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