Populism does work — it always did and will as soon as austerity hits the people in the street. Donald Trump, the American president–elect, did, supported by his “awesome” campaign team, an “awesome” job of proving it to his “awesome” following and everyone who rigidly believed in established, somewhat trite mechanisms.
Did he prove that American democracy is in decline or that Americans are a particularly gullible, even dumb nation? No, he certainly did not. Everyone tempted to secretly — or even publicly — look down on the American electorate is well advised to mind their own (slow) political business.
Yet Donald Trump did prove several other, perhaps even more disturbing, issues. Most notably, that Americans — at least a considerable, arguably increasing number of them — are desperate; to the point that they are receptive to demagogy — or, as we modern people tend to call this dark art, populism. These people need to hear what they want to hear: that their personal situation will be properly acknowledged and addressed by the government, and subsequently improve.
Let’s Be Awesome, Shall We?
So Donald Trump, always the entertainer, offered them what Juvenal called “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses), with his (by modern American standards) unheard of way of campaigning being the first instalment.
He had realised that many American citizens feel disadvantaged and neglected by both government and society, and prefer being entertained to being patronized. He promised them liberty instead of freedom, jobs instead of welfare, pride instead of reputation, and protection (their beloved guns) instead of much needed (social) security — in short, he offered them “values” they found themselves in want of and “solutions” they considered easy to agree with.
It didn’t bother them in the least that practically all of his ideas (uttered during the campaigns) were unreasonable in a modern, global political context, that he violated just about every rule of ethics in the book, or that what rights he demanded for them are mostly empty.
(The majority of Republican voters are likely to have at least one gun already, and a President Clinton would have known better than to try and change the status quo. And none of his thus far offered ideas regarding American economy are likely to have more Americans employed in the near future — if at all. And we all could hold our breath until the gap caused by radical isolation politics would be bridged by those none of us — especially Trump and his supporters — would want to see take charge.)
It didn’t bother Bob in Indiana (a persona someone introduced in a recent discussion to explain the average American’s voting behaviour) that America and her population (also Bob himself, if perhaps only indirectly) did benefit for years from NAFTA, while Mexico did hardly profit from this agreement, because he had lost his job in the local factory (for a wealth of possible reasons, mentioned agreement probably not being one of those) and failed to find new employment. After all, “less competition” does sound like “more opportunities” … to the Bobs and Dons of this world.
Neither did it bother Sue, his wife, that Trump displays a rather disturbing attitude toward (some) women, because she actually is spending most of her time in the kitchen (wondering how to prepare a decent meal with what stale remnants she happens to find in the pantry), or rearing her hungry kids, or doing her best to soothe Bob’s anger about having lost his job in the local factory and failing to find new employment. After all, what is it to her when “the Donald” tries to cop a feel now and then in New York, as long as he creates jobs in Indiana?
Besides, Trump’s latest wife is said to have made it from modest means “somewhere in the middle of nowhere” to the top of the world. Soon, she will even wave from the doorstep of the White House to greet “her” subjects, like the princess she deserves to be. Isn’t it evident that “sticking to Don means success will stick to you”?
Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover
Unless you are eligible to vote in the United States and have actually cast a ballot (in any one candidate’s favour) you have no right to judge. What’s more, launching ad hominem attacks against the American voter in general or their president–elect in particular is cheap, inappropriate, disrespectful, utterly illogical, and ignorant.
There is nothing wrong with having and expressing even a strong opinion on that matter (American politics, that is) — whether or not one is an American citizen — but abusive language is in general a poor means; it informs the audience that the speaker is in short supply of real arguments.
For the distant observer, such an approach to the matter (American politics, again) may seem absurd, but, more often than not, the distant observer is not in the position to even have an opinion (which is likely to be biased, anyway). After all, what does the average non–American know about America — the real one, not the one we see in Tinseltown productions?
Certainly, we (believe to) know New York and Boston, Philadelphia and Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and some of us even visit Chicago for an hour each week. Yet how many of us do realise that the vast majority of what we are shown and told in our favourite drama series represents the Democrats’ portion of the United States?
