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Trump: A Shift Has Begun in America


Richard Joseph

An original edition of this interview by Mr. Kunle Ajibade appeared in P.M. News Nigeria on 1/25/2021

On 20 January when President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris were sworn in, the ecstatic Professor Richard Joseph spoke to TheNEWS and PM NEWS on the import of the moment for America and the world:


How would you describe the current political moment in America?

There was great uncertainty provoked by the mob assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2020. A spotlight was suddenly focused on the values and behaviors of high-ranking persons in government. The inaugural events of January 20, 2020 memorably proclaimed the restoration of democracy, decency, and truth.

What would you say led to the emergence of Donald J. Trump as the president of the U.S.?

Donald Trump’s personal story is well-known. Autocrats have thrived during the Trump era. Indeed, he envied them. Their playbook varies regarding the level of violence and unscrupulous behavior they are prepared to unleash. Trump had tested his messaging in his TV program, The Apprentice.There will always be persons who respond in visceral, not rational, ways to antics of autocratic personalities. Trump also learned how to escape accountability by manipulating and browbeating officials and others in government, business, and media. He may have come to the end of that rope.

What propelled him to the presidency in 2016, and still had 74 million Americans voting for him four years later, is the “Them” versus “Us” division captured by the “Make America Great Again” slogan. Those four words were immediately understood. “Them” were persons who sought a more socially just and inclusive America. “Us” were those who saw a fundamental privilege they  enjoyed being challenged.

The deepest privilege in America, uniting persons from the top to the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, is ethnicity and especially race. It has boosted many political campaigns, for example before Trump those of George Wallace and Richard Nixon. It is sometimes referred to as the “Southern Strategy”whose threads can be traced to the post-Civil War “reconciliation” between the defeated Confederacy and the Union.

How can the United States make sure that those factors never bring him or his type back?

The 2020 elections, and their aftermath, showed how far many Trump supporters were prepared to go to prevent the transfer of power to Joseph Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Democratic Party. It also brought to the surface the abscess of right-wing extremism that had been growing unabated for many years. Donald Trump will be much engaged with his legal and financial problems and may even be disabled as a future presidential contender. The Republican Party will also conduct some cleaning of its ranks. However, four years of unremitting Trumpist propaganda has taken many Americans into an alternate universe, unreachable by facts and rational arguments.

A shift has begun in American society. The core tenets of the social justice uprisings of 2019-2020 are acknowledged by Americans of all age groups, ethnicities, and economic status. Black Lives Matter is a completion of the 1860s Civil War and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Skillful leadership by moderates and progressives over the coming decade, together with the country’s changing demographics, can imbue MAGA with a quite different meaning. What is “great” about America was eloquently espoused in Joe Biden’s Lincolnesque inaugural address.

America appears very divided. Can President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris unite the country?

President Biden stated in his address that the transfer of power on January 20 represented the triumph of a cause, the cause of democracy.In her marvelous poem read at the Inauguration, 22-year Amanda Gorman referred to the forging of “a union with purpose”. In recent years, this cause, this purpose, has been steadily eroded. The campaign culminated in the extraordinary efforts by Donald Trump and his associates to reverse an election that has probably been more thoroughly examined, and certified, than any in history.

The uniting of America must be on the basis of respect for the Constitution and duly established governmental institutions at all levels. The U.S. cannot repeat the errors of “Reconstruction” after the Civil War when unity was forged on the tolerance of racial discrimination and segregation. The Trump-inspired insurrection of January 6 involved a brutal physical attack on the legislative branch of government. Legislators had to be spirited out of harms’ way.The insurrectionists were minutes away from physically detaining, or harming,Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other senior officers.The enormity of what occurred is gradually dawning on Americans as video-clips of the fierce onslaught are replayed.

It will take a concerted effort to bring to justice those who took part in the insurrection, and those involved in the conspiracy at many levels. Also to be reversed is the anti-democratic indoctrination of many otherwise law-abiding citizens. Ways must be found to wean them from their robotic responses to Trumpist lies and denials.

You taught Political Science at the University of Ibadan, 1976-1979. In the course of doing so you travelled round the country and know Nigeria very well. You have never stopped paying attention to Nigeria, the African continent and its diaspora. How would you like the new Administration to relate to Nigeria and Africa?

