The misreading of Trump led to his reactionary regime ... might the same happen in SA, where dark forces hover over politics?
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 Acosta’s access pass to the White House was revoked after the briefing.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”.