The mis­read­ing of Trump led to his re­ac­tionary regime ... might the same hap­pen in SA, where dark forces hover over pol­i­tics?

Sunday Times - - Opinion - RANJENI MUNUSAMY

The crowd was men­ac­ing, some lean­ing over the bar­rier of the me­dia pen, chant­ing: “CNN sucks! CNN sucks!” It was a chilly night in November 2016, the fi­nal day of cam­paign­ing be­fore the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. We were in an air­port hangar in Moon Town­ship, Pitts­burgh, wait­ing for Donald Trump to make a stop to ad­dress the 9,000-strong crowd be­fore fly­ing off to an­other rally.

As the crowd hurled pro­fan­i­ties, I looked around to gauge the re­ac­tion. Dozens of jour­nal­ists from Amer­i­can and in­ter­na­tional me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions were go­ing about their work, obliv­i­ous of the crowd.

Be­hind me, CNN chief White House cor­re­spon­dent Jim Acosta was doz­ing in a chair. He looked ex­hausted and bored. It was a very dif­fer­ent Acosta who tried pos­ing ques­tions to Trump at a me­dia brief­ing in Wash­ing­ton af­ter the midterm elec­tions this week.

He was bat­tle ready and anx­ious, try­ing to ques­tion Trump about his char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of the Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grant car­a­van as “an in­va­sion” and about Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in the 2016 elec­tions.

“You should let me run the coun­try,” Trump in­ter­rupted him. “You run CNN and if you did it well, your rat­ings would be much bet­ter.”

As Acosta per­sisted with his ques­tion on Rus­sia, Trump said: “CNN should be ashamed of it­self hav­ing you work­ing for them. You are a rude, ter­ri­ble per­son. You shouldn’t be work­ing for CNN ... You’re a very rude per­son.” Acosta’s ac­cess pass to the White House was re­voked af­ter the brief­ing.

I had asked sev­eral of the US cor­re­spon­dents on the cam­paign trail about Trump’s chances of win­ning. They wrote him off as a buf­foon who had shaken up US pol­i­tics but would never make it to the White House.

Even a Fox News cor­re­spon­dent told me he was sur­prised that the race be­tween Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton was so close. He said Trump had done too many things that of­fended the Repub­li­can base, like in­sult­ing Viet­nam war vet­eran and Ari­zona se­na­tor John McCain. “I was in the room when Trump ques­tioned McCain’s mil­i­tary record. I thought his cam­paign was over then but he is still go­ing,” the news­man said.

Acosta and oth­ers, who brushed off the ag­gres­sion and vit­riol as a tem­po­rary phe­nom­e­non that would dis­si­pate once Trump lost, are now pay­ing the price for do­ing so.

Trump in­flamed an­i­mos­ity against the me­dia and lied re­peat­edly while cam­paign­ing. Th­ese traits have be­come en­trenched and his pres­i­dency is built on false­hoods and hy­per­bole.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported in Septem­ber that since taking of­fice, Trump’s “tsunami of un­truths” ex­ceeded 5,000.

On one day, he pub­licly made 125 false or mis­lead­ing state­ments. One would think that this com­plete lack of cred­i­bil­ity com­bined with the pro­mo­tion of racist, na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment, bizarre for­eign and trade poli­cies, the Rus­sian col­lu­sion and the fi­asco over the ap­point­ment of Supreme Court judge Brett Ka­vanaugh would have prompted an anti-Trump re­bel­lion among vot­ers.

While the Democrats did win the ma­jor­ity in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the midterms, Trump’s base is still hold­ing strong. He is de­ter­mined to run for a sec­ond term de­spite fac­ing in­creas­ing heat on the Rus­sia probe and the threat of im­peach­ment.

What is hap­pen­ing in the US should set off alarm bells in our own coun­try about the dan­gers of ig­nor­ing ram­pant pop­ulism and let­ting un­truths and bul­ly­ing by politi­cians ride.

It is also be­com­ing par for the course to spew bile against the me­dia and dis­miss crit­i­cal re­portage as the work of a “me­dia mob”.

Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity gained trac­tion through, among other tac­tics, ma­nip­u­la­tion of vot­ers via so­cial me­dia. Twit­ter and Face­book were used to spread false­hoods about Clin­ton and for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama, and pop­u­larised white na­tion­al­ist rhetoric.

SA’s po­lit­i­cal dis­course is cur­rently driven by pop­ulist sen­ti­ment and ex­ploita­tion of the eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties and dis­con­tent in so­ci­ety. The ANC has lost the abil­ity to lead the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion but thinks it will be able to pull things back on the cam­paign trail.

The ANC lead­er­ship be­lieves that loy­alty to the party and trust in Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa will su­per­sede noise on so­cial me­dia and pop­ulist mes­sag­ing from the EFF.

Across the world, elec­tions are de­liv­er­ing sur­prise results be­cause the es­tab­lish­ment and the me­dia are mis­read­ing sen­ti­ment.

Just last week, “Brazil’s Trump”, the far right-wing can­di­date Jair Bolsonaro, was elected pres­i­dent. Latin Amer­ica has been dom­i­nated by left-wing gov­ern­ments so Bolsonaro’s elec­tion has bucked the trend.

Pop­ulism and na­tion­al­ism have also led to right-lean­ing par­ties eat­ing into the sup­port of cen­trist par­ties in Europe.

SA’s sixth demo­cratic poll is just six months away yet there is no co­her­ent dis­course about lead­er­ship and ma­jor na­tional is­sues.

Anti-cor­rup­tion should have been Ramaphosa’s flag­ship cam­paign is­sue but there are con­cen­trated ef­forts to dis­credit the cleanup of the state and un­der­mine in­ves­ti­ga­tions into cor­rup­tion. Jour­nal­ists are branded en­e­mies.

There are hid­den forces, in­clud­ing crim­i­nal syn­di­cates, im­pact­ing on our pol­i­tics.

A sur­prise out­come in the elec­tions is not as far-fetched as we might think. Be­ware the prospect of “SA’s Trump”.

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