Prof. Wole Soyinka stated in your December 29, 2020 conversation: “We need a thorough internal interrogation of ourselves in this particular country…What I have lived with all my life as an article of faith is being debased, not just before my very eyes, but all around me. I feel contaminated as a human being by this complete negation." The key issue is not how the Biden-Harris Administration relates to Nigeria but what Nigerians do about the “inhumanity”, the “debasement”, and “the complete negation” of the Nigerian Dream, the Nigerian Project. If this question is not asked, and solutions collaboratively pursued in Nigeria, what hope can there be for African countries in which freedoms are greatly curtailed, and many fewer resources are available to support independent thought and action?

In his weekly column in The Punch, Prof. Ayo Olukotun recently wrote: “Will 2021 begin with our exit from what Emeritus Professor Richard Joseph described as a dismal tunnel of misgovernance.” I direct your readers to my essay, Nigeria’s Dismal Tunnel: Is There an Exit?. Wole Soyinka once stated that “the Nigerian people have always approached democracy, and the elites have always pushed them back.” You cannot build a democracy on a system characterized by “authority stealing”, about which Fela sang and Prof. Wale Adebanwi adopted for his indispensable study of the anti-corruption struggle.

Prof. Olukotun recently called for transformational leaders in Nigeria. I agree, that is, if we think of such leaders as not only those who contest for power in the context of “roguery and money-sharing” (to cite Mr. Emeka Izeze, former Managing Editor of The Guardian). They are leaders in every walk of life. Building “institutions of integrity and capacity” will be central to overcoming “The Rot” that has undermined, not just democracy, but basic security and the provision of public goods.

In his recent book, Nigeria and the Nation-State, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, wrote that external actors must adjust their engagement with Nigeria to reflect the decentralization of power and authority. He called for a rethinking of what is Nigeria. While his analysis is mainly aimed at persons outside Nigeria, Soyinka directed his summons to Nigerians themselves: There must be, he emphasized,“a thorough internal interrogation of ourselves in this particular country.” Also pertinent is a recent remark by Hafsat Abiola: “Before we discuss how to change a poor performing democratic government, we should reflect on our chances of getting strong performing ones…The state system we have adopted, by and large, is poorly suited to our society, and easy to press into the service of cabals, internal and external. It will be hard not to be poor performing. We should begin with the design.”

The external world, including the Biden-Harris Administration will respond to the Nigeria as it is. During the previous Democratic Administration of President Barack Obama, his secretaries-of-state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, delivered stirring lectures on governance, and especially anti-corruption imperatives during visits to Nigeria.Obama himself gave a powerful address on these themes during his state visit to Ghana in July 2009.Such lectures are no longer required. As was seen during the #EndSARSprotests, many Nigerians, and particularly youths of the “lost generation”, are aware of the grim consequences of decades of misgovernance.

Ambassador Campbell suggests that the United States should increase its support for civil society groups, education exchanges, and assistance for entrepreneurs. After many years of seeing the unintended consequences of foreign aid, I believe it can serve as an adjunct to, but not substitute for, the internal interrogations and actions proposed by Soyinka, Abiola, and others. I have quoted in recent documents poet Wendell Berry’s admonition: “when we no longer know what to do/We have come to our real work/ And when we no longer know which way to go/ We have begun our real journey. In a similar vein,  Ofeimun wrote in his poem, “Scandal”:“Forget the days/ and forget the nights/ forget the pain in the eyes of those you love/if you have no will to train your anger/ to a skill that re-invents tomorrow.” I have seen those skills, abundantly displayed, especially among my youthful associates.

Rethinking, Redesigning, Reinventing – this idea is appearing in various ways. I hope that Nigerians and other Africans take inspiration from the American transfer of power, and the defeat of a comprehensive effort, masterminded by the defeated president and his cronies, to prevent it. We were rescued in the United States, after the November 2020 elections, from the abyss of autocratic entrenchment. What to do? Which way to go? Nigerians must find their answers, most unscripted.

I am moving forward with relevant initiatives. They include: sharing my professional journey as a scholar-activist [see a preliminary essay, Narratives of Social Solidarity]; preparing a version of my 1987 book, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria, intended for a wide readership; writing a second book on Nigeria based on texts (The Nigerian Crucible) available on Arch Library, Northwestern University’s Open Access repository; donating my library and instructional materials to an African institution; establishing my archival collection at a major university, and making it incrementally available via digitization; and collaborating on state, governance, and development as discussed in The Dismal Tunnel and forthcoming documents.

I close with one of the songs at Civil Rights gatherings in the 1960s. It was echoed in the inspiring events at the U.S. Capitol on January 20, just two weeks after one of the most shameful occurrences in American history:

“Ain’t gonna let nobody/Turn me around/Turn me around/Turn me around/Gonna keep on walking/keep on talking/ marching on to Freedom land.”

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