Lessons of Trumpism: Nations need leaders, not liberators

The events of the last few days in Washington where, following incitement by the sitting president himself, a hysterical mob besieged, stormed and violently disrupted a session of the Congress, has shamed the vast majority of Americans and embarrassed supporters of democracy around the world. But it has also provided ample raw material to the propaganda factories of dictators, autocrats and pseudo-democrats of all types, of which there are many.

The images beamed from the U.S. Capitol on January 6, however shocking, were over four years in the making. What happened on that day had, by and large, become inevitable after Donald Trump got ensconced in the White House.

Every single day that Donald Trump has been in office, he has damaged America’s democratic institutions and traditions. But he was a disgrace from even before he was ushered into the White House. The leaked video in which he is heard boasting about being able to grope any woman and get away with it because he was a celebrity, should have collapsed his 2016 election campaign instantly. He would be considered as not “fit for public office.”

But it was a sign of the times that Donald Trump got away with that and numerous allegations of sexual assault by women. His misogynistic conduct towards Hillary Clinton during the presidential debates also became acceptable.

Propriety was sacrificed by leaders of the Republican Party at the altar of power and partisan politics. They whose job is to lead, instead became devotees of a thug and bully, fortified by his celebrity status, spurred on by his racist, rampaging admirers. And those who normally occupy the middle ground, the silent majority, also threw basic decency to the winds, laughed off Trump’s obscenities and found fault with Hillary Clinton instead.

No nation in history has been well served by charlatans who pose as heroes and liberators. Countries need leaders, not liberators. It is a sign of imminent danger when pretenders, with charisma or a prior celebrity status, employ demagoguery to build a distorted and false narrative to enter the corridors of power.

Though no two situations are ever identical, historical similarities can throw some light and make us wiser. For we may notice some common features and pointers such as big and repetitive lies, branding of those who think differently as enemies, denouncing political adversaries as traitors, resorting to cheap patriotic and nationalist slogans, arousing a feeling of collective victimhood, etc.

In the United States of Trump, these have been: Latino immigrants, Muslim infiltrators, “Socialist” Democrats, “China Virus”, “build the wall”, “take back our country”, “make America great again”. It is worthwhile mentioning that even Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany through elections, by repeating similar falsehoods and slogans about Jewish conspiracies, appeasement, betrayal and sell-out.

When I look at the rise to power of Narendra Modi in India and Imran Khan in Pakistan at about the same time, I see tell-tale likenesses with Donald Trump in the US. In Pakistan: targeting adversaries as corrupt, “Modi ka yaar” (Modi’s friend), liberal, tool of Western agenda. In India, denouncing “appeasement” of Indian Muslims, asking even Hindu opponents to “go to Pakistan” and vowing to expel Bangladeshi “termites”.

Trump and Modi may be the first of the type in their countries, but Imran Khan is not the first in Pakistan. This country has had the misfortune of suffering from the rule of many a “hero-liberator”. Due largely to them, Pakistan’s brief history is a long succession of military, economic, political and social failures and catastrophes.

It started with Ayub Khan, the handsome general in uniform determined to clean up Pakistan from the scourge of “corrupt politicians”. His slogan was a local version of Trump’s “drain the swamp” and “lock her up”. When Ayub resigned, 11 years later, the country had been wrecked by his political experimentation and military adventurism in Kashmir, leaving the majority population in East Pakistan totally alienated.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto constructed his political career on half-truths and blatant lies, such as Ayub Khan’s alleged surrender of military victories, and threatening to reveal the non-existent secret clauses of the Tashkent Declaration at an appropriate time. Pakistanis were led to believe that their leader’s machismo was more than a match for India’s female prime minister and he was the right man to avenge the military defeat of 1971. Combining charisma, oratory, demagoguery and bluff, Bhutto soon succeeded in his goal of getting to the top. In five short years he landed himself, and the country, in a grave political crisis.

Seizing the opportunity, Ziaul Haque, a cunning hypocrite in uniform, dishonourably despatched him to the gallows in cahoots with vindictive judges and some opportunistic politicians. What followed under this “Mard-e-Momin”, who vowed to Islamise an overwhelmingly Islamic country, was even worse. What Zia lacked in charisma, he made up with a mixture of blatant lies, religious slogans and brute force.

In his second incarnation as prime minister, bolstered by his two-thirds parliamentary majority (“heavy mandate”), Nawaz Sharif began to cast himself as Amir-ul-Momineen (commander of the faithful). Brooking no opposition, he sent hoodlums to storm the Supreme Court, much like Trump had the US Congress invaded.

Then came Pervez Musharraf, the “commando liberator”, with his promise of “enlightened moderation”. For him nothing mattered, not the parliament, not the constitution, not the supreme court, for he knew best. When he was over and done with, the country was in a much worse shape, despite the infusion of billions of dollars from Washington.

