, “No, no, I swear there were black people there who support Trump too! See he can’t be racist! It is a lie spun by liberal geeks, worried about their feelings!”

“HEY YOU!” A frat-boy was screaming into my face, thrusting his pointer finger. He looked animated, and surely, this would be the end of me. I had gone too far out on a limb here, and now I was to be “outed”.

He was motioning to my hat, which sported the insignia of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. Without smiling, he gave me a thumbs up and walked sullenly away. I started to cut around people as I traversed the crowd towards the exit. I felt as though my welcome was overstayed and now it was mostly certainly past the hour of bouncing.

The cold was a shock to the system, like waking up suddenly after a long night of drinking. I found myself looking for my wallet several times, wondering, “Where was I?”

A feeling of unease had come over me, especially looking about at the grinning faces streaming past me as I paused to stuff the TRUMP 2020! sign deep into my sleeve. It was the same sense one would have waking up after a night out next to someone that you know you shouldn’t have called.

It was a kind of toxic satisfaction, exhilaration definitely, happiness of a sort – but all pervaded by a destitute hanging melancholy, of witnessing something truly bizarre, only to realise that you have to meander back to your schlubby life and under-sized apartment.

Could the people around me know just how wrong-headed almost everything that just happened had been? Looking around, I couldn’t see it; they’d bought into all of this a long time ago and had cast their lot.

“They’d bought in because he simply refuses to give in the way they did.” It struck me, to Trump supporters, he really was some kind of magical maverick, condemning the norm and doing it “his way”; the tax code and civility couldn’t stop him. “It doesn’t matter if our guy does it as long as he wins.”

A beating of drums suddenly struck up, the bass thumping dull within my chest. Streaming out into the cold, we were careening towards it, as the zip-tied metal-grate fences surrounded on all other sides kept us walled in.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city known for terminal dumbness at all levels of authority figures, had made another gangbusters decision: to line up six token cops in riot gear and let the exiting Trump contingent of thousands file straight into the waiting protesters; for Trump can go nowhere without an audience. I must admit, that while inside, I’d forgotten about them entirely; now it was unavoidable.

“YOU’RE A F***ING EMBARASSMENT!” One middle-aged white female Trump supporter screamed into the face of a young Latina girl, probably 16 years old, banging a cow bell while chanting, “NO FASCIST USA!”

I’d had enough, I tucked the sign in deep and crossed over the line. As I did, a cup full of ice came flying in and went over the shoulder of an old white-haired hippy man who was banging a tambourine slightly off-beat. The ice scattered on the concrete at our feet.

Megaphones and drums split the night and the wind howled around us. Some in the crowd held glow sticks, which, when mixed with the reddish tinge of police tail lights, gave the entire tableau a hue of a football riot about to break loose.

Shit, it was a Tuesday in January, in bitter cold Wisconsin. The campaign hadn’t even really cracked off yet. The scene looked to spin downwards, liquored up left versus just-incited right. And in all of this, it was clear, despite it all, the man in the over-sized suits was certain to win again.

There are no consequences for such men in history. They will continue to ensure their victory because they know a dark truth that their foes never could grasp: that politics is just a game of monopoly, and if you’re not cheating, then you’re just not trying.

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Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Long Reads

African Evangelicals and President Trump

African evangelicals align themselves with the American right and there are many parallels between American and African evangelicals that may explain why the latter support Trump.

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African Evangelicals and President Trump
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Shortly after the contested November 3rd 2020 US elections, a video of Paula White, President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor, making an impassioned prayer summoning African and Latin American angels to intercede for President Trump so that he would win the election caused quite a stir throughout Africa, generating not just hilarious memes but also significant debate on social media and in other forums about African evangelicals’ support for Trump. The video that was widely circulated on social media platforms came on the heels of media reports that a section of African evangelicals and Pentecostals and their leaders support Trump and have been holding prayer vigils for his re-election, ostensibly because Trump is viewed as a defender of their faith against the deep state.

The chairperson of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK), Bishop Mark Kariuki, argued that Trump’s victory would be a victory for “good morals” and that Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Kenya are “thinking about values”. He said that when former President Barrack Obama came to Kenya in 2016, “We told him not to bring his ‘democratic agenda’ in Kenya, an agenda that advocates for abortion and gay relationships. It is against this background that we are praying that the right person wins the USA election.”

It is not just Kenyan evangelicals who support Donald Trump. Similar trends are also evident in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and many other parts of the African continent where Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have been proliferating since the 1970s. Scholars, social commentators, the media and researchers are baffled by the evangelicals’ support for Trump regardless of his moral and ethical lapses, his divisive, bullish, combative, crude and brash character, his disrespect for women—especially women of colour—his hate for immigrants and Muslims and his inability to condemn white supremacists.

While many people cannot make sense of African Evangelical support for Trump, many scholars and social commentators have tried to rationalise and make sense of this phenomenon. Here I try to make sense of why African and Kenyan evangelicals and Pentecostals in particular, support a man so vile, a man who lacks empathy, compassion, morals, decorum, respect and human decency, values that are at the heart of African Christianity.

But first, let us understand why Trump aligns himself with American evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals. According to a 2019 Pew Research report, 81 per cent of white evangelicals and 62 per cent of white voters without a college degree voted for Trump. While not all American evangelicals support Trump, a significant majority of white evangelicals do.

In her best-selling and influential book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted Faith and Fractured a Nation, Historian and Gender Professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez argues that President Donald Trump weaponised both Christianity and masculinities to win the support of American evangelicals. Trump projects himself as a strongman, a characteristic that has increasingly defined his presidency since 2016. His machismo, patriarchal ideals and aggressive brand of masculinity are interwoven not just with his politics but also with his relationship with white evangelicals who form a big part of his political base.

Trump—who has cozied up to world dictators, praising authoritarian leaders like Russia’s strongman and dictator Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un—appears to have dictatorial tendencies. According to Professor Du Mez, Christian male evangelicals exude the same machismo and masculine strength that Trump projects. His combative style is also apparently evident in evangelical literature and popular culture, mainly books and films teeming with masculine heroes that shape evangelical beliefs about men and women for millions of evangelicals. This evangelical popular culture and literature is heavily promoted in Africa and elsewhere and also shapes African evangelical conceptualisations of manhood and masculinities.

The values at the heart of American evangelicalism today are authoritarianism, patriarchy, masculinity, aggressive foreign policy, the fear of Islam and immigrants, ambivalence towards the #metoomovemnt, opposition to Black Lives Matter and abortion and LGBTIQ issues. Trump has hijacked these issues and appropriated and weaponised evangelical Christianity and its symbols and language for his own political agenda, aligning himself with social and moral issues that are at the heart of American evangelicalism such as abortion, family values and other conservative agendas.

First, he has surrounded himself with a retinue of spiritual advisors led by Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr. and others who prop up the legend of a God-fearing man who loves God and has the interest of their faith at heart. In September 2020, Trump tear-gassed his citizens so that he could pose for a photo op outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC in a way that weaponised the Bible in order to get the support of American evangelicals.

Evangelicals also believe Trump has their interests at heart because he has projected himself as the only protector of family and Christian values that are under serious threat from an increasingly liberal left. Similarly, he promised evangelicals protection and power, and brought them and their concerns to the centre of American public life.

African evangelicals align themselves with the American right because of their conservative positions around family issues including divorce, same-sex relationships, abortion and many others. There are many parallels between American evangelicals and African evangelicals and this may explain why African evangelicals support President Trump.

African masculine and patriarchal evangelical Christianity  

First, African big men of the booming evangelical movement promote a masculine, authoritative and patriarchal gospel similar to that of American evangelicalism. Many male African bishops, archbishops, pastors, evangelists and self-styled prophets exhibit machismo and a masculine strength and character that mirror Trump’s. At the same time, they are beholden to power, influence, and money. They see or desire to see themselves in Trump as well as in American evangelical leaders. African evangelicals also admire aggressive leaders and many are friends to African dictators. Kenyan evangelicals cozied up to the late President Daniel Arap Moi, providing his autocratic and corrupt KANU regime with legitimacy and justifying this with the tired argument that leaders are appointed by God.

Another reason why African evangelicals support Trump is a practical one. It is about money, power and religious influence. The American evangelical right supports humanitarian and non-humanitarian causes across the African continent, from healthcare to education, water and solar projects as well as agriculture and food security.

American evangelical televangelists are not only extremely popular in Africa but their literature and popular culture are also heavily consumed by the African evangelical marketplace. Their books, films, videos, church magazines and motivational books line the bookshelves of Africa’s leading Pentecostal and Charismatic clergy’s personal and office libraries, fill the shelves of Africa’s churches and church and secular bookshops, and are to be found displayed on the second-hand bookstands in the streets.

Their televised programmes are also popular in Africa’s television stations. American televangelists such as Paula White, Joyce Meyer, Jack Van Impe, Benny Hinn, John C. Maxwell, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, the late Morris Cerrulo, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar and many others are celebrities in Kenyan and African evangelical circles. In fact, Kenyans have their favourite American televangelists and many receive daily inspirational quotes and prayers from these televangelists. Leading African televangelists in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and many other African countries say they have been mentored by American televangelists.

American televangelists are regular guests in Africa, criss-crossing the continent to hold prayer rallies and crusades. African televangelists offer American televangelists platforms to speak in their churches while African evangelicals get invited to travel to North America on preaching holidays to raise funds for church projects. So there is a relationship that has been cultivated between American evangelical televangelists and their African counterparts. African evangelicals’ support for Trump can thus be understood as support for their brethren across the Atlantic, a kind of solidarity between brethren.

Prosperity Gospel and the money trail

But there is also the influence of the American prosperity gospel in Africa where leading African televangelists espouse the theology of wealth and health or the gospel of money. The gospel of prosperity—also variously and derogatorily referred to as the “health and wealth” gospel, “the faith gospel”, “the gospel of riches”, “the gospel of materialism and consumerism”,  the “gospel of selective abundance”, the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, “the gospel of ‘Panda Mbegu’” or gospel of “planting seeds” — is a direct importation from North America that has exploded in both popularity and prominence in the African continent in the last nearly three and a half decades. It has also  stirred up huge debates and created controversies globally. African evangelical televangelists have increasingly been influenced by American proponents of the prosperity gospel, creating bonds with their brethren in the US and mirroring each other.

But there is also the money trail. American evangelicals support a wide range of causes in Africa, including HIV/AIDs prevention strategies in scores of African nations including Kenya and Uganda and promoting the sexual purity and abstinence theology among many others. At the same time, the American evangelical right has poured in money to promote conservative positions with respect to women’s reproductive health rights including abortion and same-sex relationships.

