As I watch the cruelties and incoherencies and grim-jawed lies of Trump and his malevolent functionaries while they efficiently and gleefully start to disassemble a once-great empire, I wonder at my own naivete.
There is a gnawing feeling that the end of democracy has finally arrived. America was always the gold standard for me, notwithstanding its occasional ill-considered ventures into good intentions with bad outcomes. I used to defend it against all-comers. I could trot out the constitution, the unseating of Nixon, the transformative power of men like Martin Luther King, the integrity of the Supreme Court, and Jobs and Roth and Coltrane and Salk and Emma Lazarus. I have always had a bushel full of examples of American greatness to display when confronted with anti-Americanism. I lived there for 18 years. That is what I saw and experienced about America.
And I always believed it with the certainty of the zealot. I believed that voters who had twice marked an X for Obama would not do so for an obvious fraud like Trump. That it was a country whose great heart and great promise would protect itself from where it finds itself now. I was fooled once – I thought that a man like this could never be president right up until the vote was counted. I was fooled twice in that I believed he would soften his ugly rhetoric as the gravitas of the office became clear. There is no chance at fooling me a third time, for I am now simply a fool.
So democracy brought us Trump (at least the electoral college version of democracy). It brought us Zuma. Erdogan in Turkey. Duterte in the Philippines. Putin in Russia. Brexit. There was a time when one could argue convincingly that democracy was a self-cleaning system, that the next round of the elections could always throw the bastards out. I am not sure I believe that any more. The noise of digital truth-warping all but guarantees that the facts are drowned out even in relatively literate and educated societies like the US. When the president derides the New York Times (with its long and proud history) as “dishonest”, there will be many who will believe him, because it is always less work to believe a loud and brash voice than a soft and rational one.
Perhaps my American mother and jazz and Hollywood and Silicon Valley was the start of my foolishness, a rose-tinted nonsense. In any event, here we are – a manipulative and narcissistic populist was able to sway tens of millions of people into believing bloated promises and demonstrable and immoral nonsense. (Just to repeat the most obvious example, how is the country a safer place as a result this immigration policy, which excludes Saudi Arabia, whose citizens have killed more Americans than any other? How does insulting a billion people help? How does sending thousands back to diminished lives or broken dreams or jail or worse bolster the US’s sense of security?)
Here at home we can catch glimpses of the falsities that will be presented to the public in the run-up to the next elections. You simply have to listen to the steady stream of fictional invective from Zumaphiles – ANN7, The New Age, ANCYL, ANCWL, MKMVA. Pravin Gordhan will be fired because he is in the pockets of white monopoly capital. The Guptas are as entitled as anyone else to pursue legitimate business. Banks are colluding to keep the apartheid generation rich. The press is run by untransformed capitalists with hidden agendas. Conspiracy after conspiracy theory will be trotted out, all non-falsifiable, all sensational and loud distractions from ANC services delivery failures of all stripes. Even in the face of the ANC’s municipal stumble, I would not bet on the ANC ignoring the mechanisms of fakery that elected Trump. The Zuma-led ANC is not going to willingly lose power to the small annoyances of truth.
So what of democracy? Perhaps it is time to recognise democracy’s limits and look to benign autocracies like Singapore for guidance. “Third Way” strategies that have been white-papered for decades. The exhumation of Communism. Religious governance like sharia. But I suspect these cannot compete against the grand history and promise of constitutional democracy, even now that its promise seems to have been broken.
In the face of what has happened in the White House over that last week, perhaps it is time to admit that the world has become too complex and too noisy to expect the common man to make political decisions that are in his or her best interests, and that a democratic vote is now a quaint notion from a simpler time. DM
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Award-winning and multi-shortlisted novelist Steven Boykey Sidley has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Free Association is his fourth and latest novel.
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