By Emmanuel Dolo, PhD
After 65 days into office, President Donald J. Trump has reduced the oldest and most stable democracy in the world to an emerging one. He has made the country the butt of jokes worldwide. Americans owe all this to the decision that was made in the voting booth. During the presidential campaign, Trump stoked right wing populism and exploited racist, sexist, and class prejudices and fears. Now, the world is witnessing the Trump administration’s unraveling. This unique “amateur hour” in American presidential history is manifested by several actions. President Trump falsely accuses his immediate predecessor of wiretapping him and his campaign staffers. He then gets a stern rebuke from his own Justice Department delivered through an emissary – the FBI director. Standing next to other world leaders, the American President answers questions from journalists showing intellectual laziness and unpreparedness as onlookers watch in dismay. His answers are often focused on himself and far removed from the reality of the issues being discussed. When other leaders coherently respond to questions, he is vague and elusive. He rudely drops the phone on the Australian Prime Minister. His advisors have had to custom-make a new term “alternative facts” to sustain his inability to substantiate numerous claims made. He just suffered the most recent reproach, offered by his own partisans, the Freedom Caucus, which prevented his healthcare bill from passing. Yet, he cannot stop scolding the media or the opposing Democratic Party for his own unpreparedness and unwillingness to appreciate the stature and intellectual requirements of the office that he holds.
He threatens some of the core values of America’s “greatness,” a virtue he alleged was lost and his administration would restore. He came prepared to deny and dismiss President Obama’s legacy. Instead of viewing governance as a process of taking thoughtful actions to solve ordinary citizens’ problems, for President Trump, it is a preoccupation with discarding his predecessor’s achievements. With this lopsided focus, Trump’s presidency has become a repeated parade of incompetent clumsiness, shame breeding, and scandal making. President Trump’s hostility toward immigrants and his religious bigotry towards Muslims continue to undermine civil rights achievements and the nation’s social cohesion. When Mr. Trump was campaigning, he made anti-corruption his core message, arguing that the Washington “clique” was corrupt. Therefore, he needed to “drain the swamp.” Hopefully, by now after several missteps and subsequent humiliations, he has realized that every incoming administration needs to be strategic in how it deals with the constituents of its proverbial political swamp. In those swamps reside institutional memories. Without the cooperation of its residents – transition from one administration to the other can be mired in lapses, even blunders.
In less than three months, the world has watched President Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn resign in sheer disgrace. Others from his campaign team are under investigations for ties with Russia, which possibly interfered with the American democratic process. President Trump’s entire government is reeling in and out of consciousness under the spell of a possible Watergate-type scandal. His Travel Ban Executive Order is nearly dead on arrival. His key staffers are regularly in the media contradicting one another. His own temperament has come into question repeatedly because his actions do not match the office that he holds.
Americans elected a president that has proven to be unsuited either by experience or disposition to lead them. He is therefore unleashing nothing, but confusion and embarrassment on them. Trump’s presidency has started to test the strength of American democratic institutions and it might even be buckling, although it is too early to make a full judgment. If it happens in Liberia’s infant democracy, with underlying fragile socioeconomic institutions and social/political relationships, what would the results be? Our checks and balances as well as other safeguards against tyranny and communal violence are just beginning to be constituted. Throughout the history of Liberia, power has been concentrated excessively within the Executive Branch, perhaps the presidency. The nation is just making strides toward overcoming this dysfunctional feature. It can therefore not afford to elect a person whose whole purpose is to optimize his/her personal/family interest and wealth like American President Trump.
For Liberians facing an October presidential election, the American political comedy offers a glimpse of what can happen if the electorate elects an apprentice based on mere populist appeal or prejudicial considerations.
From Liberian history, we have learned a hard lesson already: governance does not mean hosting a series of festivities. It means achievements that can change the lives of ordinary citizens’ meaningfully over the long-run. Our country has for a protracted period been lacking in this characteristic. It is just in the infant stages of developing it after 169 years of independence. That means stakes in the forthcoming elections are extremely high.
In a society where anti-corruption and integrity issues have for long eluded its leaders and citizens, electing a new leader without the requisite sensibilities, political will, patriotism, and most importantly the experience and integrity would result in chaos. And with the nation’s civil society just recovering from assault mounted against it by past dictatorial governments, it just might be unable to hold government functionaries accountable, if the current climate of openness were reversed. That Liberian institutions are still weak and feeble, whomever the electorate elects as president must hold democratic values dear, and have keen understanding of pro-poor economic management. The Liberian civil service is so thin on competence that any attempt to appoint technical neophytes to ministerial and deputy ministerial positions will further exacerbate the nation’s vulnerability. Experienced professionals will be required to manage the state apparatuses. Merit will have to be the standard at this decisive juncture.
The current political system is not perfect. But it has managed the stockpile of deficits that were inherited appreciably. Clearly, the current president has acknowledged the administration’s weaknesses in addressing corruption and peace-building. So we need a government that will build on its accomplishments and refine those shortcomings. We do not need a new government that will be absorbed in litigating its predecessors’ failures, and thus not offering viable alternative roadmaps and solutions for addressing our acute national problems. We need a government that will improve the standards of living of our people and provide newer opportunities for personal and collective growth and development. We need a government that will heal the fissures across political, social, religious, gender, age, and other divides. Anyone who has worked in the Liberian bureaucracy and is keen to notice its frailties knows how steep it is in mediocrity. Bringing about durable change in the postwar government baked in excesses is quite tasking. Efforts will be needed to replicate the successes of the outgoing government on a larger scale so that the effects can be felt nationwide.
With weak county governments, and decentralization, the latter yet still an aspiration, the ill-effects of electing an inexperienced president will reverberate as an outbreak of a contagious disease. We live in a virtually different country from when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took over. The level of political freedoms that Liberians continue to enjoy can no longer be reversed. The Johnson Sirleaf administration has introduced institutional constraints into the Liberian political landscape that will hold any new leader’s despotic impulses in check. The next president must show demonstrated evidence that he/she is able to maintain such a democratic political culture. In the Senate and House of Representatives, we already have seen hints of what can occur when a beginner takes such important positions solely based on voter’s being swayed by money or sheer populist determinations. Liberians will need a leader who would provide a strategy for protecting the homeland from going back into conflict, while not feeling shy to hold lawbreakers to account. Peace and justice must coexist.
Liberians should not be dangerously naïve that governance is easy because critics of the current government say so. We should not underestimate the rigors of the presidency. This is a monumental office. This is a post that requires negotiating and navigating massive amounts of responsibilities, sensibilities and sensitivities simultaneously. The presidency is vital to determining the future direction of our country and the humanity of its citizens. The infighting that has engulfed various political leaders needs a steady hand to manage. Equally so, our presidential candidates must raise the bar of our national conversation. By now, our national conversation should be addressing the chain causes and effects of our most intractable societal problems: economic scarcity, high/widespread unemployment, persistent and protracted inequalities, poor education systems, rudimentary healthcare delivery systems, underdeveloped infrastructure, etc.
Those who want to lead the nation must present a blueprint for building a durable blue collar middle class. They must resist any temptation to be nasty or launch vicious personal attacks towards one another. Instead, they must offer coherent and consistent ideas that will boost investment in human resources development so that they can diagnose, analyze, and solve our complex national problems. Even more critically, what is the plan for harnessing the dividends of brain gain from the displacement of Liberians all over the world? It is only by husbanding the nation’s cohesiveness, that it would be competitive into the future; and in the end, it would divert us from the shocking path that Americans have chosen for themselves.