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A deeply divided nation, SA needs to find its better angels

- Judith February

With what voice do we speak when the unspeakable happens? What language do we use?

Last week the world watched as an angry mob occupied the United States Capitol, the place President-elect Joe Biden later called “the citadel of liberty”.

For its many faults and failures, America remains a unique democratic experiment. Anyone who is committed to democracy and the rule of law would have felt deeply saddened by the events of 6 January.

Where was “the country of laws” as the mob occupied Speaker Pelosi’s office? Where were the guardrails of the US Constitution as the same angry mob overwhelmed Capitol police and placed a ‘MAGA’ hat on the head of George Washington’s statue?

If it could happen in the US, it could happen anywhere, after all.

The world is still trying to find the language for the past four years of the Trump presidency; for its venality, its constitutional vandalism and its naked racism. Words matter and the words of an American President matter even more.

As Donald Trump cosied up to dictators, he gave every other tyrant the license to follow his unaccountable lead. Early on his hollow Presidency was repeatedly shown up for the great con it was always going to be. The reasons for Trump’s ascent to power are varied and complex and will no doubt be studied for a long while yet.

Yet every leader has its enablers and the Republican party and those like Mitch McConnell bear equal culpability for the assault on democracy.

What Trump has left behind is a Republican party captured by the cult of personality, a nation divided, the enemy deep within.

The point, of course, is whether, as has been asked so many times over the past days, 6 January was a tragic, violent denouement or the beginning of something more sinister? It’s too early to tell, but as Trump was impeached for the second time on Wednesday, the National Guard occupied the Capitol building simply because the safety of the elected representatives inside could not be guaranteed.

Indeed, Biden’s inauguration, meant to be a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power, has already been marred by the spectacle of violence and possible further violence across the country ahead of 20 January. That alone tells us that this new stain on America’s democracy will not easily be erased.

Time will deliver the inexorable verdict on this moment in history, but the further question is whether America stands at a place of historical rupture? What are the choices - a commitment to the rule of law and the founding documents and therefore truth or, a commitment to a Trumpian post-truth world in which facts are abandoned in favour of lies and fantasy?

For at any moment, there seem to be two alternative narratives. The one is the truth; that which is immutable and fact-based. The other (held within the lie that the election was ‘stolen’) is what Garry Kasparov calls “modern propaganda” or in plain language: lies. Kasparov goes on to say, “the point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth”.

And everyone is exhausted by Trump, his lying minions and their annihilation of truth.

In her fine book, Leadership in turbulent times - Lessons from the Presidents, American historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin writes that as Lincoln assumed the Presidency, he bore a “quiet sense of responsibility. His spoken and written words were... more measured, more cautious, centered, more determined...”. Trump has no such restraint, his only impulse being the recklessness which goes along with the pathology of malignant narcissism.

Biden has described himself and his pending Presidency as a ‘bridge’ to the future. Time will tell whether it will be a bridge to a more dangerous moment in history, or indeed to the place of ‘a more perfect union’ which the United States Constitution speaks of. What is clear is that this moment calls for leadership of an extraordinary kind.

In his latest book, Lincoln on the verge - thirteen days to Washington, Ted Widmer details the 13-day train trip Abraham Lincoln took from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington to be sworn in as President. Then, Lincoln faced a country deeply divided on the issue of slavery. The train journey was used by Lincoln as a means to reach out to citizens.

By the time Lincoln reaches New Jersey and survives the harrowing journey which included two assassination attempts, he was increasingly emboldened. Washington was on a knife’s edge as Lincoln arrived.

Widmer writes, while Lincoln preferred reconciliation, he also said, “I fear we will have to put the foot down firmly”. As he arrived in Philadelphia, he went on to say that he would be “one of the happiest men in the world” if the country could be saved with its great idea intact”. He would “rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it”. That turned out to be prescient.

Later, Lincoln was warned of an armed mob waiting for him in Baltimore. He survived that phase of the journey too and days later delivered his “better angels of our nature” inauguration speech.

In it Lincoln, says, “A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted”. Lincoln mentions too the ‘peculiar difficulty’ the country faced at the time.

Last week, history bore an eerie echo to the events described by Widmer, except, of course, that Trump is no Lincoln. He has neither the maturity of thought nor the interest in the American experiment to appeal to that which is larger than himself.

It is so that soon after Lincoln’s ‘better angels’ inauguration speech, the civil war began on 12 April 1861.

There are lessons to be learnt from that moment of rupture in American history.

These lessons from the United States apply equally to democracies around the world, not least of all our own in South Africa. We understand only too well the nature of violent rhetoric, the way in which language is weaponised to whip up popular sentiment. Julius Malema’s own brand of dangerous populism is ever-present, after all.

In many ways we have strayed far away from Mandela’s appeal to the better angels of our nature in these parts.

Who can forget Nelson Mandela’s televised address when Chris Hani was assassinated in April 1993? Then, South Africa was at the brink of civil war. It was Mandela’s act of leadership that pulled us back from the brink.

And we remember too Mandela’s statesmanlike speech to a 200,000-strong crowd in Durban at the height of IFP-ANC violent clashes, when he said: “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. End this war now.” He urged peace at a time when we thought peace was impossible – let alone a free and fair election.

Our ‘better angels’ triumphed then to deliver our own democratic experiment.

As our country becomes more divided by deep levels of socio-economic inequality, adherence to constitutional norms and values will become even more complex. Add to that a global pandemic and almost endemic corruption, our country becomes a rich and fertile cocktail for violence.

For every democracy, as in the United States right now, the question remains, “If the Constitution is under threat, who will march in its defence?” As we celebrate 25 years of the adoption of our Constitution this year, we would do well to remember what we intended when we made the decision to become a constitutional democracy. That decision was deliberate, after all.

As Barack Obama said in his farewell address in January 2017, “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning.”

Those sentiments will be sorely tested in the United States in the next months and indeed elsewhere in the world where democracies are under pressure from deepening economic and health crises and the populists who would exploit grievance.

No democracy is immune to degradation. That much can be gleaned from the American carnage Trump wrought and which ended in bloody insurrection.

February is a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance

This article was first published on EWN. Read the orginal article here.