A Coming To America Moment: The Presidential Debate in Transatlantic Perspective

Warning: The attempt at metaphor in this article is strained and painful. Hopefully, however, it serves a greater good (i.e. be warned, an ill-considered attempt to bring Coming to America into dialogue with the first US presidential debate of 2020 is about to ensue.)

In his iconic role as African Prince Akeem, Eddie Murphy arrives in New York and asks to be taken to the most “common” part of Queens. He’s keen to live incognito, is hungry for an authentic experience of the US, and ready to find real love.

His eyes light up at the sight of derelict buildings, run-down storefronts, and there’s a distinct twinkle in his eye at the clank of empty bottles being hurled out of apartment windows, and the clammer of “real Americans” arguing. This is the authenticAmerica that he left his kingdom to discover.

This is the precise moment in the film is where a painful parallel to the first presidential debate of 2020 can be forced:

Viewed from across the Atlantic through Euro/African eyes, the first presidential debate of 2020 was that Coming to America moment – the garbage falling out of windows, derelict Queens in sight, “ah! this is a real face of America!” kind of moment.

Unfortunately, however, this is where the weak analogy ends and disintegrates. Yes, what we saw in the “rest of the world” during the presidential debate was a raw face of the US but it was not enjoyable to witness, at all.

Unlike Prince Akeem who was aroused by the scenes of urban decline, the sight of two septuagenerians brawling to become president was a disturbing and disappointing scene.

For all the antagonism that the US provokes across the world, its reliable democratic traditions and rituals have seduced admirers and compelled detractors to love and/or respect the US.

That moment when Akeem overhears “real Americans” arguing, spoken about above. Prince Akeem is abusively “deployed”in the paragraphs above as an image/embodiment of the revelatory power of witnessing American democratic flaws on display in the first presidential debate.

The US’s role as a beacon for democratic practice has underpinned its important function in creating a (relatively) peaceful and prosperous world over the last seven decades.

Last night’s first presidential debate brought that image of the US under a new threat, should Donald Trump follow through on his future plans.

Trump’s future America would be one in which the incumbent president offers implicit support for parastate militias, preemptively refuses to accept the outcome of elections, and readies his supporters to resist peaceful transitions of power.

This undemocratic political vision has, historically, been tied to a range of racist ideologies that have insinuated that such political ineptitude is the fruit of immoral choices that come naturally to Africans in particular.

Traveling in South Africa a decade ago, a cowboy-like American character who earned a living reporting on how terrible Africa was doing even suggested that anti-democratic practice, corruption, and greed were not only genetic African diseases, he “joked” that the diet of Sub-Saharan Africans probably had something to do with it.

On the night of September the 29th 2020, the face and voice of illiberalism was, however, white. This is important to note, not simply in the spirit of gotcha!-rism, but for the purposes of questioning what is often attributed to “race” and Africanness.

Repeatedly watching Donald Trump refuse to cede power (should he lose) ought to inspire a reconsideration of the age-old assumption that Africanness and blackness are intrinsically broken and prone to political repression.

Africa’s struggles to govern itself and to stay afloat economically are often chalked down to bloodlines, implicitly or outright. This informs the modes of economic and political engagement that are given to African countries.

It was fashionable at some point in the early 2000s to speak of the challenges of democracy in Africa as the fruit of neo-patrimonialism and the intractable bonds of “kinship”, for instance. As such, the tone of Western political and engagement with Africa reflected a fatalistic assessment of the future prospects of the continent.

If President Trump’s implicit refusal to cede power had come out of the mouths of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zimbabwe’s General Chiwenga/Emmerson Mnangangwa duo, or Gambia’s Yahyah Jammeh, they would have triggered a vocabulary and discourse linking their anti-democratic language to DNA. Headlines would speak of yet another nepotistic African dictator and his ploy to fan ethnic conflict.

Witnessing illiberal discourse promoted by President Trump will hopefully inspire new reflection on the forces that make it difficult for so many countries to get democracy right. One hopes that fewer people will choose skin color as an explanation for democratic deficits in Africa and beyond.

Hopefully, the discussion on why political and economic decline occurs will focus more on the macroeconomic pressures , demographic shifts, and global political economic transformations that are producing Trump-era politics today – forces that that already hit Africa decades ago.

Once a more profound reflection on the conditions that cause “bad” governance occurs, then perhaps solutions to stanch political and economic decline will be more forthcoming – for the US and those parts of the world were prefigurations of Trump have existed for decades.


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