By Etim Etim
I could sense that you were very agitated when we spoke last week. You sounded worried about your country, the United States, and the direction that it’s headed in the last few years. You spoke about President Trump and the way he’s been managing the economy and the pandemic. The divisiveness of the American society and the endemic problems in social and race relations were uppermost in your mind.
The President’s incendiary rhetorics, inflammatory tweets and official conducts were also a concern. I have never heard you so worried in all the 30 years I have known you. Without your saying so, I could tell that the sad incident on the street of Minneapolis, in which a black man was brutally killed by some policemen, was the reason behind your call. George Floyd’s death has brought new focus to both racial injustice and economic disparities in your country. Even Nigerians, who are familiar with police cruelty, were shocked to see that video. What struck me most were your last words in our 43-minute talk: ‘I don’t know where we are headed. I’m so alarmed. It’s crazy…’
Fred, the US is changing fast. Your country is sliding steadily into the early stages of dictatorship. This has got nothing to do with police brutality. It is about your President, and if he is re-elected in November, a full-blown tyranny will be born. It will not be the first time an elected leader would turn into dictators: Remember Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez, just to mention a few? The abuse of office and well-established institutions, sackings of officials who disagree with the President, intimidating and insulting journalists and the unwillingness of the Republican Party members to speak up against the President, perhaps out of fear, are the early warning signs that autocracy is creeping into the US. Assault on the media is typically the first symptom. Since last month alone, there have been 328 infringements against journalists in the US by the authorities. Just the other day, a peaceful protest near the White House was dispersed with teargas just so that the President could walk down to a nearby church for a photo op.
That looks so much like a picture from an African country in the ‘70s. Have you not noticed that your President actually craves absolute power? He said so last year when the President Xi Xinping of China was made a life President by his Communist Party. And just to rub it in, Iran and North Korea are now mockingly warning the US against possible human rights abuses!
But Fred, the worst will only come if Mr. Trump is given another four years in the White House. He will push to assume full absolute powers. He will like to close down unfriendly media houses like CNN and New York Times. His birthday will replace 4th of July as an important event in the calendar while many political groups and individuals, motivated to sing the praises of the President daily, will spring up all over the country. Big billboards and banners bearing the President’s picture and such messages as ‘Donald Trump: Father of the Nation’; ‘The only one who can make America great’; ‘The great unifier’ will be erected in many big cities like Houston, Chicago, Dallas and New York. Others will claim that he is the only one who can keep the country together. In other words, a civil war may break out if Donald Trump leaves office; and so a push for a Constitutional change will begin. Public officials will begin to manufacture lies and half-truths to defend the leader. This is already happening. Just yesterday, Attorney General Bill Bar said that using force to disperse the peaceful protesters at Lafayette Park near the White House was to make way for fire trucks to reach a nearby church. This reminds me of an official of a military government in Nigeria who claimed that people who were fleeing political violence in Lagos were going for the New Yam Festival in their hometowns! Pliant officials are adept at producing creative excuses for the Boss. Meantime, many will rush to join the Republican Party, the President’s party, because if you’re not in, you’d be branded unpatriotic or a foreign agent. Have you not noticed how frequently the President keeps tweeting: ‘The Dems will destroy America’? Stoking fear and constantly demonizing the opposition is a forte of the Big Man.
Fred, life in a dictatorship is difficult and I hope America will eventually not go down this path. Apart from your personal liberties being taken away, you will lose trust in everybody around you. Even your friends or neighbours could suddenly turn state informants who can readily report you to the Big Brother. In my short adult life, I have survived five military dictators. The most brutal and vicious of them died in office 22 years ago today. I will not wish this for any country. But if you assume that totalitarianism is a remote prospect in the US; remember that nobody had imagined four years ago that a US President would ever threaten to send the army into the streets to gun down protesters. Donald Trump has pushed the limits of possibilities in US politics. It is time to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Let me conclude with a small confession. In 2016, many of my friends here in Nigeria had argued that Mr. Trump was going to change the US in a very negative way if he got elected. Some even maintained that his ‘America First’ campaign message would lead to a New World Order. In a way, they’re right. My counterpoint was that your country has such strong and independent institutions that such negative tendencies would be easily buffeted. But four years later, I’m very convinced that Donald Trump has the platform, power, resources and, above all, the willingness to further erode and destroy the fine traditions of American democracy.