14 Nov 2016

Populist Insurgent Has Taken the Controls

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 381: Populist Insurgent Has Taken the Controls / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
14 November 2016

The shockwaves of the election of Donald Trump — a thrice-married, 70-year-old reality TV star with no political experience — as US president are still reverberating around the world.

Trump earlier defeated 16 experienced politicians in the Republican primaries, but few gave him a chance of defeating Hillary Clinton. Corporate media, self-absorbed pundits and cocksure pollsters all seriously underestimated him.

Trump's campaign spent more on hats than pollsters, he did not deploy enough "ground troops" to get out the vote, and his campaign had far less funds than Clinton's well-oiled machine.

Few felt it possible that a candidate with a suspect temperament who had alienated Muslims, Latinos, blacks, women and war veterans could win a presidential campaign in such a diverse country as the US. Trump abandoned the dog-whistle of conservative mainstream politicians and instead spewed bile and prejudice openly. He ran a prejudiced, nationalistic campaign that promised to deport millions of illegal immigrants, bar Muslims from entering the US and bring American jobs back home.

While smug East and West Coast liberal elites sneered, marginalised working-class whites cheered. This was an anti-establishment insurgency fuelled by angry whites feeling anxious about declining wages, globalisation and multiculturalism. After eight years of a black president, Barack Obama, and with projections of whites becoming a minority by 2050, a majority crying out for change responded with fury at the thought of an entitled, establishment white woman who had been in the public eye for a quarter of a century becoming president.

Clinton was distrusted by 67% of voters, a fact reinforced by 30,000 e-mails being deleted from a private server used while she was secretary of state (though the Federal Bureau of Investigation cleared her of any criminal offence).

Portraying himself as the anti-establishment figure who could drain the stench-filled "swamp" that politics in Washington had become, Trump spoke in the vulgar idiom of the mob. He was determined to light a bonfire of vanities under the political establishment.

Clinton, crucially, struggled to win over the white working class in the US's Rust Belt: Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump was eventually carried to victory by the votes of 63% of white men, 52% of white women, 29% of Latinos, and 29% of Asians. The polyglot electoral coalition of women, minorities and millennials that Obama had meticulously built over a decade crumbled spectacularly without him on the ticket.

The painstakingly constructed edifice of Obama's eight-year presidential legacy could also soon be dismantled with the Republican control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Obamacare, the nuclear deal with Iran and the rapprochement with Cuba are all under threat. With the refusal of the Republican-led Senate to confirm Obama's Supreme Court nominee for nine months, Trump now has the chance to elect a conservative judge to swing the court's ideological majority, threatening civil rights, abortion rights and gay marriage.

There are several parallels between Trump's victory and that of fellow Republican George W Bush's defeat of Al Gore in 2000. Both candidates seemed ill-prepared to govern; both had a rudimentary grasp of international affairs; and both clearly lost all three presidential debates to their more intellectually substantive Democratic opponents. But whereas Bush recognised his limitations and as president relied on his advisers to rule, Trump may draw the opposite lesson from his unorthodox victory and decide to rely on his own instincts rather than knowledge-based advice.

He has promised to cut taxes for the rich, increase tariffs, build a wall on the border with Mexico and renegotiate military and trade deals. The consequences for the US and the world could be enormous.

As Trump prepares to board Airforce One, the US presidential jet, the world should fasten its collective seat belt. There is turbulence ahead.

Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, and incoming director of the University of Johannesburg's Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

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