In January 2017 my partner and I sat at the bar in an upscale restaurant in Blantyre, Malawi. The muted TV on the side wall displayed images of Inauguration Day from Washington, D.C., and a couple boisterous men two seats down from us celebrated, dramatically and repeatedly clinking together their gin-and-tonics.
The thought amongst many East Africans at the time was that a President Trump would stand up to corrupt autocrats who had drained public coffers for years. Trump’s strength was his straight talk, and that would muscle aside the weak chorus of diplomatic-speak that had failed to deliver good governance to the people of Malawi, where my partner was living at the time. Trump’s bellicose delivery from the podium resonated culturally alongside his professed Christian values.
The 2017 Presidential Inauguration – a ceremony which ought to be a time of fresh hope, a cause for optimism, and an opportunity for renewed patriotism – was, at least for 65 million Americans, a final punch of reality to the gut. But for many conservatives, it was a time of excitement amid unknowns.
“You don’t know how he’s going to govern,” they chastised skeptics. “He will be guided by principled conservative leaders and restore our country to its highest ideals; you’ll see.”
Despite early assumptions about a future Trump administration in practice, one could truly not predict what the next four years would hold. Now, with the US Capitol breach serving as its concluding capstone, it is fully clear what a Trump presidency is all about.
On the eve of the 2021 Inauguration, from Blantyre to Washington, D.C., there are innumerable unmet expectations left in the wake of the last presidential term.
Trump’s strongman rhetoric over the last four years proved hollow. He never intended to help a country like Malawi, let alone its people. “America First” translated literally and forcefully into a focus inward at all costs. This freed up and emboldened autocrats around the world. Citizens now living under the rule of an authoritarian are no better off than they were when Trump took office. From Uganda to the Philippines to Russia, the US posture towards autocrats conjures up the vision of a small dog inside the house barking loudly at the leaves blowing by out front, if it even notices the leaves.
At home, on a couple levels, he met and exceeded the wishes of many conservatives. A tax overhaul and three Supreme Court appointments is enough for a hero’s welcome at any right-leaning convention. But the dissolution of norms, toxic rhetoric, including the continual disrespect for military heroes such as the late John McCain, and well-documented infidelity, among many other presidential failures, left many on the center-right uncomfortably stuck between a powerful cult-of-personality base and an establishment conservatism seemingly of decades past.
The recent footage of Lindsey Graham, a US Senator who stood up for Trump until the fateful breach of the US Capitol on January 6th, being heckled by Trump supporters at the airport provided some final proof: the support of that base was fragile and the widespread torching of reputations was not worth it.
Inauguration Day is fast approaching, along with a new dawn for the country. The beauty of ceremonial new beginnings is the chance to look forward and hope for something better. No matter one’s political leanings, a new president taking the oath, before a stage of America’s leadership, against a backdrop of symbols of American pride, overlooking a mall buzzing with anticipation, instills in each of us a renewed faith that the American experiment is alive and well and worth all its prior defense.
This Inauguration Day though, there is no longer an ounce of uncertainty surrounding what a Trump presidency means. We now know exactly what kind of president he would be; what kind of president he was.
Thus, this Inauguration Day marks a transition of power that offers perhaps the starkest contrast between administrations in a generation. This Inauguration Day presents a refreshed opportunity for our leaders to make right on the rhetoric, and to deliver on their commitments to govern for all Americans, to stand up to human rights abuses, and to model the tenants of good governance.
Instead of the bar in Blantyre, all of our upcoming Inaugural celebrations will be from a distance, thanks to an historic leadership failure and resultant lackluster pandemic response. Despite this, we ought to ensure our collective clinking of glasses, saluting the incoming administration, will be loud enough for the rest of the restaurant, and the world, to hear.