On November 2, 2016, a week before the US Presidential elections of Nov. 8, 2016, Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature told a group of students at Oxford University’s Eretgun House that if Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, he would leave the United States and cut his green card into pieces. The Green Card is a permanent residence permit that allows you to live and work in the United States. For more than 20 years, Professor Wole Soyinka had lived in the United States teaching in many universities including Harvard, and the New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs where he was a scholar-in-residence at the time of the 2016 Presidential election. “The moment they announce his victory, I will cut my green card myself and start packing up,” he announced. He called this, “Wolexit”, a pun on “Brexit”. Nobody has any evidence whether the Nobel Laureate actually wielded a pair of scissors and physically sheared his green card, but it was confirmed that he rendered it “inoperable.” Soyinka said he “felt disaster in my marrow”.
He added: “I had a horror of what is to come with Trump…I threw away the card and I have relocated and I am back to where I have always been.” Nigeria, that is. Soyinka was 82 at the time. He was further quoted as saying: “Trump’s wall is already under construction…Walls are built in the mind, and Trump has erected walls, not only across the mental landscape of America, but across the global landscape.” Soyinka in 2016 decried what he called the rise of “ultra-nationalism” and its inherent dangers. He kept his promise. He gave Trump’s America a wide berth, and in the four years that Donald J. Trump served as America’s 45thPresident, Professor Wole Soyinka was proven right up till the very last moments of the nightmare that was the Trump Presidency.
The “horror of what is to come” that Soyinka spoke about, the nightmare that he foresaw, will end at noon EST tomorrow, January 20, as Donald Trump exits the White House. He will be doing so after four years of pulling down bridges, and erecting walls of division within America and between America and the world. In four years, the Trump Presidency became a “thing around the neck” of the United States, and a fish-bone in the throat of the world. As he leaves the White House tomorrow, rather reluctantly, with a terribly low approval rating of 29%, the 74 million Americans who voted for him, in the November 3, 2020 Presidential election, the pro-Trump coalition, the ultra-right Trumpers that he pumped up with the oxygen of hate, the insurrectionists who bought into his politics of delusion meant to delegitimize the victory of Joseph R. Biden, that is - those who attacked the US Capitol on January 6, may feel pain that their era has ended, at least for now, but for the rest of the world, Trump’s exit is a big relief, the end of horror and a terrible nightmare.
It may be too early to make a final statement on the legacy of the Trump administration, legacy being a function of actual performance in office, post-office realities and a number of other factors, but for Trump, it can be confidently said that he was a bad President, or that he will end up as one of the worst Presidents ever in the history of the United States. He was the architect of his own undoing. Trump broke down the norms and traditions of the American Presidency and sought to reconstruct the office in his own image. He tried to govern through Twitter. From that platform, he rained personal insults on perceived enemies or opponents, curses as well, and tons of mistruths and outright lies. He promoted conspiracies, hate, right-wing extremism and racial wars. No institution was too strong for him to denigrate. No individual was considered deserving of respect. He insulted and attacked members of his own cabinet. His administration had the highest turnover of staff in the history of America’s Presidency. He wanted to bend the entire American institution to his own will, and whoever raised a voice of objection was immediately tagged an enemy and fired. Foreign leaders were not spared either, not to talk of leaders of American institutions. The only thing that mattered was Trump’s opinion and ego. He ran a narcissistic Presidency that confounded even the historians. They had never seen anything like that before.
Trump’s politics was hidden under the cloak of American exceptionalism or America First. Pretending to be defending the interests of the United States, he embarked on a twin policy of isolationism and unilateralism in international relations. He reversed the gains of the Barack Obama era, internally and internationally. Every major agreement was not good enough for him: be it with Iran or America’s North American neighbours, the Paris Climate Accord, trade with Europe or any existing multilateral obligations. Trump blocked the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute resolution mechanism and sought to impose his own will on the multilateral organization. He reversed the US policy on the Middle East situation, even if he claims credit for the normalization of ties between Israel and some of its Arab neighbours. He built walls against immigrants from Latin America, Muslim countries and those countries he labelled “shithole countries” which included Nigeria, by the way. He separated children from their mothers and was never reluctant to violate the rule of law or the course of justice.
The critics of his critics argue that he is not given enough credit for what they regard as his accomplishments. Trump’s base is the Christian evangelical community in the United States and other parts of the world including Nigeria, the extremist, conservative wing of global ideology for whom any form of liberalism is a scriptural sin. His other base is the ultra-right, ultra-nationalistic band of racial haters, for whom his slogan “Make America Great Again” simply means “Make America White Again”, the neo-fascists, the Ku Klux Klan, the so-called Proud Boys who under Trump’s watch reversed the gains of the racial justice movement in the United States. Trump claimed that he created more jobs for African Americans and other minorities, and that he stood up against China and America’s enemies like Iran and North Korea. He also claims credit for economic growth and tax reforms. But the damages that he brought about dwarf whatever he achieved. It will take a while to repair the damage. It will take years for the United States to recover from the Trump nightmare. It may take even much longer for the Republican Party, the Grand Old Party, the party which he now leaves behind, divided and shell-shocked with the prospect of uncertain mid-term election prospects.
