Wheels of change are turning fast

2016-11-13 06:13
US president-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist after giving his acceptance speech. Picture: John Locher / AP

US president-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist after giving his acceptance speech. Picture: John Locher / AP

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Shock, but not surprise. This was the double-sided nature of my reaction on Tuesday evening as results from the 2016 presidential election poured in. Months earlier, a South African friend had asked in an email: “So, how do you explain your orange nightmare?” Today, it’s time to take a tentative stab at answering the question now that the orange nightmare has come to pass and, in the process, clear away boatloads of nonsense about what the rise of Donald J Trump represents – and also what his election doesn’t mean.

Eight years ago today, City Press published a dispatch in which I described that remarkable scene on election night, in Chicago’s Grant Park, when Senator Barack Obama delivered his victory address as the first African-American president elect. Then, as now, a single election was hailed as a harbinger of irreversible and radical change, even the arrival of a post-racial America. Now, as then, results of a single election inspired overly broad claims about monumental and supposedly irreversible shifts among large chunks of our population. From our history, exit polls and other sources, there’s no good evidence for such claims.

“TRUMP SHOCKER: GOP candidate defeats Clinton, Establishment,” read Wednesday morning’s headline in Chicago Tribune. Here was a nice, crystallised summation, but it inadvertently obscured important nuance. What about the fact that Hillary Clinton had actually surpassed Trump in the popular vote by 200 000? (The businessman prevailed based on an archaic system, known as the Electoral College, in which leaders are chosen by indirect selection of electors in a state-by-state tally.) Trump’s vote total was also substantially lower than Republican Mitt Romney’s, who lost the race in 2012. And what about the startling finding of pollsters, given that the election of Trump was touted as a referendum on President Obama’s legacy, that the president’s personal popularity remains quite strong. Voters even told pollsters that they would vote Obama into a third term by an overwhelming margin if it were legal.

Right from the top, then, the story explaining Trump’s victory (and also Obama’s) revolves around four key factors: A fierce backlash, in this country as elsewhere, against the fallout from global trade deals, especially for middle-income workers in manufacturing; decline in power for leaders in political parties to influence selection of their own nominees, which coincided with a simultaneous rise in influence by 24-hour televised chat shows and social media, especially Facebook and Twitter; the resurfacing of militant populism, sometimes dormant, that nonetheless lies deep in the DNA of the country’s political culture; and, perhaps most significantly, the cyclical ebb and flow of progress along racial and gender lines, so often followed by bitter backlash in a country, after all, founded in human slavery and marred by systemic discrimination against women.

The shock

Against that backdrop, shock over the results felt by people in a cosmopolitan centre like Chicago was extreme and sustained. On the university campus where I teach, students wept in classes and counselling centres were packed. The effect was heightened, of course, by the particularly bumptious and erratic behaviour of the shoot-from-the-lip victor. On the campaign trail, after all, Trump had revealed himself as an unreconstructed bigot and blatant misogynist. On January 20 next year he takes the oath of office as the 45th president of the US, singularly unprepared and proudly unschooled – a counterintuitive mark of his appeal in which he turned lack of experience in government, providing a sharp contrast with Hillary Clinton (former first lady, senator, and secretary of state) into a prime bona fide.

The ultimate success of this strategy, in a sense, revealed gaping cultural and geographic splits in the country along cosmopolitan/rural lines. In turn, this reminded me of South African elections that I’d covered as a contributor to Los Angeles Times and The Atlantic magazine. For example, I reported how the contest between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma to lead the ANC and the country had looked worlds apart from the vantage point of people I interviewed in Limpopo compared with the average drinker in any bar in Gauteng. In a similar way, voters all over the US were surrounded by neighbours largely aligned with their own settled views, so on both sides of the divide, people ended up feeling perplexed about the terms of the contest, and even suspicious that the whole system might be rigged against their side, rather than grappling with results that showed a nation quite evenly divided.

Trump’s victory shouldn’t come as any surprise, though. It’s simply apotheosis of a rebellious impulse at the heart of American politics.

The outsider

Every since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, every successful presidential candidate in the country – including Obama – worked hardest to position himself as an outsider pledged, most of all, to disrupt the established order in the nation’s capital. This national bias towards cycles of change in party affiliation at the White House helps explain patterns in regular hand-offs of power between starkly different kinds of leaders – George HW Bush to Bill Clinton in 1992, Clinton to George W Bush in 2000, the second Bush to Barack Obama in 2008 and, this coming January, an even starker shift from Obama to Trump.

In many respects, Trump represents the current president turned inside out and upside down. Imagine developing algorithms for 400 of Obama’s characteristics – including values, style, outlook, approach, logic, and intellectual capacity – and programming a computer to identify his antipode: That would be Trump. His main appeal lay in tapping the vast reservoir of anger and frustration among working class whites outraged by the effects of free trade. His unpolished circular way of speaking, and emphatic style, persuaded even voters who disagreed strongly with his behaviour and some policy statements, such as his promise to build a massive wall between this country and Mexico and that he had the strength of mind to say no. Sixty-three percent of the electorate, according to exit surveys, said Trump didn’t have the temperament to lead the country, and yet he prevailed, nevertheless, because he was seen, unlike Hillary Clinton, as an agent of maximum disruption.

