“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” - Winston Churchill
In some proverbial banana republics and autocratic states in the Americas and Asia and in some independent states of the former Soviet Union, a presidential spokesperson is often trotted out to announce the incumbent non-democratically installed leader has secured a whopping 90 percent plus of the vote in a fake election.
The spokesperson gushes as to how beloved is the leader as his sycophants ensure local officials are rigging the numbers on the ground.
Many will recall Baghdad Bob or Comical Ali, whose real name was Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, an Iraqi politician and diplomat. As Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister during the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the United States, Baghdad Bob spearheaded the country’s disinformation and propaganda regime.
He falsely claimed American soldiers were committing suicide “by the hundreds”. He famously denied American tanks had entered Baghdad, even though they were a mere few hundred meters away from the press conference he was holding, where the roars of the approaching troops could be heard in the background.
Disinformation is one of the primary communications tools cum weapons of undemocratic leaders and states.
Last week, after he was clearly defeated by Joe Biden, several thousand of Donald Trump’s supporters, including white supremacist Proud Boy members, rallied in Washington D.C. in support of his false claims that he won the election and that there was mass voter fraud by the Democrats.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany untruthfully boasted that “more than one million” people attended the Million MAGA March, notwithstanding that the area in which they congregated can only accommodate approximately 135,000 people and public officials noted that only several thousand people attended.
Citizens of undemocratic regimes are often quite aware of the lies and disinformation perpetrated by their leaders. But in Trump’s America, a country with an open press and many other freedoms, scores of his supporters adamantly believe the lies.
Donald Trump is a congenital and serial liar whose lies have been recounted in detail by news organizations. The Washington Post reported in July of this year: “It took President Trump 827 days to top 10,000 false and misleading claims in The Fact Checker’s database, an average of 12 claims a day.
“But on July 9, just 440 days later, the president crossed the 20,000 mark – an average of 23 claims a day over a 14-month period, which included the events leading up to Trump’s impeachment trial, the worldwide pandemic that crashed the economy and the eruption of protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody.”
Anyone who has interacted with such individuals realize how dangerous and toxic they are and that their aversion to truth often results in the most vicious and nasty lies and behaviour.
But to have such an individual as leader of the most powerful country in the world is more than dangerous.
Trump’s behaviour and insidious lies over four years, including his refusal to accept defeat, have poisoned and severely tested the America democracy to the extent that its celebrated system of checks and balance has faltered and at times failed.
Democracy requires the consent of the populace and legitimacy. Democracy is as fragile as it is resilient. In a single generation democracy can erode dramatically. It can also be strengthened and vivified.
American democracy has been dramatically weakened, aided and abetted by an obsequious and intimidated Republican establishment.
While a constellation of democratic laws, norms, traditions and rituals help to secure and revivify democracy, the cult of personality is one of its greatest threats. The cult of personality bolstering Emperor Donald is primarily based on an admixture of white privilege and supremacy and American chauvinism.
Because of his outsized personality, celebrity and showmanship - and his naked appeals to some of the worst instincts of America and humanity - Trump has become a vessel for millions of Americans to whom he appeals, even those who may dislike his personal behaviour but who support him because of their ideologies or beliefs.
Many on the religious right view Trump as a sort of soul mate. The conservative speaker Davis Harris Jr enthused: “If you’re a believer, and you believe God appointed Donald J. Trump to run this country, to lead this country, and you believe as I do that he will be re-elected the President of the United States, then friends, you’ve got to guard your heart, you’ve got to guard your peace. Right now we are at war.”
Trump is an avid believer in American exceptionalism, which is why many Americans, especially many Christian nationalists, fervently support him. They are convinced he is doing right for America and is on a moral mission.
Religious nationalism comes in various forms including some Orthodox churches in Europe which are militantly in lockstep with various states and political power.
Journalist and author Katherine Stewart has written extensively on the separation of church and state. She writes of religious nationalism in America:
“The first thing to know is that it’s not a religion. It is a political ideology. Its representatives insist that the foundation of legitimate government is bound up with a reactionary understanding of a particular religion.”
Stewart emphasizes that Christian nationalists in her country believe “that the United States is and ought to be a Christian nation governed under a reactionary understanding of Christian values.”
This belief is typically held by fundamentalist religious groups and not Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism.
We also have such Christian nationalists at home who believe their particular religious beliefs and public policy positions should be the law of the land. They are shaky on basic democratic norms such as the separation of church and state.
There are those, like some inveterate writers of letters to the press, Trump enthusiasts, who could do well to better grasp the ideas and richness of other world religions and spiritualities, who are devoted to an undemocratic fundamentalist majoritarianism in which some minorities are discriminated against.
As he grew older, the late Rev Billy Graham was increasingly uneasy with American chauvinism and exceptionalism. In an interview with Christianity Today, Graham noted:
“I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God. Then I realised that God had called me to a higher kingdom than America. I have tried to be faithful to my calling as a minister of the gospel.”
Even as we observe events in America, Bahamians should reflect on our democratic polity and heritage.
We might seek to better understand and appreciate the genius and strengths of parliamentary democracy and a cabinet system based on collective responsibility. As a maturing democracy, we should reflect on our political history.
After the 1962 General Election, which many thought would usher in Majority Rule but which was won by the United Bahamian Party (UBP) with a majority of seats but loss of popular vote, the Progressive Liberal Party was faced with a choice.
The apportionment of seats was rigged in favour of the white oligarchy. In the early hours after the result, Sir Lynden resisted the feverish voices of those who counselled him to violently respond to the bitter defeat. He believed it would be political suicide and disastrous for The Bahamas.
One pugilist reportedly asked Sir Lynden for permission to “mash up the town”, namely to lay waste to Bay Street, the locus of white economic privilege.
Sir Lynden and the PLP chose instead to stay with the albeit flawed democratic process and non-violent direct action to secure Majority Rule. It was one of his finest hours. But democracy is fragile and easily corrupted. After securing power, Sir Lynden used the state broadcast media as an effective and blunt propaganda tool.
He cultivated and benefitted from a cult of personality, which damaged the country, as the PLP became the party of entitlement, which still has a stranglehold on the organisation.
The resilience of Bahamian democracy was found in the struggle for Majority Rule and in the struggle of those who formed the Free National Movement, which resulted in the securing of a vibrant two-party democracy.
The FNM’s 1992 General Election win was critical to the maturing of Bahamian democracy. The freeing of the broadcast media by former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and the FNM was one of the more pivotal democratic advancements in the modern Bahamas.
But every democracy must remain vigilant. Democracy is both stubbornly resilient and extremely fragile depending for survival on the quality of citizen engagement and the commitment of political leaders to the constitution, the rule of law, free and fair elections and the constellation of democratic norms which safeguard against personality cults, corruption and other practices inimical to democracy.