Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., popularly known as Joe Biden, now sits pretty in the Oval Office as the 46th President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States, having taken his oath of office on January 20, 2021.
Same day, Donald John Trump became an ordinary citizen once again but not before descending into the abyss of infamy as the first and only U.S. President impeached twice, the 10th one-term President rejected by fellow citizens he led for four years.
He shares that infamous club of angry, most times bitter one-termers with John Adams (1797-1801); John Quincy Adams (1825-1829); Martin Van Buren (1837-1841); Franklin Pierce (1853-1857); Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893); William Howard Taft (1909-1913); Herbert Hoover (1929-1933); Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and George H.W. Bush (1989-1993).
But Trump is by far the angriest. So bitter was he that he plotted to pull down the entire U.S. democracy edifice, orchestrating a Washington rally that spawned a deadly assault on the Capitol, an insurrection against Congress on January 6 after pumping fellow travellers on the white supremacist boulevard with vile rhetoric about an imaginary election heist against him.
So livid was he that he joined the ill-reputed and infamous absentee club becoming the fourth President in the U.S. democratic peregrination who did not attend his successor’s swearing-in and the only one in the last 152 years.
He walked in lockstep with John Adams, the second U.S. President; his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth President; and Andrew Johnson, the 17th, who is also the first to be impeached. Like Trump, all three were one-term presidents.
Trump ended his tumultuous presidency on Wednesday with one of the lowest approval ratings ever, dropping to 34 per cent in a Gallup poll released on Monday, the low point of a presidency that already had the weakest average approval rating of any of his predecessors since the survey began in the 1940s.
Gallup’s numbers measured Trump against his last 12 predecessors, going back to Harry S. Truman. Trump’s final approval rating of 34 per cent was the same received by Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter in their final Gallup polls. Truman was the lowest at 32 per cent.
Trump left the presidency an angry, deflated narcissist and social media pariah under whose lethargic watch 400,000 compatriots were felled by a virus that killed only a handful of citizens in countries with far less human and material resources and medical infrastructure. The only difference being that those other countries have altruistic leaders.
Today, the U.S. is worse off for Trump’s presidency. As Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted on Tuesday, whatever Trump’s achievements may have been, his successor, Biden, inherited “the worst economy since the Great Depression, the worst public health crisis in 100 years, massive wealth inequality, the existential threat of climate change, and a racist immigration system.”
A man consumed by infantile hubris, though Trump did not spurn, as confirmed by White House spokesman Judd Deere on Wednesday, the 32-year-old tradition of departing presidents leaving a handwritten note in the Oval Office for their successors, a tradition birthed by Ronald Reagan when he left a note for George H.W. Bush as he was preparing to leave the White House in January 1989, he most likely threw his predecessor’s note into the trash bin, because had he paid heed to the words of wisdom Barack Obama scribbled down for him while leaving office, his presidency may have taken a different trajectory.
In his letter to Trump in 2017, Obama wrote, “This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful.”
But Obama offered advice, nevertheless, which, with the benefit of hindsight and the catastrophic events of January 6 that led to Trump’s second impeachment, now appears prophetic.
“We are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions – like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties – that our forebears fought and bled for,” Obama wrote.
“It’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.” How prescient!
Trump, a wannabe tyrant, spurned the advice and levied war against those democratic institutions and traditions. He did everything to diminish the instruments of U.S. democracy rather than strengthening them. But he failed.
The reason why Biden is the 46th president of the U.S. and Trump an ex-president is not because of the acclaimed superiority of democracy over other forms of government. No! If anything, Trump’s assault laid bare the fragility of democracy, which, as beautiful and enduring as it is, remains a very delicate commodity that should not be taken for granted.
Biden is president because the institutions which act as the bulwark that prop the U.S. democracy did not collapse under the weight of Trump’s assault.
Dictators around the world, including here in Nigeria, have fired derisive potshots at the U.S. disclaiming its preeminence in democratic matters. They insist that the country no longer has any moral high ground on which to stand and pontificate to other countries.
In a sense, that is true. Trump did huge damage to America’s standing on the global democracy curve. But, ultimately, as President Biden ululated in his inaugural address, democracy prevailed.
“Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever,” Biden proclaimed.
It did not happen because of the resilience of America’s institutions and the strength of character of the public officers who superintend them.
There is a huge lesson to be learnt from the American odyssey: Strong men are anathema to democracy while strong institutions are the oxygen it needs to survive whenever it is sent to the intensive care unit by the debilitating virus of dictatorship.
Strong institutions neutralised Trump’s dictatorial instincts. Political stability and freedoms depend on adherence to the rule of law rather than rule of men. U.S. institutions – judiciary, electoral bodies, security architecture – stood up firmly to Trump’s machinations.
Besides, as Edmund Burke, the Irish-born British statesman and philosopher, said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” because “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Good Americans never allowed themselves to be cowed by Trump. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices that refused to stop Pennsylvania from finalising Biden’s victory despite allegations from allies of Trump that the expansion of mail-in voting was illegal are conservatives. All the six were appointed by Republican presidents, except Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by Bill Clinton.
In fact, three of the justices – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett – were named by Trump.
Most of the electoral officials in states and counties, including Brad Raffensperger, the Secretary of State of Georgia – who resisted maximum pressure from Trump, stood by and defended the results from their states – are Republicans.
But they chose to be loyal to the Constitution of their country rather than political party and an individual, even if that individual happens to be the most powerful man in the world.
Contrast it with what happens here. The bane of Nigeria’s so-called democracy is the hero-worshipping of too many strong men. In Nigeria, those elected into public office become masters rather than servants of the people. They become demi-gods whose words, rather than the law must be obeyed.
To be fair, the shenanigans did not start with the Buhari presidency but it is not better under his watch either. In fact, it is even worse. Under his watch, democratic institutions which ought to stand as a bulwark against the excesses of those who exercise executive powers, bend to the whims and caprices of strong men.
As long as Buhari can whimsically orchestrate the removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria on the eve of a consequential election and install a crony in his place, the country’s democracy will remain endangered.
As long as security chiefs see their job from the very narrow prism of regime protection rather than the big picture – security of lives and property of citizens and territorial integrity of the country – we will have issues.
As long as Nigeria has a Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives whose loyalty is to the President and not to the Constitution, our democracy remains endangered.
As long as we have electoral officials, including the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), who see the electoral victory of those who appointed them into office as a sacred mandate, our claim to being a democracy remains a fantasy.
That is the lesson from Trump’s ignominious departure, and Biden’s ascendancy to the Oval Office.