You asked me, once the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election was apparent: How could this happen? How could the world’s most powerful democracy elect a volatile demagogue to the highest office in the land?
Like many around me, I have struggled to come to terms with this new reality. My reaction to Donald Trump’s victory this week was more than mere disappointment or even despair. It was the unsettling sense that this country was not the place I’d thought it was. Stunned, chagrined, anxious, I went through the next few days with a numb feeling of dread, trying to process the enormity of what was happening around me.
Then it dawned on me: I’ve had this feeling before. Bamako, March 2012.
Of course you remember that time–we were both there when Mali’s ruling establishment was upended by angry soldiers. Stung by recent rebel advances and disgusted with their elected leaders, Malian soldiers led by a certain Captain Sanogo took over the government and put an end to what had been considered a functioning if somewhat under-performing multiparty democracy. It surprised me that hardly anyone in Mali tried to oppose them, and that jubilant crowds even celebrated their takeover on the streets of Bamako. Malians like you had always said you were in favor of the democratic process. I knew you were dissatisfied with your politicians (who isn’t?), but I hadn’t realized just how deep the discontent ran. I simply assumed people would hold out for improvements following the next elections.
What I soon understood was that many, perhaps even most Malians felt they had been spurned by both a government and a political elite that had callously served its own needs at ordinary citizens’ expense. You had little faith in the system to deliver anything but more of the same–corruption, lack of opportunity, and rising inequality. Remember when you told me before the coup that voting was irrelevant, that Mali’s next president would really be chosen by a clique of politicians behind closed doors? A lot of other Malians felt their democracy was a sham, too. They didn’t trust political insiders to fix it, and they saw the coup as a necessary shock to the system.
Lamine, for the past year the public mood here in the US has felt a lot like the mood in Bamako back then. A great many of my fellow Americans feel left out by their government and political system. Troubled by economic and demographic changes at home and by security threats abroad, believing that the system was rigged, they decided to take a risk on an outsider rather than stick with the status quo. Make no mistake: many of them were also motivated by fear–of immigrants, of Muslims, of people different from themselves. Many also weren’t ready to see a woman as commander in chief, even if they would never admit as much. But the one thing all Trump’s supporters seemed to desire was change, because they didn’t trust the alternative.
You wanted to know what we can expect from Trump. Personally I think his administration will prove as incoherent and his leadership as incompetent as Captain Sanogo’s did. Like Sanogo, Trump is a brusque but skilled communicator who plays expertly on the fears and suspicions of ordinary citizens. Like Sanogo, he is a man obsessed with himself and his greatness. But also like Sanogo, Trump has no practical solutions to offer, is blind to his own failings and is constantly in search of enemies (apparently he’s keeping a list).
Of course we know what happened to Sanogo: his regime quickly got carried away with ensuring its own survival and committed some heinous crimes, for which he’s set to be judged later this month. And we know what happened to Mali: the country is now on international life support. I suspect that most of your fellow citizens today, even those who supported Sanogo back then, look back on his brief period of rule as a tragic mistake. Who knows, maybe a lot of Trump supporters will feel the same way someday (David Brooks thinks Trump “will probably resign or be impeached within a year”).
Your country and mine, Lamine, have very different cultures and systems of government. Mali certainly has far greater poverty and weaker state institutions than the US. My time in Mali taught me that democracy is a very fragile thing. This election taught me that, at least politically speaking, Malians and Americans are much more alike than I used to think. But despite what’s happened to Mali since 2012, and despite what happened in the US this week, I hope the goal of a stable, inclusive society is still within reach for both our peoples. May God protect us from those who would deny that goal.
Postscript, 21 November 2016: Observers who have compared Donald Trump’s popular appeal and leadership style to those of African strongmen include Kenyan writer Patrick Gathara (in November 2016) and South African satirist Trevor Noah (in October 2015) who said “Trump is basically the perfect African president.”