Wheels of change are turn­ing fast

Trump only takes of­fice in Jan­uary, but there are al­ready calls for him to go. looks at the world’s big­gest news event of the week, where Trump was elected the 45th US pres­i­dent

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

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 24hour 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.

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-fromthe-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.

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, in­ward­turn­ing 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.

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.

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 aroundthe-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


ROCK­ING IN THE FREE WORLD Bar­ron (10) US pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump pumps his fist af­ter giv­ing his ac­cep­tance speech. On his left are his wife, Me­la­nia, and their son,


US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama with pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump at the White House

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.