Trump rose to power on a pledge to “Make America Great Again”, but he never specified the risks of trying to turn the clock back: To the post-World War years, when he was growing up, and before black people became a potent force in electoral politics? To the 1960s and 1970s, when the influence of immigrants from Mexico hadn’t yet registered in national political debate? To the 1980s, as women’s roles in key nation’s institutions still lagged far behind any reasonable measure of equity? His signature chant certainly had a winning, bold ring to it, the kind of feel-good exuberance that buoys a populist campaign.

The vague quality of his signature slogan, though, combined with an utter lack of coherence in poorly fleshed-out programme proposals, forces him into a corner now, as he prepares to take power. Perhaps that’s why he seemed so remarkably tucked in, button lipped, on Thursday when he arrived at the White House for a tour and talk with Obama, looking like a punched-out drunk after a long bender. After a mad media scrum and conversation with the president, Trump meekly proclaimed that he felt enormous respect for Obama, a leader he’s denigrated in rank racist terms for years, and he pledged to turn to him regularly “for counsel” as he prepares for the succession.

Of course, candidates win elections by railing against the status quo, but it’s hard to keep the act going once you occupy the highest office in the land. As a candidate, he made a cock-up of contradictory promises: Stimulate the domestic economy while threatening a trade war with China and imposing tariffs on Mexico; lift the prospects of middle class Americans while blowing up the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic achievement responsible for providing healthcare insurance coverage for 20 million citizens; cancel the nuclear deal with Iran, the president’s signature foreign policy achievement, while somehow avoiding international military entanglements (and bombing the Islamic State “to smithereens”); outlaw abortion while advancing the interests of women; restore Americans’ faith in their own intuition and entrepreneurial power while proclaiming that you, alone, are uniquely graced with the ability to force through galvanic changes almost overnight. “Buhleeve me,” he kept promising. Now, he’ll be expected to deliver.

No doubt, US election results this week vented regressive, inward-turning impulses. If Trump stays true to his word, his administration will be distinguished by an unprecedented rejection of patterns of global engagement pursued over the past 16 years, first in the aggressive assertion of US military power under George W Bush and then by the soft power emphasis, diplomacy first, under Obama/Clinton/Kerry during the last eight years. It was stunning, all through this campaign, that foreign policy should be given such short shrift, except for promises on protecting citizens from terrorist attacks.

Foreign policy

Nowhere, in three nationally televised debates between Clinton and Trump, or in reviews of mounds of Trump’s campaign documents, could I find a single reference to changes in policy towards Africa, for example. After his various blustery provocations towards Mexico and China, scepticism he’s expressed about the science of climate change, and his strange blossoming bromance with Vladimir Putin, it’s hard to imagine any other outcome, over the next four years, except a new low in the leverage of US influence around the world.

Trump’s reflexive anti-immigrant extremism amplifies a global trend, of course. In the rise of right wing parties in the EU and in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in the UK, there’s knock-on evidence of deepening anxiety rooted in red-hot anger about consequential decisions made far from home by seemingly alien authorities, fear of terrorist attacks, and the perceived loss of national identity when traditionally white developed nations get coloured in.

Signs of this inward-turning impulse, highlighted in bas-relief by the election here, can surface anywhere these days. This was what I discovered last December on my most recent trip to KwaZulu-Natal. During a celebratory dinner on a visit with our in-laws in Durban, a diehard supporter of the ANC suddenly volunteered, in the midst of the meal, his full-throated endorsement of Trump’s candidacy. He’s a successful black businessman in his mid-fifties, and loudly insisted, over the protests of women at the table, that a leader just like Trump might well flourish in South Africa if only he had the courage to use the same mix of anti-immigrant bias and sexist bravado.

White House limits

Once in office next January, Trump will inevitably confront constitutional constraints on his power. How is an executive used to top-down diktat, no questions asked, likely to respond? During a long career as a real estate mogul, master marketer and celebrity game show host, Trump revealed himself a thin-skinned figure addicted to constant arse-kissing attention. That’s not on steady offer at the White House. Fiercely protective and egocentric, he’s prone to lashing out in unpredictable and quite harmful ways whenever he’s challenged.

Besides his Democratic opposition, Trump lavished his most savage verbal assaults on journalists covering the campaign. This came as something of a surprise since his rise was abetted most of all by around-the-clock access to microphones on 24-hour television cable news shows. His cause was lofted on an outsize gift of free media because his presence on air punched up the ratings. At his rallies across the country, though, Trump regularly encouraged crowds to jeer at the reporters in those halls and he’s repeatedly suggested the need to curb First Amendment freedoms and make it easier to file punishing lawsuits. In this way, Trump merely reflects a rising trend of anti-media bias by major political leaders around the globe.

Left wing activists, including grass roots organisers from the Black Lives Matter movement and supporters of Bernie Sanders, were left reeling for just a few hours after Trump’s victory. Then, social media blew up, in overdrive, in a cacophony of self-criticism and debate, followed by expression of a truculent determination, among younger activists especially, to build a new and more resilient mass movement for progressive change. As I worked on this piece in my apartment overlooking downtown Chicago less than 24 hours after polls closed here, thousands of outraged demonstrators flooded the area around Trump Tower to protest his election. They chanted: “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go!”, in effect pledging to drive him from power a full two and a half months before he’s even scheduled to take office. His ascension to power demonstrates how fast the oiled wheels of change can be forced to turn. Now, having prevailed in a bellowing demand for quicker, deeper, upending change, Trump should brace himself, right from the beginning of his term, for rapid acceleration of the trend.

Foster is a professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago and author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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