• Irungu Houghton

Rising Trumpism and why we must protect democracy

Updated: Jan 10


Shocking scenes from the United States Capitol caught all our attention this week. After nine months of television binge watching, we could be forgiven for thinking what just happened was just another American reality show. More intelligently, we must assess the price we must pay to live in a democracy and whether post electoral violence is inevitable with or without building bridges.

America is often cited as one of the world’s oldest democracies. George Washington’s 1788 Farewell Address highlighted the centrality of the country’s constitution and elections in determining the legitimacy of governments. The Capitol Building is the meeting place of the US Congress and the seat of the legislative branch of the Federal Government.

Put diplomatically, American democracy has been a work in progress ever since. Fundamental freedoms, dignity and rights have been denied to millions based on their race, class, gender, disability and sexuality. Ironically, the statue of freedom and the rest of the Capitol building was built by slaves back in the nineteenth century.

The storming of the Capitol stunned the world. Carrying confederate flags and branded Make America Great Again (MAGA), thousands of Trumps’ supporters responded to his rally speech by besieging the Capitol Building. Five hours later, five lay dead. On the grounds lay abandoned pipe bombs, long guns and Molotov cocktails. Statues, windows and offices were vandalised. In the eyes of the world, American democracy was in tatters.

Contrary to Gil Scott Heron’s famous poem, this attempted revolution was televised live. A sitting President in one of the world’s oldest democracies first encouraged and then refused to stop an insurrection against his own Parliament. Appeals for the deployment of the National Guard were ignored by President Trump for three hours and then he declared love for the rioters, among them white supremacists, holocaust deniers and QAnon followers.

The botched action has destroyed whatever remained of Trumps’ legacy. Chaired by his Vice President, Senate has confirmed the Biden/Kamala win and key members of his Administration have now resigned. The American capital will remain under curfew until he leaves the White House. Calls for his impeachment are gaining ground among both Democrats and Republicans. If he cannot be trusted with FaceBook and Twitter accounts, should he really have access to the nuclear buttons?

There were several reactions to Wednesday’s drama. A few Kenya politicians took the opportunity to create local Trumps and draw parallels with 2017. While all opinions, as opinions, are valid, it is important to distinguish two inconvenient truths. All crises reveal power structures and the interests they serve. The white ultra-conservative mobs rampaging through the US capital were moulded by the US Commander in Chief. To expect the Police or National Guard to act differently than they did, is delusional. Secondly, whether democracies are two centuries or 54 years old like Kenya, they are equally fragile. We must address this with some urgency.

Like Kenya, US elections are largely affairs for the super-wealthy. Over 100 billion shillings was spent on the Georgia State run off making it, the most expensive election ever. All eight Presidential aspirants from the two main parties were either billionaires or millionaires. Contrast this with close to 45 million people who live in poverty, over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths and the many Americans who live one pay cheque ahead of their banks. Huge inequalities in America and elsewhere produce fertile ground for mass discontent and rebellion.

There are ten elections planned for 2021 and Uganda and Ethiopia are among them. The Ugandan political campaigns have been brutal. Fifty people including five journalists have been killed already. International journalists have reported difficulties securing accreditation and both a mass and social media clampdown looms. This week, Bobi Wines’ entire campaign team were detained. The Ugandan elections have taken on the character of a zero-sum war and it seems neither the African Union nor neighbouring African Governments, Kenya included, are alarmed.

This week's tragic events in Washington bear witness to a deep-rooted crisis of leadership. Trump represents a return to the nineteenth-century era of great empires and great clashes. He is not however the only Head of State that thinks, by controlling the means of state violence you can act autocratically at home and unilaterally abroad. While Trump will leave on January 20, Trumpism is likely to live on not just in the US but across the World unless we get more involved.


Trumps' actions were internationally condemned this week. As if they were not glued to their televisions, most African Heads of States remained notably silent. Eternal vigilance, voice and engagement is the personal price both leaders and citizens must pay to protect democracies. As Kenya joins the Security Council, this too, must be a core pillar of our international leadership.


This opinion was first published in the Saturday Standard, 9 January 2021

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