Kyle McCarter, Donald Trump’s ambassador to Kenya, takes office at a time when the US is facing a slew of Third World problems —from entrenched corruption to a seemingly unaccountable Executive to questionable elections. For once, rather than expecting the usual lectures on democracy and good governance, Kenya will be in the position of handing them down.
For many Africans of my generation, brought up on a steady diet of American movies, sitcoms and news media, the US came to represent a paragon of sorts — the world’s premier example of democracy and constitutional governance. In the 1990s, as Kenya struggled to rid itself of Moi’s dictatorship, the US, despite its many flaws, was seen as an important ally of the reform movement. Many still recall the late Smith Hempstone, the US ambassador from 1989 to 1993, a constant and virulent critic of the Moi regime and supporter of local pro-democracy activists.
In more recent times, following the catastrophic failure of attempts to impose democracy by force of arms in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has seemed much less eager to police democracy in Africa. The six-year tenure of McCarter’s predecessor, Robert Godec, was largely marked by silence. His silence over two bungled elections and state repression, for example, meant he left office, in the words of one presidential candidate, as “the first American Ambassador in recent times to leave Nairobi with negligible or no democratic credentials”.
The Trump presidency has done much to undermine US democratic credibility. The superpower today faces many of the same problems it used to claim to want to help Kenyans solve — from the fraudulent electoral practices that characterised last year’s mid-term elections to the corruption that seems endemic to the Trump administration. So Kenyans are unlikely to be at the receiving end of any long-winded, self-righteous lectures from McCarter.
However, perhaps they may be permitted to offer a few lessons from their own experience: Those in the US who think that Trump is the problem and who pine for the good old Obama days, or wish Hilary Clinton had won, are completely missing the point. US democracy was broken way before Trump got into office and, in a sense, it was inevitable that someone like him would eventually rise up to challenge it. As Trevor Noah, host of the satirical news programme The Daily Show, says, Trump is “the blacklight on American democracy”, showing up all its flaws.
The true test of a democratic system is not elections. Kenya has held elections every five years since Independence but still struggles to earn its stripes as a true democracy, one that reflects the wishes and aspirations of its people rather than one that exploits them for the benefit of a small elite. Rather, the test of the resilience of a democratic system lies in its ability to contain a tyrant bent on undermining it. Trump is the test of American democracy and so far, it is a test the US is failing.
“The blunt fact is that many of the guardrails that were supposed to protect the world’s oldest functioning democracy have been shown to be perilously weak,” Jeff Greenfield wrote in the wake of Trump’s election. As Trump has defied nearly every norm that had for decades created a semblance of accountability — from releasing tax records to creating blind trusts — the institutions of American democracy have seemed powerless to do anything but tut-tut at the most outrageous abuses.
And Trump is hardly taking the road less travelled. As John Feffer and TomDispatch point out in their piece for Truthout, ‘How Generations of US Presidents Have Paved the Way for Trump’s Wrongdoing’, “when it comes to wrongdoing, Trump has plenty of presidential precedents, from the high crimes and misdemeanors of Richard Nixon to the torture policies of George W. Bush. Trump is as crude as Lyndon Baines Johnson, as ill prepared as Ronald Reagan, as sexually predatory as Bill Clinton.” George Bush and Barack Obama similarly played their part.
Kenyans have much familiarity with such institutional and personal failure in the highest office. McCarter may not be handing out any lessons on his tour of duty, but if he chooses to listen, he could learn a few truths to take back home.