[intro]By the time it appeared that the so-called swing states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida) were going to be called for Donald Trump, I switched off the television and went to bed. I tossed and turned through the early morning hours. Maybe, just maybe, I would wake up in the morning and realise it was all a horrible dream.[/intro]
But by the time I got to the Centre at Stanford University where I am enjoying a sort of writing fellowship, the sheer shock and depression on the faces of the other Fellows told me that the unpredicted actually happened. Donald Trump would be the 45th President of the United States. The normally garrulous set of Fellows were angry, anxious and quite frankly embarrassed that their country could choose somebody whose behaviour was so offensive to every group that was not white, male and privileged like him—women, Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled and anyone he pronounced on as weak, low-energy, losers. But before we run ahead of the facts in our conclusions about “Americans” and what actually happened in this unprecedented upset in presidential races in the USA, some mythology must be put to bed.
Myth one: Hillary Clinton lost the election
Actually, she won. Most Americans voted for her by an estimated margin of more than 2 million votes. But that is not how Americans choose their President. The electoral college vote matters which means each state gets a share of 538 votes distributed according to the size of the population—New York much more than Maine, for example. The first candidate to reach 270 of those votes, wins. If the election was rigged, as Trump claimed when he and his paid consultants thought they were out of it, then it was for this reason. So unlike most democracies, the USA does not have what we used to call ‘one-man-one-vote’ in South Africa.
Myth two: Trump’s voters are racist and that is why they voted for a man who wore his bigotry on his sleeves
No doubt there are many racists among the supporters of the President-elect as one can only deduce from Trump’s endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan, a group of white supremacists who spread terror in much of the South through the public lynching of mainly black men. But that is too easy an explanation, one that fits snugly in the hypersensitive race reactive politics of many South Africans. There is evidence that Trump’s voters included those who were swayed by Obama’s message of hope—including white working class voters in regions where Obama won handily. The first black man in the White House still commands an unusually high approval rating of about 65%. There is more to this story than racism alone.
Myth three: Clinton lost because she’s a woman
That is certainly a factor but not at all the whole story. She lost because of the perception created that she was corrupt, part of an old establishment politics that had lost touch with ordinary people—she famously called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables” for which she apologised. The handy leak of a possible email scandal by FBI Director Comey in the final week of the election was a non-story but it gave ammunition to Trump to call the saga “worse than Watergate”, the scandal that got President Nixon out of office. For a man who speaks only in hyperbole, Trump knew exactly what he was doing with the faithful by drilling home the Director’s announced investigation. By the time Mr Comey announced—miraculously, in the same week—that there was nothing new in the latest batch of emails, the damage was done and this no doubt helped to sink the Clinton candidacy.
The real damage done to American democracy was the disastrous impact this election had on political culture and basic civility among its citizens. American exceptionalism, just like the South African version, was always a myth. The US will never again be able to tell third world dictatorships how to behave towards its people for what observers around the world witnessed on live television was a sustained and very public display of spite, scandal, animosity, lies, hatred, assault and a general disregard for the most basic norms of civilised society. Donald Trump, with some help from Ms Clinton, truly brought out the worst in American humanity, and there is no way that the time-honoured ritual of pretending nothing happened through months of vicious campaigning once the winner is declared, is no longer good enough. In fact, that kind of pretend conciliation is called hypocrisy.
Fortunately, I have seen the other side of this beautiful country. I have been privileged to witness time and again the generosity and goodness of the majority of Americans towards the weak and vulnerable at home and abroad. I remember how many of their people joined the anti-apartheid struggle from Oakland on the West Coast to Washington DC on the East Coast. Many American students paid dearly for their civil disobedience. I know that millions of Americans are deeply aggrieved by what happened—and that is why protests erupted among thousands of citizens with placards reading ‘Love trumps hate.’ It’s not the people that’s the problem. On both sides of the Atlantic, it’s the leadership we do not have to bring out the best in all of us.