During contestations over the promulgation of the new constitution, Kenyan Christian churches led by a group of powerful evangelical, Pentecostal and Catholic lobbies vehemently opposed the adoption of the 2010 constitution because they opposed clauses that they viewed as too liberal, in particular clauses concerning abortion and same-sex relationships.

During the Population Conference that took place in Nairobi in 2019, Christian churches held big demonstrations to oppose women’s reproductive health rights and during the debates on the reproductive health bill held in May 2020, Christian churches caused a stir when they opposed the passage of the bill, labelling it the “abortion bill”. Christian churches in Kenya were also instrumental in the closing of Marie Stopes clinics across the country because they claimed that they were abortion centres.

Christian churches and the clergy have also mobilised against same-sex relationships across the continent and especially in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Christian opposition to these issues is linked to American dollars that have been poured in to fight liberal causes.

Thus American evangelicals have strongly influenced the rise of Africa’s evangelicals, not just in the public sphere but also in their quest to influence public policy with respect to hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, gender rights and a wide array of liberties and rights. The sexual purity culture is also directly borrowed from the script of the American right and is often preached in evangelical churches.

The fear of liberalism and democratic ideals which are considered anti-family by religious conservatives is one of the other reasons African evangelicals support Trump. He is seen as a protector of family morality through not just his alignment with American evangelicals but also through his recent and contested appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court, especially that of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

 Christian Zionism and eschatological concerns

Among the many other reasons why American and African evangelicals support President  Trump is because of his policies and support for Israel. When Trump moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there were jubilant celebrations not just in the US but also across scores of African countries that have large evangelical Christian majorities. In announcing the move, Trump said he did it for evangelicals. In many parts of the world but especially in the USA and Africa, evangelicals have a special affinity to Israel.

Many Christians also view the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The promise of the Holy Land is therefore intricately tied to evangelical beliefs. This sort of Christian Zionism has been emerging for a long time and is tied to the Christian belief that God’s promise of the land to the Jews is eternal.

American and African evangelical support for Israel can be seen in light of an emerging Christian Zionism inspired by theological concerns and is connected to Christian eschatological concerns rather than to the larger politics including the Palestinian question. Interestingly, African Christians who support Israel couldn’t care less about Palestinian struggles.

As one pastor said to me in an interview that, “I align myself with God’s special people and Nation. When I need my prayers answered, I pray for Israel. I tell my flock that when they pray for Israel, God answers their prayers.” The emergence of Christian Zionism can thus be understood through eschatological beliefs.

For many evangelical Christians, Jerusalem is the linchpin of their eschatological beliefs. Evangelical Christians, a majority of whom make a literal reading of the bible, believe that Jesus Christ will return to Jerusalem, specifically a Jerusalem controlled by the Jewish people. Israel is therefore intricately tied to evangelical Christians who see it as an important nation in Gods’ larger plan for Christians, especially born-again Christians. Beyond eschatological beliefs, evangelicals also believe that Jerusalem will be the scene of the final battle between good and evil. It is the place where God will finally obliterate his enemies and usher in the millennial reign of Christ.

Such Christian eschatological beliefs are tied to what is generally referred to as pre-millennial dispensationalist theology or end-time eschatological beliefs. The millennial in pre-millennialism, theologians argue, refers to Jesus Christ’s prophesied 1000-year reign of peace on earth. Christians believe that those who are born-again will be raptured to heaven at the end of time.

A majority of African Pentecostal and evangelical clergy are proponents of this pre-millennialism or end-time eschatological beliefs. Consequently, many align with Trump who is seen as a friend of Israel, Gods own “special people and nation”.

When Trump named Jerusalem the capital of Israel, he said that there was more enthusiasm and excitement amongst American evangelicals than there was in Israel itself. This is also true of Africa where there were significant celebrations in scores of African countries that view Israel as a nation with a special place in God’s end-time plans.

Besides, Israel is believed by many Christians to be home to many sacred sites including the Ark of the Covenant and many other sacred objects and artefacts. There is also the prevailing belief that God’s presence resided inside the temple built by King Solomon and later destroyed by the Babylonians. Evangelicals believe that God’s presence still resides in Israel which will play a critical role in Christian end-time beliefs.

Similarly, Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born, lived, walked, died and rose again in Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem therefore conjures up memories of the history of Jesus Christ, a central figure in their personal lives and faith. Thus, for many evangelicals, Jerusalem is a special place and Israel is a holy land which is important in God’s larger eschatological plan.

The importance of Israel for many evangelical Christians as well as for other denominations has spawned a thriving religion-inspired tourism and pilgrimage to the Holy land. Every year, thousands of African Christian pilgrims travel to the Holy Land to renew their faith and walk where Jesus walked.

Patriarchy, misogyny and the weaponisation of masculinities

While Trump is viewed as an increasingly divisive and polarising figure the world over, he remains popular among evangelicals in Africa, especially in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Trump’s support is evident in countries with a significant evangelical and Pentecostal majority, which is pretty much most of sub-Saharan Africa where Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity has exploded since at least the 1970s, or earlier in some countries. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches dot much of the African landscape. According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, Trump has more support in Kenya and Nigeria where supporters appear unbothered that he referred to African countries as shithole countries in 2018.

Both Nigeria and Kenya are highly religious countries with large numbers of evangelicals. Pastor Chris, a prominent Nigerian televangelist, has argued that people are angry at Trump for supporting Christians. He argues that people who hate Trump hate Christians. Bishop Mark Kariuki in Kenya said that Kenyan evangelicals are praying for President Trump’s re-election because Kenyan evangelicals are thinking about values. A majority of Christian groups in Africa hold conservative views about marriage, abortion, gay rights and scores of other issues.

Trump is seen by African evangelicals as a promoter of family values unlike President Obama who has been pushing a liberal agenda in Africa, a move that drew significant anger and concern from evangelicals in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda in particular. When President Obama came to Kenya in 2016, he publicly but civilly clashed with President Uhuru Kenyatta over the issue of gay rights. Evangelicals had held demonstrations before Obama’s arrival telling him to keep off gay issues.

African and American evangelical support for Trump is not only baffling but it is also very paradoxical given that he is hardly a paragon of morality. Nigerian Pentecostal philosopher and theologian, Professor Nimi Wariboko of Boston University, argues that Pentecostals and evangelicals support Trump because they are doing God’s will and because of the prevailing theology amongst evangelicals that God uses sinners to accomplish his divine purpose. According to Wariboko, for many of these groups Trump is not just their hero but he is also a sort of a messianic figure who will not only lead his followers to Godly redemption, but is also uniquely placed to do this for them and for the whole of America.

Scholars like Wariboko have tried to make sense of this both philosophically and theologically, especially given that Trump does not by any means conjure up any messianic ideals yet he is largely viewed by his evangelical supporters as a sort of a messiah, one who will protect America from liberalism and socialism.

Evangelicals and suspicions about science

Trump denies science, climate change and a wide array of environmental issues. While many evangelicals are not necessarily averse to science, they are also not very enthusiastic about it. Many evangelicals are beholden to the miraculous, spawning an entire faith healing and miracle industry that is at odds with science. For many evangelical clergy, science, climate change and environmental issues are not top of their agenda. They would rather pray for healing for ailments such as cancer, COVID-19, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, asthma and many others. Belief in science and medicine could seriously threaten their booming faith healing miracle industry, rendering many jobless.

With the collapse of healthcare in Africa following the structural adjustment programmes of the 1970s and 80s, the religious industry boomed while faith healers moved into the public sphere, spawning a thriving faith healing ministry that has captured the imaginations of many African Christians leading to the emergence of thousands of faith healing charlatans that have led many people astray. Prophet David Owuor, a scientist-cum-faith healer, has claimed to heal cancers, hypertension, diabetes, HIV/AIDs and various other disabilities. Trump is admired by these types of clergy because he legitimises their trade and gives them the language to oppose science.

Support for dictators: Leaders are appointed by God

Another reason why African evangelicals support Trump is that he appears to admire dictators and has dictatorial tendencies. African evangelicals have a long tradition of not just supporting populist politicians but also providing tacit approval to Africa’s dictators. Kenyan evangelicals supported and provided legitimacy to the late President Daniel Arap Moi. In Nigeria, evangelicals aligned themselves with corrupt leaders who looted the country. Pentecostal clergy have also provided legitimacy to leaders in Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania.

There are also many similarities between Trump and African evangelical leaders many of whom are authoritarian and entertain no criticism from their members or from members of the public. While Trump fires his critics, some evangelical leaders threaten their critics with the famous dictum, “touch not my anointed”, a biblical verse that is often used to silence critics. Others threaten their critics with death and curses. Prophet Owuor has maintained a grip on his thousands of followers using the threat of curses and deaths from cancers and road accidents against anyone who speaks ill about him. This has led to vicious infighting within a ministry that is run by fear to stifle criticism.

At the same time, many African evangelical leaders lack both the theological and philosophical tools of analysis with which to engage the state unlike their Catholic and other mainstream church clergy who have theologically-grounded and philosophical tools of analysis to engage on social and political issues. Many African evangelical clergy frown upon theological education and go into ministry by simply calling themselves to the ministry and relying on the Holy Spirit to interpret the bible.

Islam and evangelicals

There is also the Muslim factor in the evangelicals’ support for Trump. There is enough evidence in his rhetoric against Muslims—many of whom he has banned from entering the US—that Trump hates Muslims and regards them as terrorists who hate America. Evangelicals are suspicious of Muslims and the increase in Islamophobia in Africa, America and elsewhere is directly related to the emergence of Christian nationalism.

In Africa, especially in countries with significant numbers of Muslims, increased islamophobia and emerging and simmering tensions between Christians and Muslim is blamed on the emergence of evangelicals and Pentecostals in public life. We saw this in Kenya during contestations over the Kadhi Courts during the constitution review process. This has also been documented in Nigeria and other countries. Evangelicals feel threatened by increasing numbers of Muslims and Trump’s rhetoric about Islam has emboldened African evangelicals who are suspicious of Islam. Terrorism has also complicated this relationship.

Trump is a tragic hero in African evangelicalism, where many still believe that even though polls show that he lost to Joe Biden, many are still praying for a miracle while evangelical prophets and prophetesses have cast this election between the forces of evil (democrats) and good (Trump and the evangelicals). African evangelicals have cast Trump as a less than perfect person who is being used by God to fulfil his will. In their way of understanding, God uses the weak to accomplish his purpose. Evangelicals have appropriated biblical characters such as Cyrus to save God’s people from their enemies. Trump is therefore seen as a modern day Cyrus who will lead God’s people to peace and prosperity.

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Trump Fired, Biden Hired: America’s Democratic Reawakening

The American nightmare of an unhinged, chaotic, incompetent, cruel, crude, corrupt, authoritarian, and exhausting Trump presidency is over. The United States can now exhale and begin to dig itself out of the abyss of national and global ignominy. But will the euphoria last?

