In 1956, then Senator John F. Kennedy, who eventually became President of the United States (US), was given credit for authoring a volume of short biographies titled “Profiles in Courage” (It subsequently emerged that most of this work was ghost written by Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen). Profiles in courage chronicled US Senators who eschewed partisanship and political expediency to do what they felt was right. One suspects that had Kennedy been around since the November 2020 Presidential elections, or even for most of Donald Trump’s presidency, he may have been tempted to ask his speech writer to compile profiles in cowardice instead.
For a significant part of the past four years, many men and women have been accommodating, perhaps for political convenience, of President Trump’s indecency. On 6th January, the chickens came home to roost with the storming of the US Capitol by hundreds of Trump supporters.
President Trump has provided much fodder for both his critics and admirers over the years. He has peddled conspiracy theories, many of them racist and inflammatory such as his repeated assertions that former President Obama was not a US citizen. Trump’s presidency was built on and sustained by a platform of lies and misinformation. In all likelihood, history will judge him harshly and rightfully so.
Ultimately, the tenets of America’s democratic system proved too strong for Trump and his most ardent enablers. At a time when the executive branch of government seemed to have gone rogue, the judicial and legislative arms did their part to avert what would have certainly been a betrayal of America’s democracy. However, the system was shaken to its core and while it has lived to fight another day, it has been significantly scarred and is in need of therapy.
There are also broader lessons to be drawn from Trump’s assault on democracy for those of us in other parts of the world who subscribe to a democratic ethos. First, we must beware the cult of personality which can provide even democratically elected leaders with a sense of demi-god entitlement. Such leaders tend to dilute democracy and more often than not, they forget that they are servants of the people. Unflinching support for and obedience to a cultish personality is a grave threat to democracy anywhere.
The second lesson is that strong and independent institutions which are above the political fray are important to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Institutions are an important part of democracy because they can ensure that the system runs in accordance with the law and not according to the whims of any particular leader. It is true that institutions are run by humans who are prone to corruption. Nonetheless, good institutional norms can also place a check on some of our worst tendencies as clearly happened in instances when electoral and judicial officials refused to bend to Trump’s demands to overturn the election results.
The third lesson is that blind partisan loyalty is a danger to democracy. Trump’s Republican colleagues had ample opportunities to rebuke him for both his behaviour and rhetoric during the course of his presidency. However, they chose loyalty to their party over loyalty to their country. They were complicit in facilitating, defending, tolerating and upholding his toxicity. They placed the good of a political party and a political figure over the good of the country. In doing this, they painted a profile of cowardice rather than one of courage.
Finally, one of the good and perhaps bad things (depending on one’s perspective) about American democracy is that its strengths and failings are on full display for all the world to see and there is hardly a hiding place. In other parts of the world, hiding places are perhaps easier to find, yet it is the responsibility of every citizen to hold elected leaders accountable and to act consistently in the best interest of the country, even when it inconveniences a leader or a party. This is how we build profiles in courage.