The Last King of Pennsylvania Avenue

Partha Chakraborty-


Partha Chakraborty

The first day, as previously planned, of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, May 14, was a dud with only two states were present. It was not until May 25 that delegates from all states gathered in the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House, known today as the “Independence Hall”. Windows were boarded shut, lofty speeches were delivered, not-so-lofty compromises reached, revisions upon revisions of ideas were passed around amongst delegates sworn to secrecy as they debated and reviewed drafts from “The Committee of Detail”, “The Committee on Postponed Parts”, and, finally, “The Committee of Style and Arrangement”.

Finally, on September 17, 39 delegates signed a document that Benjamin Franklin called a  “system approaching so near to perfection as it does“ even if, “I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them.”

Compromise he did, as did everybody else present. They had to, the ever-present ghost of the “fetus of Monarchy” was chasing them on the streets of Philadelphia.

This morning I am thinking of a movie, a favorite of mine, called “The Last King of Scotland”. A glorious performance by Forest Whitaker depicting an inglorious bastard, Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda, who fantasized about the resistance Scotts put up against England in the olden days. Seen through the eyes of a fictional young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, who by happenstance was thrown into the cauldron as personal physician and confidante of the monster, till his own conscientious objection almost killed him; he was rescued immediately prior to Operation Entebbe.

Evil butcher as Idi Amin is, Whitaker makes the character approachable, at times almost human. He was acutely aware his success in portraying himself as the savior of his own people against the cruel British Empire as the only reason he was there. An element of cult is unmistakable – they followed him because who he said he was, reality be damned. Even the hitherto most loyal servants faced his wrath, with all the explicit suffering that came with it, at the slightest disapproval, and nobody was the complainer. People who took up arms against him, were summarily branded as foreign stooges for the simple reason that, outside of Uganda, his excesses had already wiped out any goodwill. Whitaker, nee Amin, knew this, and he responded with viciousness, trusting no one, mostly because he could no more, sniping away with the slightest breeze, drowned himself more and more into debauchery if only to forget his fall from grace. At another level, Amin was most at-ease, almost child-like in simple pleasures, amongst his tribes who loved him back. His concerns for the herder and clansmen were unmistakable, genuine if for a fleeting second before he went back-ordering massacre of the entire village for the presumed fault of one amongst them.

In his mind, he was the Last King of Scotland, a self-anointed one – ignore the irony – because he truly believed his own propaganda that he was the last bulwark before his corner of Africa fell prey to English masters one more time. His own faults, he did acknowledge them to Garrigan in a moment of candidness, were too few and insignificant to the dangers to his people with any alternative, that was his narrative.

Parallel to the present-day United States is uncanny, and, almost unreal.

Amin never participated in a single military action against the British. He rose from being a kitchen-helper to a Lieutenant in King’s Africa Rifles before Uganda’s independence largely because he was an accomplished athlete by all accounts, excelling in Rugby, a British import. Donald Trump never participated in the chores of “the forgotten” in his life. A dilettante who never had any real success in business, fleeting from one project and bankruptcy to the next, always counting on a lifeline from the same circles of banking and personal relationships who are as far removed from middle America as possible. Amin cultivated a cult following in Ugandan Army, regaling them with stories of his conquest against the British soldiers, even if all of it happened on playing fields, some of it was urban myth, though he did start his life as a herder and a cook. Trump spent decades nurturing a myth of his business acumen that spawned his phenomenal success as a Reality-TV star, which in turn was his key to Presidency; none of which can belittle his acute finger on the pulse of a large section of America. Amin correctly identified the military as the source of power in post-independence Uganda, climbed the pulpit as their comeuppance against British tormentors; Trump created a coalition that never truly existed before, and crystallized their grievance against anybody “not like us”.

Just like Amin, Trump is quick to take offense, vindictive and vengeful, not capable of trusting anybody, surrounded by yes-men till they too are tired by the tirade and are cast aside. Thankfully for us, the oldest surviving democracy is strong constitutionally and it is not possible to cast aside every institution, order military round up and execute citizens, among other checks and balances. Not that the President did not flout innumerable norms and boundaries of decency, he belittled the democratic process; he just was not empowered to sign death warrants for the very foundations that make America the Beautiful and the Exceptional. Amin openly stole from South Asian tradesmen in the country and distributed whatever left to his soldiers to keep them in line. Trump responds to every idiocy and tantrum of the base, keeps them engaged and satisfied for the time being, even if it works contrary to their well-being in the long term. Like Amin, Trump sees the world, his own supporters included, as for or against him, with no room for constitutional opposition. Just like Amin, Trump demonizes everybody he deems against him, and humiliates, berates and denigrates them. He could, and did order his Attorney General to open cases against opponents; but he failed, at least till yesterday, to have his Secretary of Defense order Army move against peaceful protesters on Lafayette Square`.

We can call it normal political behavior in these abnormal times – this conga line of characters and proceedings. I am not too worried about our constitutional democracy that survived two world wars, a civil war, original sins and multiple other pitfalls. Nor am I worried about our physical safety from third party aggression, our combatant commanders are well equipped to handle that. Frankly, I am happy to have Trump beat his last retreat as he deems fit. So long as it does not really make us less safe.

It was not tranquil for Uganda in the final days of Amin. Late 1978, Uganda invaded neighboring Tanzania largely in an effort to distract Ugandan Army and population, both disillusioned by this time. In January, 1979, Tanzania counterattacked, helped in part by exiled elements of Ugandan Army. By early April it was all over, and Amin barely escaped, fleeing a captured Kampala by helicopter at the last minute. He remained in Saudi Arabian sanctuary, and largesse, till death in August 2003.

Frankly, nobody wishes to draw the parallel to that level. Even if elements of Trump choir are talking about a civil war and secession to create a safe space for Trumpism and his heirs, those are fringe outliers. Even if there are muffles of “lock him up” in circles on the left, they are safely muzzled by a deliberately moderate Biden. Nobody really thinks Trump will declare a war – on Iran? – in the final seventy-odd days left, or, will he? Even if customary privileges of transition are denied, even if the serving Secretary of State prepares of transition into a second Trump term, and the Attorney General gives green signal to open DOJ investigations based on press-releases only, Biden as the adult-in-the-Room calls for patience and we are comforted by the fact that he has done transitions before. Everything that Trump, and Trumpists, do at this moment will only contrast the middle-of-the-road balanced dogma of what lies beyond; that is reassuring. We are tired and huddled masses all yearning to be free, more today than ever, but we know to be patient.

If Trump thinks, and acts outside of stretched limits, but not egregiously, as the Last King of Pennsylvania Avenue, let him be for seventy more days. Within the confines of Pennsylvania State House, a document was adopted two hundred and thirty-three years back that is mightier.  That shall keep him in check.

Today, and every day, I lay my confidence in that document to carry us over that last mile, even when tired, bruised, and battered.


[Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.]