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Trump Fired, Biden Hired: America’s Democratic Reawakening
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Donald Trump will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history, a man who brutally and blithely exposed the failings and fragilities of American democracy, the enduring polarisations of its body politic, and the deformities of its institutions. Many commentators have bemoaned how the Trump presidency severely damaged American society and the United States’ global standing.

Trump’s transgressions are aptly captured by leading columnists in the New York Times in the series, “What Have We Lost”. They variously claim that Trump’s shocking election led to the loss of naivety as the country was dragged to the brink of ruin; America was robbed of its innocence and optimism as he extravagantly exposed some of its hideous history and attributes. The perpetual state of emergency impoverished the national imagination, culture, creativity, and thinking; his boorish behaviour smashed the decency floor of society; he emboldened moral cynicism that eroded the spirit of generosity as selfishness was normalised and turned into a national credo; his incendiary populist partisanship systematically undermined the social capital of trust, connectivity and community; his perpetual and pervasive outrage, lies, scandals, and incivility sapped national pride and discourse; his corrosive nationalism and belligerence dimmed America’s aura and standing in the world and accelerated the demise of Pax-Americana, he tarnished democracy,  emboldened autocracies and facilitated China’s great leap past America.

The roots of Trump’s loss lie in the incompatibility of his 2016 electoral promises of authoritarian nationalism and economic populism, and in the Republican Party’s fiercely anti-populist economic agenda by which he actually governed. So instead of enacting a popular infrastructure bill, he supported a massive tax cut that benefitted the rich. His trade war with China did not revive domestic manufacturing; instead it ravaged farmers, and did little to cut the trade deficit.

Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama administration, which improved little under his tenure. The United States grew at an average annual rate of 2.5 per cent during Trump’s first three years, which is almost identical to the 2.4 per cent rate during President Barack Obama’s final 36 months. This made it difficult to distinguish the Trump economy from the Obama economy, notwithstanding Trump’s promises and boasts of his business prowess, which was fake, given his history of serial bankruptcies, staggering business incompetence, and tax avoidance, as revealed in a sensational expose by the New York Times in late September and early October. Not surprisingly, voters showed increasing faith in Joe Biden’s ability to rebuild a pandemic-ravaged economy.

Photo. Flickr/ jlhervàs

Joe Biden. Photo. Flickr/ jlhervàs

As the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic surged across the country, the Republican Senate balked at passing a new stimulus bill that would have helped millions of people and bolstered Trump’s populist economic agenda. To the delight of Republicans, the Trump administration ended up redistributing “wealth upward even more aggressively than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush did. But for Trump, the political consequences have been dire”

All too often, condemnation of the Trump presidency becomes a deflection when he is depicted as an aberration rather than an embodiment of the profound and long-standing disabilities and deficits of American society and democracy. The fact that about 40 per cent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and that he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swathe of American society and embraced their values of intolerance, bigotry, and racism.  But he also made more inroads than any Republican president among non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Black men gesturing to the appeal of his strutting conservative machismo.

In the New York Times series noted above, some acknowledge the ugly truths of the Trump phenomenon. Jamelle Bouie puts it well:

For many millions of Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a kind of transgression, an endless assault on dignity, decency and decorum…But his transgressions are less a novel assault on American institutions than they are a stark recapitulation of past failure and catastrophe…What is terrible about Trump is also terrible about the United States. Everything we’ve seen in the last four years – the nativism, the racism, the corruption, the wanton exploitation of the weak and unconcealed contempt for the vulnerable – is as much a part of the American story as our highest ideals and aspirations. The line to Trump runs through the whole of American history…

But instead of generating a serious reckoning with the uncomfortable realities laid bare by the Trump presidency, another commentator laments that there “has been widespread retreat from revelation, let alone from any subsequent conversion, and a rush back to the comforts of one’s preconceptions and one’s tribe”. The right, the left, and centreof American politics responded to these revelations “sometimes with recognition and adaptation, but more often with denial”.

The backlash and the rise of the Democratic Party 

However, it is also true that the breadth and depth of Trump’s perverse omnipresence and invasion of the fractious nation’s political space and discourse shook Americans out of their complacency; it provoked a massive backlash among women, minorities, aggrieved independents and livid liberals who promised to revitalise American democracy.

In the vanguard of the democratic resistance were Black women, the unshakeable bedrock of the Democratic Party, and the conscience of the beleaguered nation. They marched and mobilised, volunteered and voted overwhelmingly for the Biden-Harris ticket to rescue the country that had oppressed, exploited and marginalised them for centuries.

The fact that about 40 per cent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and that he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swathe of American society and embraced their values of intolerance, bigotry, and racism.

Trump’s train wreck was brought to a halt by facts he failed to bend to his will, to banish to the fantasies of fake news, to denigrate and deny. He was mauled by the deadly facts of the coronavirus pandemic, the undeniable facts of economic collapse, the haunting facts of tens of millions of lives and livelihoods destroyed, the hideous facts of a country coming apart at the seams, and the humbling fact of a superpower surging towards decline in compressed time before the gaze of an incredulous world.

The election represented the repudiation of Trump by a majority of Americans who had never voted for him in the first place. He has lost to Biden by more than 4 million votes. However, the election of Trump in 2016 and the nail-biting finish in 2020 showed the inherent flaws of American democracy. The election also represented a resounding affirmation of the Biden-Harris ticket.

Six dynamics propelled Biden to victory. First, he captured the mood of the country by campaigning for the “soul of America”. He sold himself as the sober and decent pragmatist who would bring back civility and compromise, pursue national unity and public service, and rescue the country from the abyss of political partisanship, greed, corruption, and moral nihilism. He successfully made the election a referendum against Trump.

Second, like Obama before him, Biden’s was a crisis candidacy, forged in the burning inferno of the worst health and economic crisis in a century that the Trump presidency squandered through staggering ineptitude. Biden seized the moment as he exuded empathy and competence steeled by personal tragedy and a long political career. He said he believed in science, facts, collective action, and government capability and intervention as part of the solution to resolving crises and promoting national well-being. Unlike Hillary Clinton after her bruising 2016 campaign, he managed to unite the party behind him, including the restive left. He also revived the Obama coalition.

Third, he chose an inspiring running mate – Senator Kamala Harris. As a Black and Asian woman, Harris carried the historical weight of struggles against racism and white supremacy and women’s marginalisation in a charged moment of unprecedented national and global protests under the banner of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the murder of George Floyd. Trump’s misogyny had also revitalised the American women’s movement. As a daughter of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica, Harris recreated Obama’s multiracial and migrant appeal and attracted the new African and Asian diasporas at a time of draconian anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.

Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Kamala Harris. Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

As a graduate of Howard University, she affirmed the intellectual prowess and transformative power of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and mobilised the Black middle class produced by HBCUs. The stature of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, soared “and people began to understand precisely what a Black sisterhood is – the strength and support of those bonds. These women, 300,000 strong, organised for the Biden-Harris ticket. And their wondrous blend of accomplishment and poise was writ large”.

Harris has become the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first woman of colour to ascend to the second highest political office in the United States – a monumental achievement that has electrified women across the country and around the world.

Fourth, Biden’s campaign skillfully reinstated the blue wall around the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and looked poised to flip the red and rapidly diversifying states of Arizona and Georgia. He was saved by the cities without alienating the suburbs by his reassuring balancing appeals to the anxieties and aspirations of African Americans and other minorities, as well as white workers and white women, who gravitated towards him in larger numbers than they did towards Hillary Clinton. Particularly challenging was how to address issues of police brutality, law and order, and racial equality and justice.

Fifth, Democrats have progressively won the battle of ideas, so that ideas espoused by the Democratic Party platform in 2020, which would have seemed radical when Barack Obama ran for office, suddenly appeared moderate. Over the last century, four major ideological battles have been fought in American politics and society: on the role of the state and the market; social mores and policy; racial equality and justice; and America’s international relations with its allies, rivals and developing countries.

Following the demise of Keynesian economics and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, Republicans unapologetically favoured small government and free markets, while Democrats stuck to their preference for larger government and regulated markets. To quote David Brooks, “That debate ebbed and flowed over the years, but 2020 has turned out to be a pivotal year in the struggle, and it looks now as if we can declare a winner. The Democrats won the big argument of the 20th century. It’s not that everybody has become a Democrat, but even many Republicans are now embracing basic Democratic assumptions. Americans across the board fear economic and physical insecurity more than an overweening state. The era of big government is here.”

Harris has become the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first woman of colour to ascend to the second highest political office in the United States – a monumental achievement that has electrified women across the country and around the world.

If the Great Recession dented the neoliberal hegemony of limited government and unfettered markets, COVID-19 has buried it. To quote Brooks again, “Covid-19 has pushed voters to the left. It’s made Americans feel vulnerable and more likely to support government efforts to reduce that vulnerability…This greater support for social safety net programs transcends political ideology.”

About 60 per cent of Americans now believe that the government should do more to solve national problems, and two-thirds believe that it should fight the effects of climate change.

American society has also been moving to the left on contentious social policies, such as gender equality, abortion, and sexuality. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020, 57 per cent of adult Americans say that the US hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men; the figure is 64 per cent among women and 49 per cent among men, and 76 per cent among Democrats compared to 33 per cent among Republicans. Seventy-seven per cent say that sexual harassment is a major obstacle to gender equality. 

On abortion, the majority of Americans (61 per cent) continue to support legal abortion and 70 per cent oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade. Sixty-one per cent support same sex marriage while 31 per cent oppose it – the reverse of attitudes in 2004 when 60 per cent were opposed and 31 per cent were in favour. There are, of course, variations by political party, religious affiliation, and demographic group.

As for foreign policy, 73 per cent say that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, while 26 per cent say that military strength is the best way to do this. By a similar margin, more Americans say the US should take the interests of its allies into account, even if it means making compromises, than those who think the US should follow its own national interests when allies disagree (68 per cent vs. 31 per cent). Democrats and Independents score highest, at 90 per cent and 83 per cent, respectively, on the two questions, while Republicans are more evenly split, with 53 per cent and 51 per cent, respectively. Those under the age of 50 are more likely to favour diplomacy and compromise with allies.

On the US’s involvement in the global economy, 73 per cent say it is a good thing, an opinion that is highest among those with a college education (86 per cent) and lowest (64 per cent) among those with a high school education or less.

Clearly, notwithstanding the loud fulminations of America’s right wing that was inflated by the Trump presidency, the United States of 2020 is more liberal than the United States of 2016, or 2000, let alone the United States of 1950 when conservatives sought to restore in their plaintive cry, “Make America Great Again”.

