Populism and lying come back to bite Trump in elections
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.
PEOPLE ARE FRUSTRATED AT RAMAPHOSA’S CAUTION. BUT HE IS RESTRAINED, FIRST BY THE POLITICS IN HIS OWN PARTY, BUT ALSO BY HIS OWN DECENCY
● Bruce is a former editor of Business Day and the Financial Mail.