by Martin Benjamin (Ethiopia 1962–64)
San Francisco Chronicle
October 15, 2020
Most Americans over the age of 65 remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I was in the Peace Corps in Gondar, Ethiopia teaching 10th and 11th grade math and history.
Late the night of November 22, 1963 a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer trudged up the hill from his house to ours shouting “Kennedy’s been shot.” Four of us then gathered round a shortwave radio and learned from the BBC World Service that the President had died.
The next day news of the assassination spread among our students and colleagues. The students were very upset. Some were weeping. Their concern was not only for the President and his family, but also for the school’s twelve Peace Corps teachers and themselves. With Kennedy’s death, they believed we would pack up and return home, depriving the school of about half its qualified teachers.
At first, we were puzzled. Why did they think this? We soon learned that the concept of orderly succession was not then part of Ethiopian history or culture. The students assumed we would want to participate in the long term social and political turmoil involved in determining Kennedy’s successor. As our Ethiopian colleague, Ato Demissie, half-jokingly said of the concept of orderly succession, “We don’t have that idea. It took us two years to learn that Menelik II (Emperor from 1889-1913) was dead!”
We assured the students we would not be leaving because less than two hours after Kennedy was pronounced dead Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in as his successor. We then explained the rudiments of constitutional government, including peaceful elections and orderly transition and succession.
Inspired by Kennedy’s youthful idealism, we felt a muted sense of pride in our form of government. Still, we were teachers, not flag-wavers. There was no condescension on our part, no sense of nationalist superiority. If anything, most of us thought of ourselves as internationalists.
Fast forward to the current presidential campaign. If I were now to encounter some of my former Ethiopian students, what could I say to them? Could I still favorably compare orderly political change in the U.S. with the turbulence historically associated with changes of Ethiopian leadership? Or is the kind of political chaos – possibly even violence – our students assumed would follow the assassination of President Kennedy about to be triggered by the coming election? This is an open question.
During his 2016 campaign Donald Trump waffled on whether he would accept the results of the election if he were to lose. He also raised – perhaps even invited – the possibility of armed resistance if Hillary Clinton were to win and support tighter gun controls. Raising the question as to whether there was something “Second Amendment people” – gun enthusiasts – could themselves do to prevent more restrictive gun controls he coyly said, “maybe there is, I don’t know.” Even after his electoral victory, the President proved a sore winner, falsely attributing Clinton’s nearly 3 million more popular votes to noncitizens.
Approaching the 2020 election the prospects of one or more sources of chaos, including a constitutional crisis, are great. There are too many possible scenarios to list here but underlying many of them is the likelihood that President Trump will do everything in his power – regardless of damage to the national fabric – to avoid having to consider himself a “loser.” Indeed, it sometimes seems as if his sole criterion for the legitimacy of the electoral process is a particular outcome – a victory for Donald Trump. If Trump wins, the election will have been legitimate. If Biden wins, it will not.
My greatest fear is a combination of Trump’s refusing to acknowledge a clear and legitimate loss with encouraging “Second Amendment people” – the sort of assault-rifle toting gangs in camouflage who have already flexed their muscle in states like Michigan and in at least one case actually pulled the trigger – to take to the streets. What happens then? Will largely Trump-supporting police officers enforce the law? What will the Justice Department do? The military? This, it seems to me, would be exactly the sort of political turmoil and chaos that in 1963 my Ethiopian students thought would follow the assassination of President Kennedy.
Fifty-seven years after assuring my students of orderly transitions of political power in the U.S., I have lost much of my youthful idealism. The Vietnam War and the Invasion of Iraq were sobering. The unleashing white nationalism and the militarization of the police together with what appears to be the eclipse of democracy and the rule of law are further demoralizing. If I were to encounter some former Ethiopian students and they were to ask about transitions of power, what could I say to them now?
Martin Benjamin is professor emeritus of philosophy, Michigan State University. He taught at Mills College 2007-2015 and currently teaches in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Cal State, East Bay.