Progressives need to deconstruct the narrative that sees the United States as a naturally conservative country whose authentic overlords are Republicans and in which Democrats come to power only as periodic interlopers. This often leads Republicans playing hardball and Democrats playing softball; the former are always ready for combat and the latter for compromise.

Sixth, America is becoming more diverse and is destined to become a majority-minority nation in the mid-2040s. The demographic shifts are evident even in the electorate in 2016 and 2020. Demography is of course not destiny. The country changes, and so do political parties. At one time African Americans largely voted Republican, the party of Lincoln, then drifted to the Democrats, the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that propelled the Republicans to adopt their Southern Strategy of racist appeals to white voters.

However, trends point to what Fessenden and Gamio call “the relentless shrinking of Trump’s base”.  From 1976 to 2018, white voters without college degrees declined from 71 per cent to 39 per cent, while white voters with college degrees doubled from 17 per cent to 34 per cent, and minority voters more than doubled from 11 per cent to 27 per cent. The shifts in age are no less telling. Between 2016 and 2020, voters among the silent and older generations fell from 30 per cent to 9 per cent, baby boomers from 38 per cent to 29 per cent, Gen X from 26 per cent to 23 per cent, while millennials increased from 6 per cent to 25 per cent, and Gen Z from 0 per cent to 13 per cent.

Photo. Flickr/ Geoff Livingston

Young people campaigning for the Biden-Harris ticket. Photo. Flickr/ Geoff Livingston

Notwithstanding the cultural and demographic advantages enjoyed by the Democrats, predictions of a blue wave failed to materialise. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, panic and cheeriness gripped both the Democrats and the Republicans as Trump bagged Florida and Texas, took an early lead in the polls in the battleground states, and Republicans held on to Senate races that had been expected to flip and won House seats from Democrats. Some feared or hoped for a repeat of 2016, and questioned the accuracy of the polls that had shown Biden and Democrats in a commanding lead. But as an editorial in the Washington Post reminded its readers, “Surprise! The election is unfolding as predicted.” As the vote counting continued from hours to days, and Biden’s prospects brightened, the narrative and expectations shifted.

The dysfunctions of American democracy  

Americans are used to getting their projected election results instantly on election night. I teased my African American wife to exercise patience as is common in African and many other countries where election results are often announced several days, even weeks, after the elections. The apparent slowness in declaring the winner of the US presidential election revealed a lot more than American impatience; it reflected the enduring dysfunctions of American democracy. As a member of the new African diaspora in the United States, and a student of international political economy and comparative politics, I have always been struck by the following four structural deficits of the American democratic system.

First, the electoral college is an instrument of minority rule that has primarily benefitted Republicans over the last twenty years, first, George W. Bush in 2000 in which Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 while losing Florida’s electoral college by 537 votes, and second, Donald Trump in 2016 who lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes but clinched the electoral college by a whisker in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Altogether, in American history, five presidents – three in the 19th century (John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888) – won the presidency while losing the popular vote.

Over the past 30 years, only once, in 2004, did a Republican president win the popular vote, but they have been elected three times. Republican minority rule by the presidency and Senate are baked into the system. The US Senate “gives disproportionate power to older, whiter, more rural and more conservative interests”. Right now, states representing just 17 per cent of the nation’s population could elect a majority of senators. By 2040, the 15 most populous states will be home to 67 per cent of Americans yet will be represented by just 30 per centof the Senate. Add up the actual votes received in the winning election of every sitting US senator, and you will see that Republicans haven’t won a senate majority since the mid-1990s. Yet they’ve controlled the Senate for 10 of the last 20 years, and used that advantage to shape the ideological balance on the federal courts.

The electoral college system, writes Bob Carr in the Guardian, represents an unenviable form of American exceptionalism. “It confirms the proposition that the US is simply not a democracy, not in the sense Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are democracies.” If America’s systematic voter suppression and rigged elections “were practised against, say, Caribbean or Asian communities in the UK or Sicilians in Italy or Māori in New Zealand, its peculiarity would be a subject of domestic scandal and international embarrassment. The American electoral system is a shambles defying democratic norms.”

Second, American democracy is haunted by the spectre of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the US constitution, enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, they could not vote, nor could women of any race. After the right to vote was extended in the Fifteenth Amendment that enfranchised all men (but not women), culminating in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, new voter suppression strategies were devised, which were especially targeted at African Americans.

During Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests were used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South. In the post-Civil Rights era, voter suppression encompassed the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in some states, the purging of voter rolls, the placing of limitations on early and absentee voting, disinformation, and the imposition of discriminatory voting identification requirements. Trump’s angry denunciations against absentee voting is rooted in the tattered undemocratic playbook of voter suppression.

Voter suppression makes a mockery of America’s self-image as the world’s leading democracy. Sam Levin laments:

To understand how voter suppression is shaping the 2020 election, just look at Texas. While many states do not require voters to have a reason to vote by mail, Texas only allows voters to do so if they are 65 or older or meet other conditions. The state does not allow people to register to vote online. Even with a flood of Covid cases, Texas has successfully fought tooth and nail in federal and state courts to uphold those restrictions. Last month, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, a Republican, abruptly issued an order that limited each county in the state to offer one ballot drop box. The move meant that Democratic-friendly Harris county, which covers more than 1,700 square miles and is home to 2.4 million registered voters, could only offer one place for voters to return their ballots. The state of Rhode Island, which is smaller than Harris county, will have more drop-off locations this year…The battle playing across America is in some ways a continuation of a centuries-long fight over access to the franchise.

Third, the establishment of electoral boundaries and constituencies through gerrymandering is deployed as a powerful weapon to dilute the voting power of an opposition party and concentrate that of the ruling party in a district. In America’s first-past-the-post electoral system, gerrymandering has been used by the two main political parties to reduce competition by maximising the voting power of supporters and minimising that of opponents often segmented on the basis of race, class, religion, or ideology.

In effect, in the absence of a neutral or cross-party agency, the party in power draws the electoral boundaries and chooses its voters. It does so by spreading groups of known or likely opposition voters among several districts or concentrates them in one district to dilute their votes across the state – what political scientists call the wasted vote effect. Gerrymandering is designed to bolster the electoral prospects of incumbents and undermines descriptive or proportional representation.

American democracy is haunted by the spectre of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the US constitution, enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, they could not vote, nor could women of any race.

Fourth, the American judicial system is highly politicised. At the federal level, the president makes judicial appointments, which are reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee before a vote is taken by the Senate. Presidents nominate individuals who fit and are likely to promote their party’s ideology and interests, while the balance of power in the Senate among the two parties often determines who is appointed. Fights over the appointment of Supreme Court justices are fierce because of the court’s extensive powers of judicial review. In 2000, the electoral contest between Bush and Gore was decided by the Supreme Court.

Trump hopes that the Supreme Court will also save him, especially now that it is packed with three of his appointees, and conservatives enjoy a 6-3 advantage. The last appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, was nominated by Trump on September 26, 2020, six days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a revered liberal icon, and confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate of October 26. The same Republicans suddenly forgot their injunction against considering a nominee in a president’s last year that was directed at President Obama who sought to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died eight months before the 2016 elections, with Merrick Garland.

No resounding rejection of Trumpism 

The renowned economist, Paul Krugman wonders, “Is America becoming a failed state?” His answer is not reassuring. Even with a Biden victory, “it seems likely that the Senate — which is wildly unrepresentative of the American people — will remain in the hands of an extremist party that will sabotage Biden in every way it can…Every state, of course, has two senators — which means that Wyoming’s 579,000 residents have as much weight as California’s 39 million…An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.com found that the Senate in effect represents an electorate almost seven percentage points more Republican than the average voter”.

Larry Diamond, a theorist of democracy, warns in Foreign Affairs that “a new administration won’t heal American democracy” because the “rot in U.S. political institutions runs deeper than Trump”. He argues:

The broad signs of political decay are familiar – and alarming – to comparative scholars of democracy: the growing polarization, distrust, and intolerance among supporters of the main opposing parties; the increasing tendency to view partisan attachments as a kind of tribal identity; the intertwining of partisan affiliations with racial, ethnic, or religious identities; and the inability to forge political compromises across partisan divides – and hence to mount effective policy responses to national issues.

Baskar Sunkara concludes ruefully:

America is a failing state…In 2020, America has shown itself to be exceptional in the worst possible ways…Winning mass support for a program of Medicare for All, green jobs, affordable housing, and more seems within reach. But the left must find a way to not just popularize our goals, but secure the means – institutional reform – to achieve them… But we can’t just stop at the abolition of the electoral college and the Senate filibuster, or even full Congressional representation for Washington DC residents. We must more fundamentally fight to transform the pre-modern political system that we’ve grafted on to our modern economy and society. For progressives, that’s a battle far more daunting than just getting Trump out of the White House – but it’s just as necessary.

Trump will, of course, do everything to subvert the will of the people, including inciting his tens of millions of supporters. As one columnist in the Washington Post put it, there was no “resounding rejection of Trump and Trumpism”  Even with Trump evicted from the White House, “Trumpism will not have been swept into the dustbin of history; it will remain all over the furniture. It’s part of the furniture. Unsweepable.” Another commentator in The Atlantic reminds us, “A large portion of the electorate chose the sociopath. America will have to contend with that fact.”

Zeynep Tufecki warns that compared to Trump, who was ineffective and easily beaten because of his incompetence, “America’s next authoritarian will be much more competent”, like the current politically talented autocratic populists of India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere who have mastered winning elections.

Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Donald J. Trump. Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Trumpism – a reincarnation of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy that has been reconfigured to incorporate digitalised angry populism and the laager of white supremacy and racial capitalism – is likely to survive and to cast a shadow over the Biden presidency.

Others are more hopeful that American democracy has survived “its brush with death”. Nell Irvin Painter, the distinguished African American scholar, concedes that the election shouldn’t have been this close, but she sees hope “in the long lines of voters”, and in the indelible images of “Americans in 2020 re-enacting the South African voters of 1994” as they voted the ghost of apartheid into the dustbin of history.

Jonathan Freedland sadly notes:

It’s a form of progressive masochism to search for the defeat contained in a victory… Yes, in a high-turnout election, Trump got more votes than he did in 2016 – but Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in history, more even than the once-in-a-generation phenomenon that was Barack Obama. What’s more, Biden looks to have done something extremely difficult and vanishingly rare, taking on and defeating a first-term president. That would ensure that Donald Trump becomes only the third elected president since Herbert Hoover in 1932 to try and fail to win re-election. Trump would take his place alongside Jimmy Carter and George Bush the elder in the small club of rejected, one-term presidents.

America’s return to the world

Joe Biden’s victory has been greeted with great relief by many democracies around the world, and with some consternation by authoritarian populists and autocratic rivals who reveled in America’s democratic recession and descent under Trump. “U.S. allies stressed the need to rebuild ties and multilateral cooperation after President Trump’s ‘America First’ approach upended decades of U.S. foreign policy. For traditional allies who endured sharp criticism, unpredictable behavior and new tariffs under Trump, the election of Biden offered a return to normalcy.

