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America, their America

By Obi Nwakanma
On Tuesday 8 November, I went to vote at the voting center by the country club near my house, in the city of Orlando, Florida. Thereafter, I drove to my office to hold “office hours.” It was an ordinary day. Normal. The US elections are very calm affairs. But beneath the surface of calm, a most dramatic event was shaping. The grounds were shifting beneath us in what would soon become an earthquake.

By 5 pm, I left to pick my children up from their school, which is in down town Orlando – a forty-five minute drive on the highway from my office. My daughter has a part on the cast of her school’s performance of The Lion King and they have been rehearsing for the past month till 7:00 pm. While my son and I waited in a café near their school for my daughter to come out from rehearsals, the polls were beginning to close in the three time zones of the United States starting with the Eastern Meridian Time.

Vcast ballots in the presidential election at a polling center in Miami, Florida on November 8, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / RHONA WISE
Vcast ballots in the presidential election at a polling center in Miami, Florida on November 8, 2016. / AFP PHOTO

The pundits were on TV scouring the electoral maps and the contours of American voting habits. All the polls had predicted a very close election, but it all pointed in the direction of Hillary Clinton. Going into that election, the “pathway” to Donald Trump’s victory all seemed but impossible. As it turned out, “big data” was wrong. All these talk about “artificial intelligence” and “singularity” and the rise in the consciousness of AI seemed at least for this one moment questionable, because it is clear that all the number crunchers and techy nerds using numbers to forecast, measure, and predict human behavior did not quite reckon with the human mask. As the commentariat began their analysis that evening of the Tuesday elections,

Hillary Clinton seemed all ahead in the polls. That weekend, she had campaigned vigorously in Florida, one of those key strategic must-win states, whose swing voters are indeed like real “swingers” who are often wont to share the body of votes between the two parties frequently in this political swinger’s party called elections. In fact, Barack Obama and Stevie Wonder had come to Orlando on Saturday, and a great crowd had come to that campaign for Hillary.

My wife, Mira, and my son had been at the campaign, and my son had captured the pictures of Stevie Wonder and Barack Obama, and the frenzy of the “Hillary for President” crowd. The Clinton campaign had a huge get-out-the-vote ground operations. It had put great resources on the ground particularly in the vital Miami Dade and Broward County, with its humongous Latino votes.

The changing demography of Florida, with lots of Puerto Rican immigrants moving from Puerto Rico and New York had also made what is now known as the “I-4 corridor” a key demographic lynchpin in this, and possibly future elections. And Donald Trump was reckoned to be in the bad books of Latinos, particularly the new generation, especially as the old Cuban emigres displaced by Fidel Castro, traditional supporters of the Republicans are aging out, and a new generation of Cubans are trending more towards more liberal politics. So, it seemed all set.

The question behind everyone’s thought was not whether Donald Trump would win this very close election, but how close he would come to upstaging Clinton. As a matter of fact, the question was where the Democrats would pick up senate seats at play nationwide to change the current composition of the US senate and put it back into the control of the Democrats.

Well, as soon as my daughter came out from her rehearsals, we drove home. I cracked open a bottle of worthwhile cognac; one of my favorites, and I should name it – a Courvoisier Napoleon Champagne cognac – one of France’s better contributions to civilizing the gut – procured that day in what I anticipated was going to be a long and exciting evening, and settled to watching the returns. And soon, they began to roll in. It became quickly clear that all bets were off, and that Donald Trump was doing much better than was anticipated.

Then, the tides indeed began to turn, and the question was whether Clinton could keep what was described as her “firewall” states, which would guarantee her electoral victory as soon as it became clear that Trump had beaten the odds to win Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. There was much nail-biting about Virginia. And I knew by then that Clinton had lost, particularly as Pennsylvania came into play. Donald Trump had won in a shocking and quite unpredictable way, and would become the 45th president of the United States.

America has been in the mind of many a Nigerian, the place of myth, and of possibility. But in 1961, on a Parvin Fellowship at Princeton, one of those early “hearts-and-minds” programs aimed at introducing the US to a new and emergent “African elite” with the background of cold war politics, one of Nigeria’s foremost poets and dramatists, John Pepper-Clark captured the undercurrents of the “real America” in a bristling, and unforgiving account published as America, their America. The issues that Clark captured of his American experience continues to resonate today in many respects. People all over the world are shocked that the US has elected a racist bigot to the presidency. The question is how dare America disappoint everyone in the world that has held it up as a beacon of all that is good? Well, people like J.P. Clark argued very early in the day that it is all a myth; that beneath the American glitter is a more complex story.

This election somehow proves it: the United States is a profoundly polarized society, and there is beneath the culture of “politeness” a simmering racist ontology – America’s ontic wound. Donald Trump’s campaign was driven by a message of hate and polarity: “let us make America great again!” he said – a code for a return to a troubling past of the 1950s that he adores so much, which had no place for black people, and which was the bastion of the kind of “white privilege” that was built on the negation of those who do not look like Donald Trump.

It is a code for the abolishing of all the gains of the civil rights movement. It is a code for radical confinement and disaggregation of Africans and their global descendant, and other minorities in America – Muslims, Latinos,women, immigrants, etc, who constitute the current unheimlich for Trump’s mostly lily-whitesupporters, and the sprinkling of self-hating blacks and Latinos who may have voted for him in this election. But the pattern of votes are clear: 56% of white male voters in this election voted for Trump, while 42% white “college (university) educated” women voted for him. So, it is not true that only the so-called “white hillbillies” in the desiccated rust belt drove Trump’s victory: it is a deeper fear of what they perceive to be a changing landscape.

One comprehends, at the emotional level, and even empathizes with this fear and this sense of siege, but it is important to name it properly: the results of this US election clearly indicates the reactionary mood of a significant portion of “white America.” Otherwise, the election of Donald Trump should defy all logic – that a man who is facing fraud charges in court even as we speak, who may face a slew of sexual misconduct charges including possible rape against a minor while in office, who never released any of his tax returns to show the extent of his financial commitments, and who clearly never paid any federal taxes and boasted about it in the national debate, and whose pussy-grabbing scandal that broke only weeks to the election should have tanked any other campaign – earned the support of white evangelical Christians in great numbers, and won the presidency, even though he did not win the popular votes, show what we should now call “American wonder.” Not that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats made it easy for themselves in actively subverting Bernie Sander’s campaign in a bid to elect Clinton by all means necessary.

The scandals that broke around Clinton gave the impression of an untrustworthy and manipulative candidate. It lost Clinton, who many felt was a most unlikeable candidate, vast ground support. Many people stayed home rather than vote for her, and it did not help that the FBI added new dimensions to the investigations on her in the very last weeks of the campaign giving impetus to the Trump campaign. I have heard that there are Nigerians, particularly in the East of Nigeria who are rejoicing in Nigeria on the victory of Trump.

Many of these are very ignorant folk who have no idea of the real issues, and who from their distances make conclusions and circulate ideas that have no basis in reality: for these folks one should say, as the Chief Priest Ezeulu in Achebe’s Arrow of God would say to some inanity: “don’t make me laugh.” Trump is not your ally, and does not know that you exist. Whoever tells you otherwise, is lying to you.

 


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