Death by a thousand cuts

By Mahmud Jega

It was Julius Caesar who said that the best death is a quick one. What US President Donald Trump endured last week was the electoral equivalent of the old Chinese torture of Lingchi, or death by a thousand cuts. Those who genuinely love Donald Trump [maybe Melania, Don Jnr, Ivanka, Jared Kushner and a few others] must be wishing that he speedily lost Florida and Texas on election night. He would have had a sleepless night that Tuesday but he could have slept well afterwards, instead of going for days without sleep as Joe Biden steadily overtook him in the count in one crucial state after another.

It might even have been better for Trump’s loved ones if pollsters had been right and he had lost the election to Hillary Clinton in 2016. It is much less traumatic to lose your first bid for the presidency than to be defeated after one term.

Trump was not alone in recent US history. Jimmy Carter and George Bush Snr both suffered the same fate. Possibly a worse experience was President Gerald Ford’s, who was never elected in the first place. As House Majority Leader, President Richard Nixon chose him to become Vice President in 1973 when Spiro Agnew resigned. A year later, Nixon himself resigned and Ford became President. As his Republican party’s candidate, he lost the election to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

I first “monitored” US elections in November 1976. I smuggled a transistor radio into my secondary school dormitory, woke up early morning and listened to the BBC world news. Much to my delight, Jimmy Carter defeated President Gerald Ford. Four years later in 1980, I was close to tears when Carter lost to the right-winger Ronald Reagan. During the Democratic Party’s primaries earlier that year, I actually preferred Senator Edward Kennedy. Carter “whipped Kennedy’s ass,” as he infamously said. It was one of only two profane words that Carter uttered during his presidency. The other time was when the New York Times’ banner headline declared, “Carter says ‘baloney’”.

In 1984, when Reagan defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale by a landslide, my friends and I were so unhappy that Tukur Umar said he did not recognize the result. In 1988 too, we rooted for the Democratic candidate, former Massachusetts State governor Michael Dukakis. Though at one time he had a 17-point lead in opinion polls, he lost to then Vice President George Bush, Snr.

In 1992, I had no access to CNN but I sat up with my transistor radio through the night monitoring the results on BBC. I fell asleep at one point and when I woke up at 5am, I heard BBC refer to “President-elect Clinton.” Clinton had an easier ride over the Republican candidate, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole in 1996. I had visited the White House in 1994 and was taken to the West Wing an hour before Clinton departed for California to attend Richard Nixon’s funeral. 2000AD was the worst memory, when the US election ended up in court over the dimple chads in Florida. George Bush Jnr, who had fewer votes than Al Gore, was elected by the Supreme Court.

Let’s skip 2004. In 2008 and again in 2012, I sat up all night and wrote stories for Daily Trust about Barak Obama’s historic win. On election night last Tuesday, Donald Trump initially led in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Slowly but steadily, Biden whittled down his lead and then overtook him. All these were states that Trump won four years ago, by small margins, but enough to demolish Democrat’s famed “blue wall” in the rustic industrial Great Lakes region. He beat Mrs. Clinton even though she had 3 million more votes nationally.

America’s election system is queer, and not just for Nigerian eyes. Four years ago when Trump was declared winner, a South Korean visitor to the US asked how anyone could win the election when he was millions of votes behind. It was all due to the electoral college system, by which the contest is conducted state by state, with each state having an assigned number of electoral college votes roughly equal to its population. A candidate wins if he garners 270 of those votes, or majority of the 538 votes available.

I said “roughly” but not exactly. Each of America’s 50 states has as many electoral college votes as the number of its senators and congressmen, total 535. District of Columbia has 3 votes. While the number of congressmen is proportional to population [adjusted after each census], each US state has two senators. Republicans, who are more popular in small, rural states of the South and Midwest, enjoy a certain strategic advantage. For example, California has a population bigger than that of 22 small states combined but it has 55 electoral college votes while the latter have 95.

Donald Trump’s experience mirrored that of Chief Awolowo. In August 1979 when NTA broadcast election tallies live from FEDECO headquarters in Lagos, Awolowo was well ahead because results from his stronghold Southwestern states arrived earlier. Shagari however overtook him when the Returning Officer Presidential Election, Frederick Menkiti, announced results from Rivers State. Shagari got 600,000 Rivers votes and Awo got, if I remember right, 72,000.

During a pro-Trump demonstration in Nigeria last week, one taxi driver said he loves Trump because of his leadership qualities. That means this man loves conceit, outsized ego, haughty mien, humiliation of staffers, rapid turnover of top aides, a leader who watches television for half the day, for that matter only the channel that espouses his own views; who shuns his media aides and tweets uncouth messages early in the morning; who alienated allies that his predecessors took decades to build; who rips up agreements that diplomats took thousands of hours to conjure up.

Our taxi driver loves a leader who licks the asses of dictators that represent the opposite of American values; who publicly stampedes his Attorney General to go after political opponents; who publicly disagrees with the findings of his own intelligence agencies; who calls his political opponents names such as “Crooked Hillary” and “Sleepy Joe”; who tried to build a wall at his neighbour’s doorstep; who rejected the advice of medical experts in a pandemic; called his government’s top infectious diseases expert an idiot and a disaster; described the media, which the constitution specifically enjoined to hold all branches of government accountable, as enemies of the people; who denigrated his country’s electoral system just because he was losing; and who refused to concede, as his predecessors did for generations.

When a scuffle occurred between white supremacists and people proclaiming racial equality, Trump said “there are good people on both sides.” Now, if Muhammadu Buhari said after a clash between soldiers and Boko Haram that there are good people on both sides, our friend in Onitsha would shout blue murder.

Another Onitsha demonstrator said Trump defends Christians all over the world. Well, there is something called hypocrisy. Obasanjo made a distinction between shari’a and political shari’a. In his four years as president, Trump never attended Sunday church service. On the other hand Jimmy Carter, who regularly attended church on Sundays and was a lay Southern Baptist minister, never claimed to be defending Christians across the world. Instead, Carter’s first foreign policy priority when he took over in January 1977 was to defend human rights all over the world. Particularly in the Soviet bloc; that too was hypocritical because US overlooked human rights abuses in pro-US right wing dictatorships.

Donald Trump’s conduct suddenly made Nigerian politics to look respectable. He declared even before the election that it was going to be rigged because opinion polls indicated that he would lose. His grouse was that many states allowed mail-in ballots, meant to avoid congestion during a pandemic. Trump refused to concede, filed many frivolous court cases and indicated that he might not relinquish the White House. Nigeria should impose visa restrictions on this man for endangering America’s democracy.

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