In the global environmental movement and the health sector, many anticipate the quick return of the US to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization to combat COVID-19 and other long-standing and future global health threats. Multilateralism seems poised to enjoy a new burst of diplomatic energy. But the hegemonic rivalry between China and the United States is fated to continue, and the decline of the American model is unlikely to be reversed. The Trump saga and his expulsion from power has exposed both the fragility and resilience of American institutions. In that sense, it has made the United States ordinary.

Trumpism – a reincarnation of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy that has been reconfigured to incorporate digitalised angry populism and the laager of white supremacy and racial capitalism – is likely to survive and to cast a shadow over the Biden presidency.

For Africa, the US can be expected to return to its traditional diplomatic preoccupations of economic development, human rights, anti-terrorism, and competition with China. But the Biden administration will encounter a different continent from that of the Obama years – one that has lived without serious engagement with the departing Trump administration and demands more respect, a continent whose economies have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and require productive and transformative relationships.

For me personally, it has been fascinating to watch the elections in the two countries whose citizenship I carry: Malawi and the United States. Earlier this year, the Malawi Supreme Court annulled the presidential election of May 2019 because of irregularities by the Malawi Electoral Commission. The opposition proceeded to win the election re-run in June. What I have learned from the two elections is that the notion that American democracy is more mature than that of an African country like Malawi is false.

The Malawian Supreme Court exercised judicial independence that is unlikely to come from the highly politicised US Supreme Court. Moreover, the losing ruling party demonstrated maturity that has not been demonstrated by the infantile, irascible and entitled Trump administration and his unprincipled Republican sycophants. This underscores a sobering and empowering fact: democracy is not a monopoly of developed countries; it is always a work in progress that needs to be jealously guarded.

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Derelict Shards & The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms

Online keynote address given at the International Conference: Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future, 7–9 October 2020, Berlin. Organized by Ulrike Lindner, Bettina Brockmeyer, Rebekka Habermas, Gerda Henkel Foundation and the German Federal Foreign Office.

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Derelict Shards & The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms
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Thank you for such a generous introduction. Honorable Minister, Michelle Müntefering, Professor Drs Rebekka Habermas, Bettina Brockmeye, Ulrike Lindne, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon from my side of the world. Nicole Gonsior, Katharina Klaus, Simone Baumstark thank you for all your support. To the panellists, audience, some of whom are friends signing in, a big hello. I trust that you are all holding up well in these surreal days.

A quick apology:

My presentations are usually companioned by dramatic visuals, mostly collated from the public library that is the World Wide Web. Copyright issues associated with this session; means I have to forego the visual evidence.

When Professor Dr. Rebekka Habermas contacted me to inquire whether I would be interested in offering a keynote, I reminded her that I am a person of artistic persuasion, not an academic. “That’s what we desire.” She replied. I asked if she was aware that I do not have a single politically correct bone in my body.” She said, “Good.” “I eat sacred cows.’ I pleaded. She implied, “Guten Appetit.”

So here we are.

Derelict Shards: …

An opening quotation by the late Swedish author, Sven Lindqvist, who for me represents those rare human beings who do the hard work of refining and engaging a sense of their moral consciousness and conscience, however disordering that can be, in his extraordinary work,  “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, in the first paragraph, he observes: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

I concur.

So this is a very preliminary incursion into what I trust will later become for this initiative, among other possibilities, an investigative, excavatory processes. Some figurative bodies might be exhumed in the process of this brief telling, and raise a stink. I don’t apologise. In this offering, Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon make technical appearances, as do other thinkers. Fanon and Cesaire are reminders that the road maps already exist. It is the will to change ourselves through implementing their prophetic imperatives that has been absent.

Also.

About Africa.

For this presentation, do hold its giant and complex pluralities in mind. I refer to the whole of Africa, the pluriversality of it, its essential diversities: there is no subbing of the Sahara in my Africa. Its territoriality extends beyond the seas., its tentacles touch every space that exists in the world.

And, although I am Nairobi and Kenya born, bred, formed and identified, the Occident has and does inform and influence me; this is an intrinsic part of the multiplicities I contain, I live my paradoxes with ease. Note that, yes, I do treat history as one of the paint palettes for my work. However, I prefer and relish the older, deeper and longer histories of the interstices of my people. As brutish as the fairly recent encounter of Africa with the Occident had been, as soul-damaging as it still is, that encounter, in the scheme of things, comparatively speaking, is but a small, viciously irritating, admittedly wildly dramatic phrase with a semicolon in the long, long, long trajectory of the book of African existence. If now it dominates so much of our historical conversations it is because it was an existential wound-creating encounter with structures, systems, ways of thought that penetrate our lives to this moment. It is, however, not the single point upon which our entire African lives pivot. Furthermore, the stories of our encounters with you are myriad, diverse and dispersed; it is not a monolithic tale. The common factor is ‘The Occident’ as metaphor, symbol, wound; as existential threat; as a diversity of forced tragic and horrific experiences, of direct encounter and brutal confrontation with wave after wave of an excess of the unexpected, unimagined, unmitigated evil occasioned by acts of war; and this invasion and its intent was war, and a war that despite the best of the myriad efforts of a people unused to encountering another people able and willing to betray both human hospitality and their word, a people willing to commit random acts of genocide…this is a war our people lost to the Occident totally.

You.

Sie.

It is this ‘you’ that this reflection and initiative first ought to attend to. I think… Before we can arrive at a ‘we’, we must exhaust the accusative, ‘you’, ‘Sie’, not directed at the individual, but to a particular and historical cultural position, idea and consciousness and its world-making choices. The German Colonial idea is fed by, formed by, fuelled by the grander Occidental colonial imperative. The collectivised cultural will that worked as a gang to enforce and sustain the evil genius that was colonial matrix.

Shared is an interesting word in English. Still, whatever is intended by it, we first must prioritise attending to the ‘us’, in community and later in the collective before we can even arrive at a shareable ‘We’. Also, because the colonialism catastrophe did not unfold in isolation, the ‘we’ encompasses other non-African and non-European worlds, who I hope are enjoined in this project, if not the conference.

Now.

This paper went through two major revisions, and I use these to set out a context: The first version prepared for, was it May, offered a point of view that called for a forensic historical reckoning to help stay an inevitable coming explosion of rage. That became moot when fault lines were created by the grotesque public lynching of the human being, Mr. George Floyd, and rumblings started all over the world. History intervening. A second revision was inspired by the world-scape created by the ongoing visitation of the Coronavirus. I was startled by the discombobulations and public health disorders of societies that have behaved for the last eighty years as if they were exempt and excused from the vagaries of human suffering, that have treated the sufferings of others in the world, like nations of Africa, as an intrinsic flaw in their nature. Around that time, I also happened upon a commentary on the June 2017[1] World Bank Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility and the ‘pandemic bonds’ they had floated. The investor nations include the European Union, the USA of course, and Japan. The bonds were oversubscribed. These bunch were betting heavily on reaping profits out of pandemic-caused mass deaths, primarily in Africa and possibly in Asia. These bonds were to, “transfer pandemic risks in low-income countries to the financial markets”. Put simply, here was the commodification of anticipated suffering, the instrumentalization of anguish for profit. The human scavengers then proceeded to package their macabre money grubbing, and obscene feeding frenzy as philanthropy. My visceral disgust focused this presentation. It is now an Aetiological enquiry. There is an urgent human need to interrogate a 400-year old cultural mindset. How does a dynamic culture get to lose grip of the basics of being human? How does this culture come to justify and then amplify its dependency on its predation of other humans? Is there any precedent for a culture seeing itself, and intentionally undertaking a long-history probing of its cultural conscience and collective soul? In the pandemic bond subscription story I found a perfect condensation of the essential character of the European imperialism and colonisation project.

Colonialism as shared history? At this stage of things, a rephrasing of the theme will probably be sought. You see, when a psychopath enters a family’s home and proceeds to rape, rob, eviscerate and murder them, and then settles in, takes over the family pets, the premises, the lands. Starts growing grapes and mines the gold he finds there, and then becomes extremely wealthy in the process, marries a well-brought up delicate lily from his home town, becomes a source of wisdom and starts to host the finest of classical music soirées, builds a reputation as an impressive family patriarch and, later his statue is raised in his home town on the day he establishes an endowment for scholarships in the humanities …now… no matter what, the brutalised, displaced, victimised family upon whose annihilation the psychopath has built an impressive life, that wounded family, if any do survive, cannot engage the atrocity that decimated their relationship with existence as something of a ‘shared experience’. The original inhumanity, the violation of an intrinsic and basic covenant of human relationality, the desecration of human dignity and decency forbid it. With very few exceptions—I can’t think of any—the forced entry of Europe into our worlds linger long as a horror story of brutishness, cruelty, violence, predation and inhumanity, no matter what shining edifices have been built atop the grievous wounds.

But what else might a descendant-beneficiary of a history of heinous crime do when confronted with the reality of this, finds a spark of horror within themselves and is afflicted by a need to make peace? A suggestion: enter naked into the worlds of the shadowed memories and knowing. Undertake to collect and collate memory from out of the crime scenes; approach with reverence the weight of tragic knowing that descendants bear. Listen. Witness. Attend to the truth (Capital ‘T’). Strive for a language for the experiencing. Translate this into heartfelt human grief. Speak it out to another. Acknowledge. Be heard. Endeavour to repair. There are no expiry dates for acts of human reparation, and hope that somehow, somewhere, sometime (it cannot be hurried, demanded) the ‘F’ word—Forgiveness—gently enters the threshold of engagement.

Aime Césaire:

“no one colonizes innocently, …”a nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization”.

I worry that unless a wilful effort is made to dig around the historical roots of the genesis of what becomes the colonial enterprise—I mean the human mindset and sequence of experiences and thought and cultural compromises that converged to make it unfold in the anti-human way that it did, yet another long season of good minds round and round a dry watering hole will unfold. There are important questions waiting for all of us at the roots. I need to understand, for example, as a human being perplexed by the depth and intensity of evil, who, will billions of others, still lives out colonialism’s resonances and discontents–what was in the European cultural psyche that turned such an excess of its migrating population into sociopaths, psychopaths, and serial killers operating in the world? This was abnormal by any historical standard. Why did it happen to Europe in particular, in the way that it did? Knowing the codes of life, hiding the intrinsic sadism under the veneer of Judeo-Christianity with its ‘Thou shalt not kill-Thou shalt not covet-Love thy neighbour as thyself’ tenets, in confronting the other, the stranger, why was there such a wholesale failure of faith as life and action? Future research processes, probably by combined teams of forensic pathologists, anthropologists and psychoanalysts might uncover some of the reasons for this aberration, which then proceeded, mostly through a hitherto unexperienced will to violence, will to annihilate masses, will to genocide, to turn its derangements into laws of and for the world.