Trump’s real undoing was in the last year of his Presidency. It was in the last year that the cookies crumbled and he had to pay the price for all the lies and deception of the first three years. First, COVID-19 happened. It was Trump’s nemesis. His failure to properly respond to the pandemic exposed the underbelly of his Presidency. Trump was blinded by his own ego. He became more of a scientist than the scientists themselves whose informed views he openly derided and contradicted. He even prescribed his own drugs for the virus, cutting many lives short in the process. He launched Operation Warp Speed but that anti-COVID response could not achieve its objectives because Trump stood in its way most of the time. He even politicized the wearing of masks. By the time his Presidency entered its last week, 23 million Americans had been infected, over 400,000 Americans had died. The vaccine reserve that his administration had promised Americans turned out to be a lie at the critical moment. Those who argue that if there had been no COVID-19, perhaps Trump would have won a second term may well be right, but then leadership is the sum total of what those in positions of authority elect to do.
Second, there was the mishandling of racial justice following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, victims of police brutality and criminal injustice in the United States who became the catalysts for the unveiling of the racism and fascism at the heart of the Trump Presidency. Every Black vote for Biden in the red states that turned blue, and in the swing states, was a vote in protest against the wanton dehumanization of minorities and the rise of extremism under Trump’s watch, a vote as it were, for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Third, Trump burnt his fingers with the desperate attempt to push the narrative that the Presidential election was fraudulent and that he, Trump won the election. He cut a pathetic figure pursuing recounts which changed nothing and litigations which only further affirmed Joseph R. Biden as the rightful winner of the election. He was humiliated on November 3, the day of the election. He lost the popular vote by 7 million votes, the first American President to lose the popular vote twice. On December 14, he was again humiliated when the electoral college confirmed Joe Biden as winner. He was further disgraced on January 5, in the two Senate run-off elections in the state of Georgia which the Republicans lost giving the Democrats a narrow majority of 50 -51 in the US Senate. No other American President has been so consistently humiliated.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back was on January 6, 2021, when President Trump ordered his supporters to storm Capitol Hill to stop those who wanted “to steal the votes” by ratifying the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States. This incitement of domestic terrorists against the seat of American democracy was an attempted coup, appropriately classified as high misdemeanour and a crime against the state by the House of Representatives which has since impeached Trump. He is the first American President to be impeached twice, first in 2019 and now in 2021. He faces the prospect of a trial and a conviction by the US Senate and the likelihood of his being barred for life from ever holding another public office in the United States. Trump leaves office tomorrow as a one-term President, a tragic figure done in by his own hubris. Corporate America has since abandoned him. His Twitter account, the platform from where he held court for four years has been banned permanently. He faces a barrage of criminal and civil suits after office.
He remains stubborn nonetheless. On the eve of his departure, he insists on exercising Presidential powers by announcing an expansive list of presidential pardons. It is hoped that he would not take the extra-ordinary step of including himself or his family members in the list, for that would raise Constitutional issues and amount to an express admission of guilt. He has also chosen to break with tradition. He has refused to reach out to the Bidens. He has not invited them to the White House. He is not even likely to leave a farewell note for his successor on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. He wants it on record that he is not happy he lost the election. He is such a sore loser, isn’t he? He won’t even attend the Inauguration on January 20. He is the first American President in modern history to shun the inauguration of his successor. But he is not the first in American history and he probably would not be the last.
In 1801, John Adams, America’s second President was so angry he took the 4.30 am coach for Baltimore out of Washington DC, on the day his friend and successor, Thomas Jefferson was being sworn in. His son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth US President, similarly shunned the swearing in of his successor, Andrew Jackson in 1829. He went horse-riding on the day of inauguration. The contempt was mutual. Andrew Jackson blamed John Quincy Adams for the death of his wife! In 1869, Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor, also did not attend the swearing in of Ulysses S. Grant as President. Johnson was in the cabinet room signing some bills and chatting with friends as another President assumed office. In 1974, Richard Nixon missed Gerald Ford’s swearing in. He had just resigned, so he left Washington immediately.
Tomorrow, Trump intends to leave Washington early morning for Palm Beach, Florida, about 1, 000 miles away. He will still have in his possession the nuclear briefcase and the nuclear codes called the “biscuit”. But that would not matter. The nuclear codes will be changed at noon EST. Trump can then keep the empty briefcase in his possession as a memento! The nightmare is thus over. It is a new dawn in the United States. But will Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka restore his Green Card and embrace Biden’s America? Just asking.