As we contemplate our futures as nations, let us make sure we don’t abandon our reason and hand ourselves to the tender mercies of those who fly the flag of Trumpism, says New African editor Anver Versi.
Those of us who have lived through 2020 will never forget this extraordinary year. In future, I believe we shall arrange our memories according to BC (Before Covid) and AC (After Covid).
What life lessons we have learnt from this year will of course vary from person to person: some say their whole outlook on life and their entire value systems have changed; some merely hanker for the time BC and hope it returns to exactly the same status quo; some are still in denial about what has been happening and insist on going about their activities as if nothing is different.
The ability to learn is not evenly distributed. Some say we stop being able to learn and adapt at around 12–14 years old; after that we simply superimpose new experiences on the old template, with the result that we often keep repeating the same mistakes.
Others believe that we have the ability to continue learning throughout our lives, although it becomes more difficult with age because our sets of beliefs become firmer. So if the original set of beliefs is wrong, or not wholly correct, we still continue to believe in them – even if the reality is the opposite.
This explains the phenomena we now call ‘alternative facts’, where people believe what they want to believe even if the evidence shows that they are wrong. Instead they refuse to believe in the evidence before their eyes because if they do so, they will have to admit that their original premise was wrong. And if it was wrong in one instance, in how many other instances would it also have been wrong?
This of course is very uncomfortable – so, better to close one’s eyes and ears to facts and evidence and believe in an ‘alternative reality’. In the old days, we used to call this ‘delusion’; nowadays, there is a word for it – ‘Trumpism’, named after you-know-who.
However, Trumpism was not really another unwanted gift of 2020; it had started in the US four years earlier, but what Covid did was to give it a sharp edge. History tells us that during a time of pandemic, which jolts us out of our normal routine, we respond either by quickly learning how to cope with the new reality, or we hunker down and hang on for dear life to our old beliefs, often preferring fantasy to the harsh reality.
Times of mass fear
So in such times of mass fear, reason often goes out of the door; logic is given the boot; fact becomes arbitrary; fiction becomes fact; science and evidence are scorned and beliefs in ‘magic’, superstition, rumour and conspiracies abound.
And of course, this is a febrile environment for political demagogues to make hay. The likes of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot and countless others were able to mesmerise whole nations and make them believe in fantasies and act on them. Of course, when the truth can no longer be denied, the whole edifice collapses like a pack of cards.
But while it lasts, Trumpism and its manifestations are a powerful agent – unless it can be recognised, unmasked and exposed.
Democracy, and the checks and balances of a properly democratic system, is designed to halt this drift towards totalitarianism and dictatorship by ‘forcing’ people, the electorate, to look beyond words and promises and find the substance.
But as we saw in the US elections, unless the democratic institutions are very solid, the mass hysteria unleashed by skilled demagogues can break like a tide over a nation and deliver it into the hands of would-be dictators. It is the abandonment of reason.
In fact, as we saw in the case of Trump, democracy itself is often the best mask for a dictatorial trend. “The people want this” is a slogan that has been used and abused countless times, not least in Africa, to keep ‘democratic dictators’, as my colleague Baffour Ankomah calls them, in perpetual power. No need to name names, we all know who they are and where they are.
This brings us back to our discussion of the impact of 2020 on our lives and thinking. What we have learnt is that we can do without a great deal of things – travel, parties, congregations, bars, restaurants, shopping malls, even places of worship; but we cannot do without human warmth, our families, our neighbours, our faith, our hope and our reason which allows us to battle the virus and find a remedy for the disease.
So as we look forward and contemplate our futures as nations, let us make sure we don’t abandon our reason and hand ourselves to the tender mercies of those who fly the flag of Trumpism all over the world.