By the way, I use the metonym ‘Occident’ to refer to the ideological space from which the originators and architects of the catastrophe that becomes colonialism emerge for the sake of aetiology and the tomb-poking process that is this presentation.

Oh yes, about those pandemic bonds…Good news. Fortunately for humanity, the winds of fate do sometimes blow fairly. Covid-19, that equal opportunity existential threat has caused the would-be-vampires to join the rest of humanity in reflecting on the meaning of human vulnerability and mass suffering; of dealing with uncertainty and making peace with the unknown. The papers on which the bonds are printed are bulkier and more valuable than the anticipated returns on investment. And this year, the World Bank ditched its second offering.

Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future? There is a one-word answer to the implied question: What we share most because of colonialism is that Greek word, trauma. But what to do with it when that trauma is a multi-prism, multi-form distinct-character presence? Lay these out, I guess. Listen, at the core of the tragedy of colonialism is the sadness of wilful destruction of the gift and treasure of the intimacy of humanity, of what-could-have-been-had-we-met-differently-and-humanly. Our greatest shared loss occasioned by a violent and hubristic encounter was each other. We lost each other. ‘Derelict Shards’ the title references jutting, sharp and pointy bits that still pierce our ease with one another. These phantom shrapnel from the fallout of our fatal encountering in this ghost-making project, not aided by a faux-innocence and deliberate amnesia that sweeps our many restless dead, the terrible deeds done to secure advantages (yours and ours) under so many metaphorical carpets.

‘Shared colonialism’? So which of the thresholds of our discontent do we cross into first? Epistemic, Economic, Theological, Scientific, Conceptual, Ontological, Philosophical, Historical, Industrial, Economic, Linguistic, Cultural, Militaristic, Technological, Artistic, Scientific, Biological, Civilizational, Imaginational, Aesthetic, Teleological, Psychological, Typological, Natural? Pathological? There is tangible historical evidence to go with each of these and other unmentioned categories.

You wanted a speech. I have none to give. If a type is required for this presentation, then call it a dirge, or an introit for a requiem, or a literary autopsy. A dirge is a call for introspection for both dirge-singer, bereaved family, community and the deceased, whose life, most African cultures understand, is a continuum. The dead must still account for the meaning of their choices, their existence, and the effects their lives had on others. There is a witness. The dirge is a site and space of, among other things, argument, audit and debate. The dirge is a site of witness, and also outpouring and acknowledgment of pain and sorrow. But when there is pain, there is paradoxically, still life; there is hope. And oh yes, after the dirge has detailed the things that needs to be shouted out, the dirge singer is at once forgiven and is not held accountable for things said. (I am indemnifying myself. ) The dirge becomes an outlet for the release of sad ghosts that would lurk restless, for the sorrow that might consume, for the deceased that died afraid their lives, loves and meaning would be forgotten.

A different point: I treasure the word ‘autopsy’[2], in its etymological and aetiological sense, as a method of inquiry and investigations. Autopsy: see for yourself in naked, unvarnished truth the innards of what is before us in a prosaic and philosophical quest. For colonialism’s form-changing, euphemism-dolling phantoms, I wish to offer a ruthless autopsy service.

This presentation unfolds in both a literal, digital and metaphorical Berlin: a city one cherishes, yet a city that is also in itself an unsecured multi-level crime scene of historical proportions. I heard a tentatively hopeful question behind the provocative conference title. Here is my position: it is still premature to ask it. You see, we have not yet even evolved a philosophy or grammar for the reconciling of our rattling skeletons, those dread phantoms and sometimes frolicking ghosts that roam the carnage of the devastated landscapes of tragically generated pasts that leach into the present with a lack of acknowledgment, with excessive noise, with ceaseless conceptualising and abstraction, and with which we collude to do nothing, and through this do-nothingness suffocating the life and keeping sealed the doors of hope for a robust, living, human future between us.

Back to aetiology.

Sie.

You.

The Occident.

Not just Germany.

As with many shape changers founded on ether, the Occidental notion always reshapes and reforms itself. Where are we now? The Five Eyes Alliance? The North, The West, Developed, First World, Nirvana? What is your presently trending metonym? Anyway, the idea of the Occident, was given a dogmatic imprimatur through the June 7, 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and the associated Papal Bull that launched the alleged Age of Discovery. Didn’t anyone think to interrogate such a ridiculous demarcation of worlds? No?

Ok, let us leap across centuries.

Timeline: Berlin, (Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885):

A summit of the leadership of the world’s thieves, protagonists of the Age of Discovery, plus a few others, gathered ostensibly to resolve the Occidental Invader-created questions connected with the Congo River basin in Central Africa, but in actuality to apportion to themselves pieces of a grand old continent withal its cultures, kingdoms, nations, peoples. They will create borders between villages, assert territorial possession by means of a long, mostly asymmetrical war, flying the twin trojan-horse fig leaves of a civilising mission, and the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, neither of which they believe in. In this event, the real human motive: avarice, lust, obsession, wealth, power is kept concealed. Every gross intention is made to sound like philanthropy and humanitarianism, and is published as such over the objections a few good humans. Has this template ever changed? Soon after, murderous European hordes, mandated by their home nations, will fan out across an ancient continent looting, burning cities to the ground, committing mass murders, erasing humans; raping, spreading thirteen different diseases (ranging from dengue fever to syphilis; measles to the plague), rewriting histories so that, years later an apparently educated French president, Sarkozy, will stand in what had been a trans-oceanic, transmodern trading centre systematically distorted by his earlier compatriots, and confidently state that Africa had no history to speak of until… the European. [3]

Derelict shards:

There are a trillion ‘pieces’ of ‘Colonialisms’ scattered across our worlds, transcending borders and time and space. Your museums, collections, libraries filled with looted artwork, power objects, documents that bear testimony to the egregiousness of your ancestors acts, the intrinsic evil of the catastrophe of our sustained meeting. How come Mr Sarkozy education does not allow him to connect the Senegalese high-value looted art work, the elaborate cultural items, the human body parts in French stolen-good clearing houses (museums and collections) with the young people he addresses in the city where his earlier compatriots had enacted those crimes? Such an unreflective conscience, such a moral void even if it can deliver poetic twaddle with an intensity of super-confidence that is shocked when questioned. Do you ever wonder what psychological processes allows one culture to project an emptiness upon an older, grander, continent and all its people while transporting, and hoarding the bounty of that civilisations to its cities? I ask: what psychic force gives confidence to a European to affirm the sobriquet of cannibal to another’s when it is to Europe that the ripped-up body parts of our numerous dead, the murdered, are transported, are kept, are fetishized, are stored and are even debated over? You Germany, with your shrines and reflections on the devastation of the Shoah, that there is to this moment a dispute about what to do with stolen, appropriated, desecrated human remains, the horrific evidence of the Occident’s inability to come to terms with its own ghastly conscience, its will to murder, its compromise with intrinsic and moral evil. But for how long, my dears? That this depth and scope of unadulterated evil does not seize the national conscience says all that needs to be said, not only about our fundamental disconnect, but the fact that the site where the most difficult work is to be undertaken is in that space of re-humanisation. So, dear Germany, how often have you asked yourself what it means to be human? And having explored that thoroughly, what is your reply to the sibling question: what does the humanity of the other mean for me?

Let me now take this dirge an octave higher.  

For your culture and peoples, what you call ‘colonialism’ was your obscene worship of the Golden Calf, the actioning of your dedication to Mammon to which you gave over your essence and souls in exchange for others’ power, wealth and control, at the expense of a reverence for human existence, and a recognition of the rights of nature. You! You suffocated your own humanity, plunging the earth into grief, tragedy, anguish, sorrow. And you still refuse to reckon with that reality, with your disease distribution, your bewildering necrophilia, to which you are still so attached. You compound your murderousness with an amazing (in a bad sense) inability to agree to let the stolen dead home.

Who are you?

You tell us.

It means your own interrogation of your historo-cultural conscience; but would you dare to undertake this most challenging of tasks, this ‘examen’?

Let’s try this:

Open the crypts today, exhume the graves and put out the formaldehyde bottles where you have stored the bodies and body parts of our desecrated dead, and invite a pathologist to generate a report; that is also an historical document, isn’t it? You cohabit with colonialism quite unbothered, don’t you? The Occident: Why are my ancestors bodies and body parts still mouldering in your museums, those elegant shrines to that gesture to the thieving spirits of your ancestors? Why are you still struggling with respectfully returning the stolen deceased home?

Talk to us.

Is it that you secretly believe that by keeping them you are able to retain a powerful and magical hold over our lives? Are these your vibranium? But seriously, how will we ever bridge the fissure of the daily airbrushed Occidental conscience regarding Africa’s humanity? Will you dare to name the bones of our people you still have in your museums, collections and store-rooms? And while you are at that, shut down your awful zoos: these loathsome legacies of, and evidence of the extent to which your acquisitive savagery extended itself to nature. Must you possess what belongs to others even at the expense of a right to thrive in life? Sharing colonialism? Look well; somewhere in Europe there is an East African Savannah Giraffe named Gretel shivering in an enclosure, a cage, in a winter cold that is most alien to her species. Her role is to satiate ravenous gazes of those who need to feel that they possess her, have access to her essence. But friends, what sort of collective cultural insanity tolerates this sort of sickness, renders it ‘normal’, a signifier of ‘progress’, a mark of ‘civilisation’?

Colonialism, you wonder?

But my dears, it is only a plane ride away.

You have great choices: Australia, Canada, United States of America, Brazil, and New Zealand: cool destinations. Northern Ireland—yes, that too. There are quite a few islands to choose from: Chagos, St. Helena, Reunion, Mayotte, Lampedusa, the Malvinas. Are those places too far from home?

Easy: Your Museums, University store rooms, so many private collection; archived materials, even libraries. Permit me to remind you of a most excellent, oft overlooked site: The grand old banks with mandates that originated in the Colonial feeding frenzy. Their records. Photographs, their listings. And their networks. The Auction houses too. And how could we neglect all the chartered companies? All the imperialistic nations of Europe had plenty of these, including the play-innocent strangely amnesiac Scandinavians. Chartered Companies: mandated beneficiaries of a long, long season of murder, plunder and brigandage. Many of these chartered companies evolved into the myriad companies, with new names; companies you uphold even today as beacons of great light on a benighted world.