And finally there is a new hero-liberator, “Kaptaan” Imran Khan. Advancing a dangerously false narrative over the years, buttressed by his success as a cricket captain and in building a cancer hospital, astutely extracting every ounce of his celebrity status, he presented himself as the messiah who would liberate the country from the clutches of an evil and corrupt clique, solve all its problems within months, not years. It will be recalled that in August 2014, after laying siege to it for a hundred days with the goal of overthrowing the government, Imran Khan had incited his supporters to storm the Parliament House in Islamabad, which is the equivalent of the Capitol building in Washington.

Unfortunately for the country, Imran Khan has turned out to be the most conceited and incompetent head of a Pakistani government ever. Here, as in the US, the signs were there for all to see. Some saw the trees, but not the forest. Too many were mesmerised by their hero and fell for his tall promises.

Returning to the events of January 6 at the US Capitol, those who think that the US is just the same as any Third World country, ought to be reminded that even Trump’s own servile vice president has defied him to defend the constitutional process, many senior leaders of his party have broken ranks and the whole “insurrection” incited by the president was over in 15 hours. The one-term president has been impeached for the second time. Joe Biden will be inaugurated as president on January 20 as stipulated in the constitution.

In Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo”, when Andrea says: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”, Galileo replies: “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes”. Better “Sleepy Joe” than “Celebrity Trump”! It is true for every country.

(Published in Daily Times, 16 January 2021)

By Razi Azmi

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10 Responses to Lessons of Trumpism: Nations need leaders, not liberators

  1. Sayed Chowdhury says:

    Well written. “Unhappy the land that needs heroes” and doomed the land that worships those heroes and glorifies the cults.

    As you rightly pointed out, despite the events of 6 January at the Capitol, US is not quite the same as Pakistan or similar Third World countries. Soon after the gory event of 6 January, the Constitutional process in America has continued as stipulated but it took Pakistan decades and bloodshed to come out of the dark chapters of dictatorial regimes, soon to go under the clutches of such dictators.

    Pakistanis should dismantle all cults of past and present and stop worshiping dwarfs and enemies of the people as heroes. Their only place should be in the trash bin of history.

  2. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Another arrow from the quiver of Razi Azmi to hit the bull’s eye. A very timely and well depicted piece. His comparison of Trump with leaders of India and Pakistan is spot on and very appropriate. The people have been fed with lies for a long time by these so called leaders. Their only goal is to stick to power by hook or crook. The last paragraph of the article says it all. Made good reading as usual.

  3. Arif Hssan says:

    Hero worshipers are every where, more so in India and Pakistan. Yet, the way Mr. Trump has been cut to size gives us glimmer of hope. I wonder, the Institutions in India and Pakistan will display the same grit and independence that we saw in the US.

    A very well written piece. A timely reminder that nations do not need leaders who pretend to be heroes and saviors.

  4. Jerry Pattengale says:

    Razi Azmi has a sharp pen like Michael Gerson, and seems to have a similar take on US events. Perhaps it’s fitting to say that Donald Trump will be the US president in modern history to accomplish the most but retain the least. We have a lot of great people in both parties, with hope for the future. Both presidential primaries in 2016 and 2020 were loaded with gifted leaders. Much is written about why and how the respective nominees surfaced, and time will tell if they resurface.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      I have written previously that some of the issues Trump addressed are real and will need to be tackled, sooner rather than later. But a president who is overtly divisive, who tells the most brazen and repetitive lies, and who incites people’s worst instincts cannot be remembered for any real accomplishment. Even with the best leadership, it will take much time and effort to heal the wounds that Trump has inflicted on American society and polity in his four years as president.

  5. Sayed Chowdhury says:

    The only problem is that public memory is generally short and most often lessons are not learnt. The Frankensteins created by Trump may go into hibernation but are likely to resurface.

  6. Douglas says:

    A comprehensively written article from Razi again. Trump has given third world leaders the courage to rule with decree and impunity.

  7. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Thank you for presenting the Trumps that Pakistan has suffered and continues to suffer. This Trump too will be succeeded by another of the same ilk.

  8. Anthony Letford says:

    Undoubtedly well written as noted above, and while the claim that Imran Khan has been ineffective in reforming Pakistani politics is probably true, the author seems to ignore the fact that Khan is allowed to stay in power only by permission of the army. Whereas Trump is the “Commander in Chief” of the US military forces, is not the Pakistani army the commander in chief of Imran Khan?

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Tony, you missed my description of Imran Khan as incompetent. It’s now over thirty months that he has been prime minister and he has disappointed his backers and admirers with not just his failings, but total incompetence. A couple of months ago he even admitted that he wasn’t ready for the job, lacked training. And, by his own confession, the same was true of his team.
      I, for one, never expected much from his rag-tag mob of opportunistic ministers and advisors, most of whom had jumped from one political party to another many times in the last three decades, depending on which way the wind was blowing, until finally being drawn to Imran Khan (again, the wind factor). His major character flaws are vindictiveness, obstinacy, ego and self-adulation, aggravated by the tendency to avoid policy work, lack of attention to detail, and over-centralization of authority. The former “Kaptaan” is now the “Great Leader” (hero-liberator).

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