President Trump: Chattering classes do ‘balance of forces’ assessments
As I entered the Miami Harbour to join about 2,500 young American entrepreneurs aboard the cruise ship, Norwegian Escape, we passed a curious couple of sixty-something, white American working class men. It was not their age, colour or class that was curious, but the placards they were holding, one of which read: “we are the deplorables!” and the other: “now you see us!” This was the day after the US election and by that time everyone knew that Donald J Trump was the president-elect of the USA.
The triumphalist, almost defiant, demonstration of relevance and visibility of these two was in stark contrast to the almost depressive angst that we encountered on the cruise ship. How could this happen? Why did Hillary lose? How did the polls get it so wrong? Did we really elect a misogynist, racist, xenophobic and islamophobic president?
The self-identifying ‘deplorables’ – appropriating candidate Clinton’s description of Trump supporters – clearly felt that the Trump victory over Clinton was their victory over eight years of Obama rule, over the complacent establishment, over the increasingly visible minorities, over political correctness, over economic emasculation, over the tide of immigration, over terrorism, over cultural homegenisation, over secularisation and over uncertainty.
At last they had found a champion who would say, not what was deliverable or doable, but what they wanted to hear and what they needed tone-deaf elites and decision-makers to hear. The crude and rude Donald Trump was that champion whose dodgy character, suspect temperament and amorality was not the priority of the moment. What was, was his willingness to spit into the wind of globalisation, thus connecting them to their natural counterparts in Brexit, voters across Europe who similarly have right-wing populist champions in Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Alternative in Germany, while improbably making common cause with those on the left of the spectrum in countries like Greece and the movement sparked by Bernie Sanders. Whatever the ideology, they had found their voice and they could at last proclaim: “now you see us!”
The discussions on the cruise about learning South African lessons for opposing injustice, managing transition, and reconciling contending communities shifted rapidly to an anxious – if somewhat hyperbolic – interrogation of how these could apply to America after Trump. I then realised that I too had not seen this result coming. I too expected Hillary Clinton to defeat Trump based on her experience against his insurgency, her policy pronouncements against his spiteful fulmination, her untrustworthy expertise against his untrustworthy venality, her illustrious surrogates against his unbridled egoism, and her electoral ground game against his rowdy rallies. After all, polling has become a science and it said that Hillary would win. I could help these young Americans find a word for that feeling they had. I pulled it from my April 1994 memory when the Western Cape rejected Nelson Mandela and returned the apartheid party to power. I shared with them my feelings then, encapsulated in the word ‘desolate’, and many in the audience confirmed that indeed they felt hollowed out.
Hillary supporters felt desolate and outraged, and some manifested this in New York outside Trump Towers, and across cities in the USA. Those who had been the target of Trump’s rhetoric – Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, women, the disabled – are fearful.
“Make America hate again”
My son’s school, a beacon of liberalism and diversity, spent the day after the election in therapy mode: soothing fears and wiping tears. The chattering classes were making ‘balance of forces’ assessments about whether indeed Trump could do all the things he promised to do in the campaign: deport Hispanics, ban Muslims, imprison Hillary, build the wall, repeal Obamacare, fight Iran, go protectionist and many others.
As President Obama discovered, the US talks up its president, its commander-in-chief, its ‘leader of the free world’, but when in office, the president sits atop a tanker that is institutionally bound, politically gridlocked, financially hobbled and more often than not, socially disabled. So it is not so much what Trump can commission, but what, in his first few days, he has already allowed by omission. Trump’s supporters, flushed with a new impunity, are parading their guns, accosting Hispanics and threatening them to leave the USA, ripping the headscarves off Muslim women, and already some mayors have had to warn their police to be restrained with black and brown people as they feel the scrutiny recede. So far, Trump has neither repudiated these nor tempered his own rhetoric to rein in such impunity.
So what is leadership in the age of extremism? It is to recognize that globalization’s change and uncertainty creates emasculation and extremism, whether those on the margins with ISIS or those in the mainstream with Trump. All extremism, while having material roots, thrives on the politics of identity. It is to prepare people to accept that you cannot laud the mobility of goods, capital and information, but call for fences and walls when people claim that same mobility. You cannot want labour for jobs you’re too old for or refuse to do, but try to get workers without their religion, culture, ethnicity and language.
Leadership plans sustainably for the medium to long term, balancing and sequencing competing needs, but neither pandering to favourites nor succumbing to those most passionate, vocal or threatening. Leadership perfects the art of communicating in ways popular – speaking honestly and empathetically to people’s anxieties – not populist, exploiting anxieties and fears. Media leadership understands the fine distinction between objectivity – fair and impartial, but rooted in truth – and equivalence that gives all parties an equal show; and providing saturation coverage for the outrageous to the point of becoming a menace and then fighting a rearguard to disown this creation.
South Africa has much to be concerned about events in the USA. Protectionism and demands for reciprocation have implications for the African Growth and Opportunities Act, while a more unilateral and militaristic USA may create greater danger for Africa and the world. But we already see the early signs of distorted security agencies, populism around crucial issues, the emergence of self-serving, tone-deaf elites and the return of polarizing identity politics.