The “red” strongholds (a number of them used to only favour Republicans or were even “swing states” until 1968, by the way), on the other hand, we are usually made to associate with “unrepentant moonshiners”, “religious eccentrics”, and hideous crimes (often enough with a racist element to them). The logical — if ill–informed — conclusion is that Republicans have to be poorly educated rednecks with criminal tendencies who spend an unwholesome amount of their time worrying whether or not “God shuffled his feet”.
You don’t believe me? Then go find an outline map of the United States and see whether you can locate Indiana or any of the other places I mentioned above. Paint the places you can identify blue and each one you cannot red. (Of course, you may, for example, paint all of New York State or Massachusetts blue, if you are able to positively locate New York or Boston.)
I expect the majority of Europeans to have a good idea where to look for New York or Los Angeles (Miami will not be that much of a challenge, either), but it’s safe to assume that many will find it difficult to immediately locate Philadelphia, Chicago, or San Francisco. I bet you a dollar to a button that your map will be “redwashed”.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I had hoped — and, for a while, also expected — another candidate to win the race; I certainly did wish for a different result. I’ve said so long ago and I stick to my guns: Gary Johnson or Bernie Sanders would have been what America (and the world) really needed.
It may sound strange, but when I heard that Bernie Sanders had lost against Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ candidate and not been selected to be her running mate, I briefly suspected a Democratic conspiracy against Clinton. But then, Clinton tweeted to be “thrilled to announce” Tim Kaine as her running mate, and my thinking switched from conspiracy theory to suicide mission. (Obviously, JFK was a smarter Democrat than “the Hillary”, and so was LBJ.)
Clearly, hindsight is (almost) always 20/20, but isn’t it astonishing that she had lost many states to Trump by a narrow margin that she had had lost to Sanders in the primaries and some Sanders had had lost to her only by a narrow margin?
Just for the fun of it, imagine the results of Michigan (.25% margin between Trump and Clinton; 16 electors), Pennsylvania (1%margin; 20 electors), and Wisconsin (1% margin; 10 electors) with Sanders as a running mate. That could have been 46 electors on her side. It looks like someone had set the wrong priorities.
A Woman and Her Yellow Dog
After watching some of the footage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I began to fear the worst. Preaching to the choir certainly is her thing, but how on earth was she going to win over the still undecided, the Sanders supporters, or even those who detested Trump but basically leaned towards Republican ideology? She clearly was no match for Sanders or Trump as a convincing orator — making a constant fuss of being a woman and former Secretary of State would not impress anyone outside the Democratic Party.
Politics is a strategic game, and to win it you need to play it like a winner; that’s to say, you concentrate on the game rather than the player challenging you. Yet Clinton couldn’t seem to let go of her unfortunate strategy of presenting herself as “the lesser Donald”. Well, as it turned out, left with these two options, (too) many people decided to buy “the real Donald” in the end.
After only minutes into the first televised debate, I was surprised that the Democrats had not cut her off during the primaries. For a person who is said to be a perfectionist, and who is never slow to boast about her political experience, she was remarkably ill–prepared for her face–to–face meeting with Donald Trump in the ring. I truly had expected her to adapt to the new situation — obviously, I still had thought too much of her political skills.
To think, say, or write that “Clinton did better than Trump”, one had to be a dyed–in–the–wool Democrat or a wishful thinker. She acted more like a media pro (small surprise), but she lost sight of her target audience in the process.
While Trump dutifully catered to millions of people in front of all kinds of devices across the country (and the world), Clinton seemed to be content with looking smart for the media and the audience in the gym (both of which were ultimately irrelevant cheerers). While Trump spoke to Bob in Indiana and Debbie somewhere in Texas, Clinton reached out to Tiffany in New York and Claire in Boston.
No “bread and circuses” for the desperate and undecided, even though Sanders had been rather successful with this tactic. No convincing rendition of “The economy, stupid” (1992, “the real Clinton”), no “We are all Republicans — we are all democrats” (adaptation borrowed from Thomas Jefferson), not even a funny cover of Tip & Ty to beat “little Don, Don, Don”. At the end of the day, the “Stronger Together” spirit did not quite spread beyond Fifth Avenue.
