The planet took a collective deep breath on Saturday 7th November, when international news networks projected that Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States of America. That announcement meant that Donald Trump will be the first American president to serve only one term, since George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton 28 years ago. After five long days of extensive and mind-numbing analysis, the defining conclusion was that character matters. We did not all shed tears, but we felt it when Van Jones sobbed through his contribution on CNN, saying “It’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to tell your kids, ‘character matters, being a good person matters’”. He went on to say “This is a vindication for a lot of people who really have suffered. ‘I can’t breathe’; that was not just George Floyd. There were a lot of people who felt like they couldn’t breathe.”
Character matters. That resonates deeply, and speaks to the aspirations of all good people around the world who aspire to live in communities where they are respected not just for what they do or how much they have, but because they are humans. That basic aspiration was decimated beyond reason since the day Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the highest office in America. What started like an apparent stunt became the world’s unending nightmare as one individual’s character deficit became a source of terror for many – women, people living with disabilities, Africans (remember: “shithole”?), Muslims, Mexicans, children…just about everyone. Character matters, and unfortunately Donald Trump does not have a lot of it. Yet, while the attention over the coming days will be purely about Trump, this moment in history calls for a lot of reflection about us. Donald Trump is one of us.
As vote counting continues in the United States, it is already on record that more people voted for Donald Trump than there ever were votes for Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. Not counting Joe Biden, Trump would have received the highest votes of any American presidential candidate in history. Think about this – regardless of what we think about Donald Trump, more than 70 million Americans voted for his brand of humanity: they voted for vacuous thinking, unbridled outbursts, misogyny, xenophobia, and the clearest reflection of a lack of decency. Donald Trump has always been one of us, and people like Trump have always ridden rough-shod through society, dominating spaces like business, authoritarian politics and even families. For some reason, we must have thought that the world’s most popular democracy would be immune to characters like Trump, but we have been proven wrong.
So, was 2016 an anomaly? Clearly not! 2020 has proven otherwise – Trump gained even more votes this time around. Trump’s election to the presidency was not a bug in the system – it was a program feature for which most of us were not prepared. As humans, we tend to project our highest aspirations on to our leaders, expecting them on their worst days to be the embodiment of who we struggle to be on our best days. Donald Trump simply bucked the trend. He had no time (or capability) for make-believe – he lived out his real and true self on the pages of Twitter every single day, and that scared some of us and emboldened the rest of us. Our society indeed is polarized, far beyond what we are prepared to admit. Yet, character matters.
The historic election of Joe Biden (the oldest man to be elected) and Kamala Harris (the first woman, person of colour, and daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants) has led many to resurrect the timeless quip, that “in America, you can achieve anything”. Actually, a statement credited to Abraham Lincoln reads “You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose”. Unfortunately, that does not only apply to Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, it applies to Donald Trump as well – it means that an entertainer and heavily indebted business man with no political history or policy expertise can rise to the highest office in the land. It means that a con man can indeed be president of America. That is not how we thought of writing the history books, but that is the unvarnished truth. Yet, character still matters.
It matters that we treat people with respect, regardless of their positions in society. It matters that we speak kindly to one another, especially those with whom we disagree. It matters that we choose our words carefully in all situations and that we try to build up, rather than to tear down. It matters that we use our positions of influence to elevate others who might not otherwise have those opportunities. It matters that we build alliances rather than sow divisions. It matters that we hold our friends close and we learn to disagree with dignity. It matters that we pursue fairness and equality with vigour, especially when we have been entrusted with a public mandate. Character matters, but in leadership, it is just a start.
Competence matters as well. There is a reason why many employers consider a person’s work history before offering them a role in their companies; there is a reason why resume experts ask job seekers to showcase and quantify their results from their previous roles, rather than simply list responsibilities. It is because competence matters, and nowhere more so than in public governance. It matters that a person is at least interested in policy making, conscious about building governing alliances and focused on channelling resources to build communities rather than enrich private pockets. It matters that a leader signals to the public that they are taking their job seriously, and not playing around on social media, watching television or playing golf at the first available opportunity.
Compassion matters also. We look up to leaders who demonstrate, not only that they can understand what we are going through, but that they feel it as well. Like that time when Barack Obama commented on Trayvon Martin’s death saying “this could have been my son”, or that time in 1986 when Joe Biden fiercely spoke up in the US Senate for South Africans crushed under apartheid, saying “We have favourites in South Africa…the people who are being oppressed by that ugly white regime. Our loyalty is not to South Africa, it is to South Africans, and South Africans are majority Black, and they are being excoriated!”. Particularly during a time of crisis, leaders reach out to the best in us, and cause us to believe that the sun will shine again and we will live to see another day. They do not say in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 1.25million people globally that the virus will just go away magically; neither do they ask a white nationalist militia to “stand back and stand by”. They cry with the people, they extend hugs, and then they get to work to fix the source of public pain.
And courage matters too. It takes courage to fix a damaged economy by extending government bailouts to businesses that overshot the boundaries of reasonable lending, just so that millions of citizens do not have to lose everything. It takes courage to attempt to work through a fractured democratic system to extend universal health coverage to more people than could have been covered otherwise. It takes courage to commit to a global climate compact, or to take down the world’s deadliest terrorist. It takes courage to attempt to maintain a fragile global balance in a world that tilts on its edge too often. It says a lot about the character of the individual who is quick to tear down elements of progress, especially when they are unable to propose new solutions. As humans, we are far more adept at analysing what we believe to be wrong about things than we are at coming up with better ideas. It takes courage to build.
As a global community, what have we learned over the last four years, and the last few weeks? Firstly, that we have not completely given up on decency. Global markets have rebounded since the announcement of Biden’s victory, and the South African Rand, for example, now trades against the Dollar at its highest rate since March. Secondly, we have learned that institutions are the bulwark of a democracy, and its greatest defence against authoritarianism. In nearly any other country on earth, Donald Trump would have been confirmed to a second term by now. The American legal system is not perfect, but it has put up a strong defence and likely would continue to do so, when faced with emotion-driven appeals. Thirdly, we have learned that a free media is more than an appendage to a full-functioning society – it is core to its existence. The role of media platforms in shaping public narratives and documenting minute-by-minute updates for the world can never be replicated, especially in societies that shackle free speech (take note: Nigeria). In addition, much has been made and will be made about social media, but the time has come to accept it fully as a platform evidently far more powerful than traditional news outlets.
Fourthly, we have come to discover that we know far less about our neighbours than we think we do – those 70 million+ Americans who support Trump live next door to, attend church with, work alongside, and attend social gatherings with many others who are unsuspecting of their alliances. There is something that appeals to Trump supporters beyond hatred for Democrats, and many are yet to figure out if those are virtues that are sorely lacking in politics as it is. Fifthly, we have come to conclude that America’s pull has not waned across the world. The global audience of an American presidential election can never be rivalled anywhere in the world for many reasons, including the fact that our trusted news sources and social media platforms are American. What happens in America affects us all, and that is all the more reason why we need to keep vigil on the character of its leader. The next four years will be interesting, but first how will things play out between now and January 20th? We need to brace ourselves.