Decency vs Banality

A demonstrator holds up a banner as President Barack Obama delivers a farewell speech to the nation. PHOTO: AFP

Last week we witnessed two extraordinary events. First, President Barack Obama bid farewell to his fellow countrymen. He shed a drop or two of heartfelt teardrops, as he recalled the unlikely path he took to ascend to the presidency. Most of the 20,000 or so people in Chicago's McCormic Convention Centre had moist eyes, too.  Here is a good man, who had made basic human decency the hallmark of a presidency at a time when banality and luridness were the driving forces behind fame and political fortune.

And then there was Donald Trump at his first press conference since the US election. On the day following Obama's Chicago moment, he stood at his Trump Tower before a phalanx of cameras.  By then much of the world had come to know in great detail the so-called "golden shower" he and some of his male friends took three years ago at a Moscow Hotel in the company of two hired prostitutes. All fake news, claimed the man who had invented fake news (by questioning Obama's US citizenship) and as proof said he was a "germophobe". Besides, he knew it very well that Russians kept their cameras rolling in every nook and cranny of their hotels to spy on foreign dignitaries staying there.

The world was dumbfounded, both by the revelation and the reaction of the American President-elect. His shouting match with a CNN correspondent – as the cameras kept rolling – was a priceless spectacle that told us how this man plans to govern the next four years, or eight, as he claimed.  He was huffing and puffing, fake smoke spewing through his ears, all in an earnest desire to convince us what he was told by the nation's top intelligence officers "did not happen" and should not have been "leaked" to the press.

Whether Donald Trump knew the cameras were rolling with lights on or not, and whether his"golden shower" actually happened or not, people at their dinner table all across the country are now having a jolly good time – yes, with their lights on – at the expense of the Great Don who they saw on national television fake- swaggering, "How could this happen, I am scared of germs?" There were peals of laughter in the room, the ripples of which quickly travelled places far and wide. 

This was all so familiar. Some three months ago, we were feted with a similar situation, the Great Don bragging about his sexual conquests in front of a live camera and microphone. Only later he claimed he did not know his "locker-room banter" was being recorded.

This made-for-TV spectacle, happening only the day after Obama bid his heartfelt goodbye in Chicago, makes it amply clear what America and the rest of the world will have to endure the next four years. America's democracy is strong and deep, and its guardians are wise, we have come to believe. And yet, as Obama so eloquently described, it has never been in greater peril. The country is at a crossroads, and there are forces at work that threaten American democracy. There are people who do not trust facts and abhor science. (There is even a word to describe such a phenomenon –altreality). What has kept the country together thus far was its sense of solidarity. "There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity – the beginning of this century has been one of these moments," Obama cautioned.

He did not mention Trump by name. He did not have to; we knew it all too well. With his verbal tirade against Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, women and even Jews, Trump has been shaking that wall of solidarity to its very core. 

Let's be honest, the eight years that Obama presided over have not been all milk and honey. In the coming days and months, America and the rest of the world will debate the degree to which he was able to restore the national economy, end blood-letting in foreign wars and heal America's racial wounds. What, however, leaves little room for debate is that he changed how the world now views America. At the personal level, Obama shined as a decent human being, earning grudging respect even from his ardent foes. His basic human decency was on full display in his farewell address, where he felt no embarrassment to wipe tears when speaking about his wife and children. (Trump, in contrast, said his daughter was "voluptuous" and he would have dated her had she not been his daughter.)

I have argued elsewhere that Obama fell far short of what he had set out to achieve.  He called himself the change that we have been waiting for. Yet, "the change" has been followed by a person who has vowed to undo everything he stood for. Obamacare, the outgoing president's signature healthcare legislature, will be annulled on his first day of presidency, Trump has vowed. The historic nuclear deal with Iran and the political reopening with Cuba, two of Obama's most important diplomatic achievements, could be dismantled quickly through executive orders. The deal on climate change, a giant step towards saving our planet from environmental catastrophe, could be thrown into uncertainty if Trump keeps his promise to withdraw from the international treaty. Millions of undocumented immigrants could face deportation in the coming months, as Trump sets in motion a course-reversal.

Clearly, America has voted for a perfect anti-Obama, and much of the country is already feeling buyer's remorse. With about 40 percent approval, Trump begins his first term as the least popular president in recent history. Obama, on the other hand, exits with a whopping 54 percent approval rating. If Obama was the "quintessential gentleman," his successor is just the opposite – boorish, uncurious, thuggish and incoherent on most policy matters. The people within his own party called him a con man, one who would put his own interest ahead of his country's.

Judging by the "germophobe's" words and his performance since the election, the worst is only ahead of us.

Weep, America, weep!

The writer is a journalist and author based in New York. 


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