To defeat a populist you don’t want to reason with your opponent (in public) for it makes you look desperate, you must not defend your position for it makes you look vulnerable, and you must never resort to ridicule or insult for it makes you appear arrogant to those you want to side with.
(And if you also want to win the US presidential election, you must not be shy to spread some “good old American spirit” — even “the other Clinton” realised that a white candidate has to find a way to at least once position himself on “this side” of the ethnicity table, if he wants to move into White House. Like it or not, but since Nixon’s 1968 election campaign, racism — however modestly displayed — is a success criterion in presidential elections — unless you happen to be of colour and one hell of an orator, that is.)
Populists are like con artists: truth doesn’t matter to them, what they are able to make believe is relevant. If they try to sell the Eiffel Tower, desperately trying to inform everyone that this structure is actually not for sale won’t do. It just triggers the spoilsport alert.
The only effective way to kick them out of business is to sell a better Eiffel Tower — or still better, two of them. If you can’t, you will lose. In other words, you need to cover his objectives better — if differently — and with more verve (which is what Trump did in his acceptance speech, by the way, reaching out to every American to help him “make America great again”; he basically said, “let’s move closer, because together we are stronger”).
A Long Way Home
That said, let’s talk about the soon–to–be–great–again America of the still wet president–elect. “Still wet”, because the election was held only days ago and also because Donald Trump will have to sit and dry some until he will be of any use as president of his own country and as a political partner for any country of the global community of nations.
He may have run for this office successfully, yet being in this office will be a different challenge altogether. After his public performances during the campaign he will have a long way home.
Trump will be shocked to learn first–hand that his political aspiration for America and American political reality have very little in common. His two main weapons during the primary and general contest — unrestrained populism and Hillary Clinton — are wasted now, and he hasn’t even assumed the throne yet.
Very soon, those who were desperate enough to utterly ignore reality and believe his every word will expect him to make good on his promises. Even if the majority of his voters may have backed him only to prevent another President Clinton, there might still be a considerable number left who did take him literally, not realising that his bravado was mostly for the benefit of his “awesome” audience. It is this group of people who will haunt him during his presidency.
It is difficult to believe that he really expected to get away with his show of excessive defiance — until it was too late. Perhaps Trump did even believe that he could “make America great again” (whatever this is supposed to mean), if only he were to run the country on his own terms. Yet it should have been clear even to the most ignorant of citizens that these terms would be hardly applicable in the real world.
As I’m writing this, Trump has already retreated from his earlier threat to reverse “Obamacare”. This regulation of his “communist” predecessor suddenly finds favour in his eyes, but will (not too radically, to be sure) have to be adapted (which is true).
It is safe to expect that most other regulations of the Obama administration will also survive Trump’s presidency. There is, for example, no point in trying to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal. While finding obstacles to delay the realisation of TPP may be possible, pulling out of it will be quite difficult. This is not likely to happen without causing a series of lawsuits.
Similarly, pulling out of NAFTA would be a political suicide attempt. Again, America benefitted from “the worst trade deal in history”, while Mexico hardly profited from it — if at all. Not only does pulling out not promise any more jobs for Americans, it also threatens to shower the administration with investment protection lawsuits filed by American citizens.
What’s more, closing the door on Mexico would open a gate for China, Trump’s (official) pet adversary, who will be happy to fill the gap in Mexico (and beyond).
And what of the infamous wall against illegal immigration on the border to Mexico? Two thousand miles (appr. 3200 km) across the United States, over a wide range of terrains, including uninhabitable deserts? Really? Rather not.
The technical challenges aside, it is difficult to imagine how the Mexican government could be convinced to pay for it. The NAFTA threat is lame. All Mexico will have to do is sit the situation out (while waiting for better offers from Asia) — there is nothing to lose for them. If Trump really thought he could finance the wall through trade tariffs, it is probably a good thing that he decided to pass his business to his children. Unless wonders actually do occur, neither Donald Trump nor any of his supporters will live to see this wall protecting anyone.
The election campaign certainly was a circus, but the politically interesting part will be the midterm elections in two years’ time. If Bob from Indiana is still unemployed by then, he will strike back — and Sue will no longer swallow her pride and retaliate for the numerous insults and derogatory remarks during this campaign. November 6, 2018 will be payday, one way or the other.