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6 Lessons We Can All Learn From the 2020 US Presidential Elections

Africa does not need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.

Barrack Obama, US President 2008-2016.

Eleven years after these words were uttered on the African continent, the shoe is on the other foot – The United States of America went and got itself a strongman.

American institutions have undergone a 4-year stress test during the Trump presidency; their strength will be put to the ultimate test in the coming weeks. And while we watch how the events unfold from the sidelines, we can also take notes, and learn. And perhaps use the lessons gained to do better by ourselves.

Here is what we know so far:

At the time of publishing this article, the incumbent US president, Donald Trump was yet to concede defeat. Defeat in an election that saw an unprecedented number of Americans turn up to vote him out of office. It was a close contest but America is a democracy and by definition, in a democracy, the majority wins. Joe Biden won the majority vote. He also won the electoral college vote. Trump has refused to abide by the rules of the game. He has alleged fraud, filed lawsuits, called for recounts and declared himself the winner. “The election was stolen”, is the unanimous refrain from Trump and his millions-strong support base.

The debacle has been met with dark humour by some and utter disbelief by others. The state of affairs is unsettling.

Some leaders in countries whose democracies rest on shaky foundations may be emboldened by Trump’s actions. They may see this as an opportunity to rationalise and validate their own transgressions past, current or future.

But there are many reasons why the events in the US should not offer comfort to anyone. The lessons we stand to learn from what is happening are of great value. Here are some of them:

1. The role of institutions must be understood and respected

A local Twitter user offered an African take, “African politicians are trying to comprehend how an incumbent president can lose an election when he has the military, police and country’s internet at his disposal”, he said. 

Humorous. Horrifying. True.

Trump has refused to accept the result. I shudder to think what would happen if he had the option of turning to the military, police force and country’s internet to reinforce his position. Except I shouldn’t shudder at this thought because, on this side of the world, many a time, the military, police force and internet have all been fair game for sitting presidents.

An article, published in the Washington Post, notes that the difference between a democratic handover and a stillborn transition lies in a country’s military loyalties. It reads in part:

“When security forces backed a dictator’s political party over the opposition, as in Togo and Zimbabwe, the old regime has remained in power through a coup or fraudulent election. But when security forces ousted incumbents, as in Sudan and Algeria, or stayed on the sidelines, as in Ethiopia and Angola, there have been opportunities to transform the political system through genuinely free, peaceful and fair elections”.

Much as he would love to hang on to power, there are lines that Donald Trump cannot cross. This is because there are impartial institutions that were designed to make leaders – leaders like Trump – subject to the will of the masses, and not the other way around. And that is as it should be.

2. Your vote matters

Joe Biden broke Barrack Obama’s record for the most votes ever cast for a US presidential candidate. Trump and his supporters are not buying it. No way could Biden inspire more voters to come out than Obama did, they say. This assertion is meant, not to commend Obama’s great achievements but, rather, further the ‘stolen elections’ narrative.

It has not occurred to team Trump that people may not necessarily have been voting for Biden but rather against Trump. In this respect, it’s amazing what a Trump presidency inspired. The lesson: Your vote matters. It has the power to send a strong message and bring about change.

3. The price of greatness is responsibility– Winston Churchill

When Trump speaks, people in general, and his followers in particular pay attention. A typical charismatic populist leader, he fascinates, mystifies, excites and inspires radical action. Love him or hate him, Trump is a great leader.

When he declared himself the winner of the 2020 elections, his followers believed him and spread his gospel. They are currently awaiting further instructions on next steps from their general. Trump wields a lot of power. Question is, is he aware of just how much responsibility that kind of power comes with?

Think what would happen if he told his 70 million supporters to take to the streets and rain terror on the 75 million others who voted for the opposing candidate. Because this is what happens in many countries.

Losing is hard. And losing the presidency especially as the incumbent must be crushing, not just for a candidate but for their supporters too. It, therefore, behoves a leader, through actions and words, to guide his followers through such a loss. The way Trump chooses to do this will play a big role in determining the path the country takes.

4. The “Us vs Them” narrative no longer advances humanity

There was a time it did. When we lived in tribal groups, it benefitted everyone to look out for unfamiliar people. They posed a potential threat to our security. But in today’s world, social categories and stereotypes are of little relevance.

They only serve to create tension and antagonism. They cause us to act irrationally and uncooperative. They make it difficult for us to work together toward common solutions. They make us more concerned about conforming with our group rather than thinking intelligently for ourselves. They cause us to dehumanise others.

The Us vs Them mentality makes for a powerful tool for control of the masses and politicians know this. Many take advantage of it. And before long, the masses can no longer differentiate the politics from the issues that matter. Well, I’ll tell you what matters: Human decency matters, unity matters, tolerance matters, respect matters, equality matters, kindness matters, peace matters. If we want more of the things that matter, we cannot continue to buy into the Us vs Them narrative.

5. Think for yourself

Depending on what news channel you were watching in the run-up to and during the elections, Trump and Biden are both fascist crooks who are out to ruin America.

Everyone is advancing an agenda and the audience is free to pick and choose that which suits their biases and/ or needs. Indeed CNN was the first news channel to announce that Joe Biden had defeated Trump. Fox News was the last.  “It is a cathartic moment for millions and millions of Americans”, CNN correspondent Abby Philip said. Meanwhile, Bret Baier of Fox News had this to say, “We have to remember that he (Trump) is president until January 20th. And there are interesting things that could happen during that time while legal challenges are going on”.

People believe what they want to believe and say what they want to say. But true empowerment and enlightenment come from a place of first questioning the narrative and then arriving at your own truth.

6. No one is coming to save you

A social media meme has been doing rounds in the recent past, it reads: “No matter who is elected president, don’t worry too much. Most of the problems in your life will still be your own fault”.

In other words, when all is said and done, this is just another election. You cannot pin all your hopes and dreams on a Biden- Harris presidency. It will not magically end COVID 19, homelessness or racism. Presidents can only do so much. The responsibility for your life still lies squarely with you.

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