Pop­ulism and ly­ing come back to bite Trump in elec­tions

Business Day - - FRONT PAGE -

The midterm elec­tion re­sults out of the US this week show that coun­try as di­vided as ever, but per­haps this time in a good way.

De­spite try­ing to whip up pop­ulist sen­ti­ment against im­mi­grants in the clos­ing days of the cam­paign, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has been stopped in his tracks as the Democrats took 26 seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to win back con­trol for the first time in eight years.

That’s a big deal. Though the Repub­li­cans took two Se­nate seats off the Democrats to re­tain con­trol of the Se­nate, the fact is that the Democrats can now do to Trump what Repub­li­cans did to for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama in his sec­ond term: shut him down. At least do­mes­ti­cally.

Like all midterms in the US, the vote is a ref­er­en­dum on the pres­i­dent. The re­sult here is mixed for Trump. The Democrats got their vote out and it showed not only in the House vic­tory but also in state elec­tions, where they won six gov­er­nor­ships from the Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing in the Mid­west Wis­con­sin, Illi­nois, Kansas and Michi­gan — where Trump did well against Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016.

Trump will hate this re­sult. The eco­nomic cy­cle in the US was mak­ing him look bet­ter than he was ac­tu­ally do­ing and it may have turned a bit fur­ther down by the time he is up for re-elec­tion in 2020. In­ter­est rates will have risen and there is lit­tle room left for tax cuts now that Trump has lost the House.

And if the Chi­nese man­age to stim­u­late their econ­omy, the US may not be in a po­si­tion to ben­e­fit be­cause of the trade war Trump has de­lib­er­ately started with Bei­jing to court pop­u­lar­ity back home.

That’s the thing about pop­ulism and ly­ing. They come back to bite you. It has just hap­pened to Trump, just as it has hap­pened way more hor­ri­bly in Venezuela and will hap­pen to the Bri­tish Con­ser­va­tive party once they take their coun­try out of the EU and trig­ger widescale in­dus­trial dis­in­vest­ment and job losses.

Just this week the huge in­dus­trial and au­to­mo­tive bear­ings man­u­fac­turer Scha­ef­fler an­nounced it is clos­ing down its op­er­a­tions in Eng­land and Wales be­cause of the un­cer­tainty of Brexit.

The only way to run coun­tries suc­cess­fully is to be con­sis­tent and care­ful, to play to your strengths and be de­cent. Sure, pol­i­tics gets in the way, as it has in the US and UK and here in SA, but it doesn’t change the so­lu­tion. Al­ready you can see our elec­tions in 2019 build­ing up to be a ref­er­en­dum on Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa. You some­times have to pinch your­self to re­mem­ber that he is merely com­plet­ing Ja­cob Zuma’s sec­ond term here.

But re­cent cred­i­ble polling done for the In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions sug­gests Ramaphosa’s “favoura­bil­ity” through­out the elec­torate is solid. At a 52% favoura­bil­ity rat­ing across all vot­ers, he eas­ily out­strips Julius Malema (28%) and Mmusi Maimane (31%). That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late into votes, but if his party ever stops fight­ing its own shadow it will quickly fig­ure out he is its saviour in the medium term.

It showed again in par­lia­ment on Tues­day dur­ing ques­tion time for the pres­i­dent, when DA chief whip John Steen­huisen got a rise out of the EFF by call­ing them the “VBS loot­ers” and the EFF re­spond­ing with racial slurs that then de­scended into a scuf­fle in which fists flew and the EFF in­evitably left the cham­ber.

In all of this Ramaphosa was re­ally good, ap­peal­ing — when things had calmed down — for a re­turn to the project to de­ra­cialise our pol­i­tics and our eco­nom­ics. There is just no other way to do this. Di­vided by the things we can’t con­trol, such as our race or gen­der, we all lose. Peo­ple are frus­trated at Ramaphosa’s cau­tion and the fact he hasn’t swept a whole swathe of bad guys into jail. But he is re­strained, first by the pol­i­tics in his own party, but also by his own de­cency.

It is a qual­ity Trump will have to try to find in the next two years if he seeks an­other term in the White House. Rather than cre­ate a nonex­is­tent “car­a­van” of Latin Amer­i­can refugees head­ing for the US bor­der, he’d do bet­ter to un­der­stand why vot­ers came out in such num­bers to re­turn the House to the Democrats.

Good things come to those who wait. Peo­ple don’t want to be led by ex­trem­ists, left or right. They want to be led by sen­si­ble lead­ers who, while they may cal­cu­late and dis­ap­point po­lit­i­cally now and then, by and large leave a sta­ble plat­form on which the rest of us can live our lives.

There’s a lot to fix in SA. It is com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult. We have to cre­ate jobs but we have to do that in a way that makes them sus­tain­able in the long term. The only way to do that is to en­cour­age peo­ple to start busi­nesses and be­come em­ploy­ers. Ev­ery­thing Ramaphosa does should be jus­ti­fied by the ex­tent to which it makes em­ployer cre­ation at­trac­tive.


● Bruce is a for­mer ed­i­tor of Busi­ness Day and the Fi­nan­cial Mail.


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