The purpose of the colonial project was singular:

Seize wealth and profit by all means necessary, even genocide. And your people did so with extraordinary success. Nothing says ‘shared’ as does African goods building European economies for 400 years. But now…in a cold, business sense, in the interest of sharing proceeds, as part of a new historical mandate, if you are serious, let us share research, collect records and set up an independent forensic accounting project for every one of these ex-chartered companies and their affiliates. There is a Mount Everest of debt to the African continent that that has not ever been repaid, let alone referred to; it includes royalties in commodities illegally benefitted from for over 400 years. These include coffee, diamonds, gold, and uranium. Human labour, taxes. This is just a start. I suggest that in consideration of infrastructure laid, and some compassion (to cushion the shock to the delusional system), perhaps the interest should be calculated over the outstanding debt rather than the full and original amounts and benefits generated from profits made out of African stolen resources. And please, let nobody confuse this settling of outstanding accounts with reparations. Reparations is a completely separate conversation. In this strict accounting process, the acts of violent plunder, the paid militia, the manufactured wars, the human trafficking and slave-making, the genocide mandates these brutish trading companies supported by the state, institutions, and the security apparatus are not factored in. (These can be dealt with in a separate tribunal.) The despicable modus operandi continues to this day in places like the DRC, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Bolivia. The Occident: Is this really what fulfilling the imperatives of living your highest human ideal looks like? Is this what your culture defines as meaningful existence?

You do love to gently insert and tout ‘Development Aid’ as the panacea, the conscience salve, your holy grail—(the poverty and pity economy is a lucrative one, as the pandemic bonds suggest)—but I trust that you know that we know that you your debt to us is far, far more than those couple of coins you toss our way. We are aware that at least 65% of the resources, probably more, from our continent sustain your economies. Colonialism as continuity: does the persistence of this set up, the trade structures rigged entirely in your favour still make any sense to you? Why must a system with roots in that catastrophe that we call colonialism still persist and undergirds what we call ‘economy’ today? It is likely the failure lies fully with us, not you. Evil never yields the advantages it has secured for itself. If we are to trust in the shared intent to repair historical wrongs, are you suggesting that you are prepared to endure what assessing and unravelling the economic matrices would entail? Are you yourselves prepared for what you will lose? I am not necessarily concerned about Occidental angst, as much as I am about having our people sucked into another energy-drinking, seasonal thought laundering machine that will, at its best, yield an excess of hot air.

By the way, I should have asked this earlier: What do you want of us now? What is your agenda this time? Our experience of you is that your interests in Africa have never been without a motive that is only for your benefit. So tell us upfront what you want and what is in this for us. Whatever your answer keep in mind that between us lies a chasm filled with irresolution, of unexpressed sorrow, of systematic erasures; of denial, contempt, and gaslighting aided by willed amnesia, propaganda, rebranding, theorising and appropriation.

Anyway, as we autopsy colonialism what must we effect to gain deep insight into the cultural imperative that was even able to transform human beings into commodities, and hold nature ransom? What pathology infected the Occidental so that it could do this to the earth, wounding it so abysmally? We understand that Europe has had a terribly long history with the slaughter of its own people; the reason for the ghastly Westphalian principle of sovereignty exported worldwide stems from needing to end the thirty-year war, with its over 8 million dead. But what fed this ease with human slaughter so that this becomes an abiding feature of the Occidental hegemony? To explore this theme we would need to call in theologians and theologian-exorcists to work with researchers, for by asking it we understand that we enter into the realm of seeking to understand the mystery of existential evil.

It is true there are only a few states that might have been historically been exempted from experiencing some form of colonisation. The occupation and domination of another’s territory and their physical, imaginative, historical and cultural life seems to be a human habit. Regarding European colonisation though, in my experience, there is often times a certain shudder of secret pleasure at the memory of having once dominated others, a nostalgia and even longing for a time of imagined imperial glory. What many of the Occidentals I encounter find almost impossible to engage with, are the probable sites of shared (de)humanisation, their particular stories of victimisation by others. The Swedes I have met quickly gloss over the history of ancestors turned into serfs in their own country, who were forced into building St Petersburg in horrid geographical conditions, and were mostly worked to death doing so. Now then, as a site of mutual inquiry, of gathering insight of the affect, might the German consider the season it refers to, when it does, as the ‘Occupation by Allies’ as a possible space and place of a profound cultural and human woundedness and humiliation that would find resonances with the colonial experiences of others? I am an outsider—so I am probably bumbling into a volcanic sore point as a bull in a ceramics shop. I mention this, because in my brief sojourns here, I have been struck by the telling absences, the familiar silences, the recognition of the species of ghosts, and the complexity of unease in speaking about this time. Perhaps this has as much to do with why such an occupation took place in a country that was also spliced. Nevertheless, the gaps are interesting: the absences and silences in historical telling and literature. The meanings of occupation and amputation. Displacement within your own home. Of losing worlds. Of living under the insult of mediocrities that lord it over you, and as they do so they inform you how this is for your own benefit. To dare to speak, even of the meaning, affect, sense of this experience in a truthful way, is it not possible? Understand this, such a dangerous (in a good way) space of engagement would help subvert an expectation of an engagement that still strongly preferred, for all manner of reasons including power dynamics, to read Africa as the pitiable perpetual victim, helpless scapegoat upon which so much horror has been visited, to permit the perpetrator(s), now undergoing political repentance, to adorn themselves with the sackcloth of restorer, administrator and deliverer of just balance and goodwill to the once again passive African recipients.

Please don’t do that.

It is debilitating.

Listen, the power of the African space as a listener to the histories of the Occidental, especially its acknowledged miseries, is viable if our mutual goal is towards the re-humanisation of peoples. There are immense possibilities in juxtaposing similar experiences to arrive at a common human jargon of lived and embodied histories. Uncomfortable? Good. You see, if we are to break into the heart where our exchange becomes meaningful, transformative and future-making, then we have to stand metaphorically and historically naked before each other. We traverse a tenebrous nightscape. To survive it, knowledge, order, fearlessness and truth are weapons to seek and wield. Let’s drop the airs, the layers, the sophistry and associated bullshit from the get-go. A visceral, courageous, even messy human engagement is what a new kind of history of us requires.

Oh!

I remembered something else.

My dear Germany, just what the hell was that reparation offer you recently made to Namibia after so many years of negotiations?[4] On top of that you even toss your ‘safe word’ development aid into the mix. Have you gone totally mad? Such obliviousness and mediocre engagement from you, Germany? The Nama and Herero endure a horrible invasion, put up a spirited fight to secure their existence; suffer a gruesome genocide for their efforts, lose their country, their world-view, their self-knowing, and imagined futures because of your choices. A good number of your descendants, your German Diaspora in Africa, live as Namibians in Namibia to this day, and that offer is what you come up with?

We have come to expect this gaslighting thinking outcome from the responsibility-denying, self-mythologising Anglo-Americans, or the perpetual-performance-of-innocence Swiss and Scandinavians, but not you, not a nation and people that has managed to keep a stern, clear gaze on its shadows and chasms. There is probably more behind the scenes than what we hear about, but what was made public suggests intense historical dissonance, a lack of depth reflection and genuine regret at the atrocities committed by known ancestors, and shockingly lazy thinking. What a missed opportunity.

But I also get it: There is an underlying terror that probably informs this insulting gesture. The full opening of that pandora’s box of reckoning would reveal the kind of skeletons that dismantle the slick veneers of imagined civilisation. To admit to and an intrinsic impulse to genocide, to necrophilia, to inhumanity would damage your carefully cultivated civilised Euro identities. Too late! The African space-scapes are a scrying mirror for Occidental culture: look in it. Do not get so entranced by your reflections there. That is not the point. A scrying mirror reveals the depths of soul. Pay attention instead. Try. For the sake of the next generation.

More on this topic.

I looked around for what other imperially offending nations had offered as gestures towards seeking to reconcile a heinous past: You are aware of ‘The Murayama Statement released by former Prime Minister of Japan Tomiichi Murayama on August 15, 1995: “On the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the War’s End”. Murayama apologised for, and named Japanese war and colonial crimes and atrocities, admitting to Japanese responsibility for the deaths of millions. Can this conference imagine such an engaged cultural reckoning with conscience?

By the way, no human desires another to wallow in guilt.

That is selfish.

Guilt will not magically change the past.

What is sought and desired by the afflicted is to be seen, heard, acknowledged, to be soothed, to be given a chance to face the offender. To hear the offender accuse himself of the fault is meaningful. Such courage might unleash a treasury of options that open doors to the imagination of a more forgiving future. Reckoning must be written on the body, then we can really begin to experience history as shared. But one does not hold ones breath. The Occident on its own volition seems incapable of the basics of such a gesture. Hubris. They are however likely to when the ascendant star-ship China locks into place and wishes to finally have a discussion with the descendants of the architects and perpetrators of their ‘Hundred Years of Humiliation’. Don’t hold it against us if at that time we ask China to squeeze from you our apology statement while they are in the process of collecting theirs.

Speaking of China, I note with mild amusement your chattering fluster about Africa’s tryst with the East. First, Chinese historiography is intricately connected with Africa’s older and recent pasts; this is a reactivation. Second, the attraction of China? A change of script is as good as a rest. And the BRI is compelling in its vision. Third, Our continent should also have bound its fate and future to the intentions and ambitions of Bandung I and II, and not pivoted westwards into a modern-era trap.

A brief digression: Just to make things clear; the type of speech I would make for an Africa initiated process would be different. There I would speak of turning within, of observing, re-strategising with a goal to winning this overlong war of worlds; to take a soul audit: and to admit to our own losses, to study the systemic failures of our historical cultural and structures against your onslaught, to note the terrible imaginal and epistemic disruptions, and at last give in to the grief over our millions and millions of stolen and dead, all those humans our ancestors were unable to protect, the nature that was ripped apart. And afterwards to focus on rediscovering a delirious love for ourselves and to make our nations the bounty that they are for our own. And to prioritise Asia, South America, the Middle East, Caribbean and Oceania. End of digression.

Another thing:

There are unseen rarely admitted to layers we will need to engage with in order to call in another kind of future history: How would scholars of the world today engage an Occidental culture that is seemingly committed to nihilistic moral disintegration, of what friend and scholar Dr. Wandia Njoya calls suicide-bombers tantrum-throwing that threatens humanity with annihilation if humanity cannot give it what it wants? Have any of your thinkers ever reflected on how and why the Occident entered that way of being in and with the world?

I have an untested hypothesis.

