The Americans have done it. They have given the world Donald Trump. Such is what a combination of fear, hate and narrow nationalism does. It thrusts on to the global stage mavericks that will leave the world order transformed beyond recognition – for better or worse. Trump’s campaign marked him out as an unpredictable war-mongering maverick. The one thing that I don’t doubt is that the world will never be the same again – for better or worse.
It need not be for the worse, however. We were sophomores at the University of Nairobi when a mild maverick, Ronald Reagan, ascended to power in the United States. Reagan was no Donald Trump. Yet he was a warmonger all the same. He played up American fears and promised to make his country great again. And he took the U.S. to war – everywhere. He arrived in the White House from the movies, via the State of California where he served as Governor.
American prestige had taken a beating on the global market of national self-esteem. The economy was in free fall. Memory of military humiliation in Vietnam was still fresh. The U.S. had lost nearly 60,000 soldiers in a futile and wasteful war. Oil prices were wrecking havoc, complete with shortages that saw motorists queue for hours for the commodity.
The Soviet Union was taunting the U.S. in Cold War propaganda. Then there was the return of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from eleven years of exile in France and before it the fall of the puppet Shah Dynasty in Iran, the drying up of oil supplies from Iran. America was disillusioned about her image. The country was impatient with President Jimmy Carter, who had narrowly won the 1976 election against Republican Gerald Ford. Ford had himself taken over from Richard Nixon, disgraced by the Watergate Scandal.
Even now the political air was still frowzy with the aftermath of Watergate. Yet then, like now, there were those who thought that the biggest assignment was “to make America again.” While the challenges before them had begun way before Carter’s election in 1976, the rightists saw it fit to blame everything on Carter, a moderate reformer, a political centrist and a man of mild personal habits. They carried the day.
But to what extent can we compare 1980 to today? Then, like today we, the budding scholars, preferred the Democratic candidate. President Carter himself campaigned against Reagan as a dangerous right wing extremist. He was a threat to world peace. He would place America’s global interests at risk. The big irony is that in the end, the Reagan presidency transformed the world. After his reelection in 1984, in which he swept the Electoral College vote – garnering 523 out of 538 votes – Reagan teamed up with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to lead NATO in bringing the Soviet Union and their friends in the Warsaw Pact to their economic knees.
Historians will want to record that Reagan subjected the USSR to an unprecedented arms race. He threw the USSR into an economic spin. He shattered the Iron Curtain of communist states that buffeted the USSR from Western Europe. Under the leadership of the reformist Mikhail Gorbechev, the USSR succumbed to the inevitable. The Communist Party – the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet – was dissolved in 1991. Gorbechev embarked on a policy of openness in governance (Glasnost) and restructuring politics and the economy (Perestroika).
The wind of change that began blowing in the USSR, with the visible hand of Reagan and Thatcher, would sweep right across the world. It led to the collapse of dictatorships and reintroduction of multiparty democracy, everywhere. Here in Africa Kamuzu Banda of Malawi went home. Kaunda of Zambia lost his “One Zambia, One Nation, One Leader” slogan. President Moi of Kenya accepted political competition. South West Africa became independent as Namibia. South Africa’s Apartheid regime collapsed. Military rule ended in Nigeria, Ghana and in diverse nations in Africa. In a word, Reagan changed the World Order. Those who knew how to read the signs, like President Nyerere of Tanzania, found higher ground from the Reagan Tsunami before it could sweep them away. They embraced and managed change before it could embrace and change them.
Every so often, an unpredictable maverick ascends to power somewhere in the world. For better or worse, these mavericks change the world order. Whether they are Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, General Franco, Winston Churchill, Otto Von Bismarck, or Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin, or the brazen Alexander of Macedonia, they leave the world barely recognizable as what it has been. The process of varying the order can be most traumatic. The dictators who came to power in Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1930s pushed the world to a wasteful war.
In 1933, Hitler was popularly elected to the office of German Chancellor. He ascended to power breathing racist propaganda, like Donald Trump. He proposed mass deportations of foreigners. If Trump is blaming Muslims, Africans and Mexicans for America’s woes, Hitler blamed Jews and all people he considered outsiders to his fabled Aryan race. He would get rid of them and make Germany great again. Trump has promised to deport foreigners, build walls and make America great again.
Elsewhere in Italy, Mussolini played up the fears and frustrations of his countrymen to bring the country into the firm grip of the Fascists (1930 – 1943). In Japan, in the same age, Emperor Hirohito embraced a policy of foreign aggression to make Japan great again. His country was reeling from economic crises when he ascended to power in 1926. The blending of interests between Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito would fuse them into a deadly Axis in World War II. In Spain, the dreaded General Francisco Franco ascended to power in 1936, enjoying support from Communists and Anarchists. Spain is still paying the price. And now America has done its thing. Is the feast of Armageddon about to begin?