US red carpet for Ruto is fine, but what is in it for Kenyans?

President William Ruto, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Vice President Kamala Harris applaud during a luncheon in honor of Ruto, at the State Department in Washington, DC, on May 24, 2024. [ AFP]

The Americans really went to town on President William Ruto’s visit this week! There was no better way of explaining the difference between a State visit and Official visit.

I hope for a moment we put aside our polarisation to savour the moments. Amid the pomp and circumstance, what our leadership must remember is that America is not doing this out of their love for Kenya, but for what they can get from this relationship.

Our attitude must be the same; revel in the red carpet but carry a brutal and unabashed “what’s in it for me” focus in the relationship, this week and in future. Watching President Joe Biden however took my focus away from the visit to the reality that Americans head to the polls in less than six months.

And that pitted against temperate and gentlemanly Biden, 81, will be belligerent and ‘rough and tumble’ Donald Trump, 77. I have followed American politics and particularly their Presidential and Congressional elections from my 20s. Each election has its unique dynamics; the most fascinating being the two elections where Barack Obama won the Presidency.

For all the surprises these elections throw, I would never have imagined that America, the land of Lincoln, Obama, Rockefeller, of the moon landing, of Tesla, of the Williams sisters and so on would, in 2024, put before the American voter two octogenarians in their most important electoral contest.

Many have wondered how America couldn’t get some younger more energetic and unencumbered candidates from its vast supply of competencies. I believe however that the candidature of Joe Biden and Donald Trump reveals the true state of this great democracy.

Firstly, American politicians are generally old. The average age of US senators is 58 and this is a drop from an average of 61 in the last term. Comparatively, the average age of African MPs is 49. Ageing politicians is not a rarity in America.

More importantly, the polarisation of American politics means that parties must look for, not the best possible president, but the candidate who best exploits this polarisation and can therefore win the race.

On this score the differences between the two major parties are stark. The Republicans currently boast the largest number of voters with zealous commitment to conservative political causes.

The wedge issues of abortion, immigration and gun rights are intensely felt in “Red America” and drive voter turnout. Candidates like Trump who serve red meat on these issues on a “Us” Vs “Them” basis are voter sensations.

The Democrats too have opposing views on these wedge issues, but they also add sexuality: LGBTQ rights. Unlike the Republicans however, their passions are shared with a smaller portion of their voting base.

Consequently, the candidate with the better chance of bringing out the voters among the Republicans is a red meat serving “American Values” conservative, while the candidate who gets the bulk of Democrats to the queue tends to be more moderate. Hence Trump and Biden.

What is surprising is that despite five years of knowing that Trump was going to be the Republican candidate and that affable Biden needed a break, the Democrats have been unable to produce any candidate who would excite the majority in the party, but more importantly, have an overwhelming chance against Trump.

I am not in the camp that has written Biden off; I think his non-threatening mien and the dynamics of American voting, including its electoral college system may still grant him a win. What will cost him a loyal base, the young and urbane voter, is Gaza and the passions it has raised among the young. But this base is also incentivised by their fear of Trumpism especially its isolationist “America First” anthem.

Ultimately, America will get the President it deserves. For Kenya, that person will hardly matter. America, as a nation, knows what it needs from Kenya.

What we must have clarity is what Kenya needs from America, especially in terms of building our capacities and creating opportunities for trade. This must also be true of our relationships with the world.

Yes, we have responsibilities to build a better world as a global citizen, but in carrying that responsibility our focus must be on how it also benefits Mother Kenya.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya 

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