It is situated within and around the history of the European plague (pestilence) (from mid-1300 up to 1500) which came on the back of the Great Famine (1315-17). An existential terror that penetrates the bones of the cultural spirit, a continent almost annihilated, losing to 60-80% of its entire population. A ceaseless season of extensive trauma and the deepest suffering would thoroughly distort any human psyche, more so because this is an act of invasion and conquest of vast territories by rats and fleas that neither prayer nor monarch nor army could contain. Did Europe suffer a soul wound that unchecked, became a spiritual black hole? I have been struck by how much the plague references show up in your lexicon regarding Africa, although we had little to do with it: you were not as important as Asia and what you come to call the Middle East in our economic and trade networks. But I have been more and more fascinated by how much of your plague shadows are cast upon the black body, upon your imagination of blackness almost as if by doing so revenant keeps away from Europe. ‘The Black Death’, some of your people call it. In this might lie the clue as to the rather bizarre, archetypal, fetishist unreasoning responses received to questions of African agency, beingness or histories.

A Cesairean exhortation is to see and think history clearly, and another important word here, do so dangerously. We certainly need a way to put to rest what broils in our soils and souls, of the intimate losses that happen when one set of humans chose to break a covenant of dignity and decency with other humans, a psychic disruption that not only destroyed the codes of hospitality, but served to calcify the human heart. Whatever gifts and benefits our encountering produced will not be truthfully and wholly articulated before the seeping wound between us is addressed and dressed. The history we seek lies elsewhere; within the ruins and ghosts and sadness of what-could-have-been, inside the lives of descendant-survivors of Occidental depravity. Your ancestors seem to have deployed some preternatural forces that they let run amok: These need to be understood and confronted in order to be returned to the metaphorical bottle. They need to be named. Naming is also exorcism; and this we need between us.

Where else can we look for salvage? Inside older histories. You have somehow conveniently ‘misplaced’ the stories of your much older culture of encountering varieties of Africa; whether through the multi-century German veneration of the unmistakeably African Commander of a Roman Legion, the Christian (before Europe’s own embrace of Christianity) sainted St Maurice, who died in Aganum Switzerland, patron saint of the German Holy Roman Emperors, for whose lance, spurs and sword Henry the Fowler (919-936) ceded the Swiss canton of Aargau to an Abbey, whose items were part of the regalia used at coronations of Austro-Hungarian emperors until 1916 (yes, the twentieth century). There were three early popes from the Roman Africa Province, and Generals like Hannibal Barca, and Scipio Africanus. An ‘Age of (un) Enlightenment’ revisionism constructs and forces on the Occident an unbroken melanin-free European genealogy: Isn’t that daft, don’t you think? The pluralities and diversities of people in a society seemed to have been the norm there as it was elsewhere. Recognising this can lead us to the right and proper question: When and where did the break occur? Why? Who gained? And whose bright idea was it to prioritise pigment and then entrench the psychosis of racism? And why is there still a posse of zealots always disputing the evidence of historically multicultural, multiracial Europe?

Is the repair of the consequentially tragic (recent) past lost to us?

Of course not.

We are human imbued with an infinite imagination.

We can race into realms where ten thousand worldviews that survived the Occidental onslaught still exist to read the lingering memories there. Out of these might a new grammar of history emerge. Is there a kinder more human future for and of and between us? Probably, and most likely under and through the China-originated BRI, since you are a part of it too. We are likely to re-encounter one another again as Mandarin speakers.

But more seriously. Some thinkers-on-trial work is required. Is your culture willing to poke at your Charles Darwins, , John Lockes, Carl Linneaus, Imannuel Kants? Not forgetting that completer of philosophy too, the beloved Georg Hegel who boldly stated that ‘man as we find him in Africa has not progressed beyond his immediate existence.’ And we the non-existent, in a Hegelian sense, have had to live out the strong belief of the Occident in this capsule of condensed stupidity. Will you be stoical as our scholars saw the feet of your gurus and bring them down to their right and proper size? You seek to write a way into another future? Of this we are in agreement; but apart from panoptic-minded thinkers from across the disciplines, we shall need new words, fresh imaginings and imaging. We might also need to recover the old words which your ancestors and you blocked, mocked, derided. To this purpose, will you also allow representatives of the people your ancestors murdered, traumatised, and wounded to meet you in an amphitheatre where memory and history throb, where the rites of repair and reconciliation can be effected? Will you allow yourselves to be silent and listen, or drink bitter herbs and eat the things, the sacraments that lead to wholeness? Will you learn also for your own sake, and the sake of your descendants? You know what, we need gestures. We need an official armistice ceremony, probably in Berlin to close the conference that launched the war against our worlds. We also need to co-create a liturgy of shared grief, a way to reconcile our ancestors, these wandering ghosts. We need to find another phrase to replace the benign ‘colonialism’. I propose, The Horror? Mostly out of mischief. To return to Europe that damn Conradian gaze. We would be needed to ‘do’ history differently: a muscular approach that is transformative and restorative of lost humanity.

Playing with a few scenarios:

One:

I imagine a process created by and for a legion of excellent thinking-persons representing the disciplines, from all parts of the world, who swear allegiance and belonging to no nation, apart from the realms of History, Truth, Justice, Confession, Atonement and Reconciliation, who would oath themselves to the highest human values including integrity, courage, justice, truth, fearlessness, impartiality. They would re-open the records of the old imperial companies, and other private and commercial institutions with long colonial roots. They would audit the museums and collections. List the plundered assets of cultures and prepare a fee note. We are not talking about reparations yet. We mean the first order: the financial settling of outstanding historical accounts. Families and colonial company beneficiaries are known. The money trail is meticulous and the evidence lies in bank vaults, An audit and recovery of assets historical process becomes a necessity if historical truthfulness is to be reached, isn’t it? No one is demanding the trial of beneficiaries, although an apology and acknowledgment would be desirable as part of a reparative activity. They team would visit descendants, or host descendants: they would listen, archive, honour, witness, learn, record, collect, exhume, uncover, audit, analyse, reconstruct histories from communities. They would be film makers, story tellers, dancers, data specialists, biochemists, anthropologists, photographers, coders…those needed to think, create, hear, imagine. They would develop new questions. They would deliver accountability reports to the nations. 

Scenario two:

Are the under-40s represented here? Listen. Flee! Run! Tear away from the elders of another generation, figuratively and metaphorically. Physically too. On your way out, raid the libraries, and pick out the literature that they ignore. Distil these, and evolve a new grammar of action and thought system as you ruminate on the poetry and prophecies. Go beneath the surfaces and evolve a method to guide your original quest to restore humanity to wholeness. Exhume the graves the elders hide from you. Bring up the cold bones in vaults to the sun to be named and to be accounted for. Raid the museum storehouses. Re-write the texts on walls where the bounty from atrocities are on display. That which should not be displayed in the first place, send home. Take the canon and set it on aflame and see what endures. Dismantle the typologies, the boundaries and hedges that sustain a collective stupidity that is obsessed with dissipating truths. Write apology notes for assorted ancestors. Begin, at last, the real age of human discovery of the human and of the custodianship of the earth using the instruments of your time; technology, platforms, codes that confuse us. Judge us ruthlessly. Spare nobody. Doubt everything. Doubt me. Escape before you are seduced into inheriting the stench and weight of a billion ancient ghosts.

Third option: aka, the story-maker’s fantasy:

This scenario is inspired by the aptly named-for-this-moment novel, End of the Affair: Graham Greene has Maurice Bendrix, his protagonist, wrestle with a God that overwhelms everything he understands, a God that also seizes from him that which he loves the most, and he gets to understand that this God is after him: he writes his relinquishment of the fight as a final prayer:

“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood; “O God, You’ve done enough. You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Standing here in the swirl of a long, long epoch of a toxic relationship with the Occident (its associates, its satellites, its proxies), I offer this prayer: not that you are God, although you have heretically appropriated that role for yourselves.

To the Occident:

You’ve done enough. You have plundered enough from us. You expect us to account for your inhumanity ad infinitum, to diagnose your pathologies and also deliver your absolution. We are weary and wary of you. The truth, unless you define it is alien to your mind, goodness unless you decree it is alien to your conscience, as for beauty—see what your money-grubbing, mammon-worshipping choices have made of our earth. And like the planet, we are weary and wary of you. We are tired of bleeding every time we meet you. You are exhausting. Often, whenever you open your mouths in reference to us, bile and venom pour out, maledictions saturated with saccharine, as if you are the odious scions of the Three Witches of Macbeth. You are soul-draining. You feed off violence. You tranquilise your corruption by turning them to laws that you then raise as sacrosanct. Your existential insecurity drives you to endlessly compare yourselves with others just to affirm that you are still at the summit of some fantastical pinnacle. Who cares? We are tired of your appetite for blood, your moral void, your soul loss, all those phantoms entrapped in your cold-glittering necropols. Gaslighting, absurdity and amnesia: your preferred methods of interpretating us. We are exhausted by your theatre of innocence, your primordial resentments. Our spirits need distance to process the effect of the four centuries of your hungry-angry frenzy. We have our own long outstanding appointment with grief; the ghosts in and of our history will not let us rest. It is time for us to attend to them. We have a date with our history: we must learn how earth’s wealthiest continent, cradle and crucible of human knowledge trade allowed itself to be bamboozled, bullied, weakened, possessed, and disordered by a vicious, delusional, bubonic-plague tormented race that arrived at cosmopolitanism so, so late in history, whose primal parochialism keeps it superstitious about pluralism and diversity. Your insanity, its tenacity do not matter to us anymore. With this in mind, apart from the basics of meet and greet, and the cool pragmatics of settling your 400-year old outstanding business debt to us…Please… Leave us alone. Just leave us alone. (Lasse uns… in Ruhe)

‘Derelict Shards: The Roamings of Colonial Phantoms’ by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Copyright © 2020, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited. No changes shall be made to the Work without the written consent of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor or her representative. No further use of this material in extended distribution, other media, or future editions shall be made without the express written consent of The Wylie Agency. All rights not expressly granted herein are hereby reserved and retained by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-11/pandemic-bond-investors-brace-for-wipeout-as-coronavirus-spreads

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/425m-in-world-bank-catastrophe-bonds-set-to-default-if-coronavirus-declared-a-pandemic-by-june

https://www.ft.com/content/70dd05ac-54d8-11ea-8841-482eed0038b1

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/feb/28/world-banks-500m-coronavirus-push-too-late-for-poor-countries-experts-say

[2] autopsy (n.) 1650s, “an eye-witnessing, a seeing for oneself,” from Modern Latin autopsia, from Greek autopsia “a seeing with one’s own eyes,” from autos-“self” (see auto-) + opsis “a sight” (from PIE root *okw-“to see”). That is my attempt to extend the many meanings of autopsy, it was shipped into necropsy, which is still Ok. The idea of colonialism as an always morphing phantom that needs to be exorcised/autopsied, faced fearlessly. I like the dimensions of that word.

[3] The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future. The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy … there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.” July 27, 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy. Speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/12/namibia-rejects-german-compensation-offer-over-colonial-violence

https://www.dw.com/en/namibia-germany-reparations/a-54535589

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