Donald Trump confounded every rule in the book to get to the White House, writes Xolela Mangcu.
I woke up a little less idealistic about the United States of America this past Wednesday. Not only was I proven wrong that Hillary Clinton would win but Donald Trump confounded every rule in the book in getting to the White House. Let’s just call it Donald Trump, the Master of Cognitive Dissonance.
That is the only way to explain how a guy who insults the Hispanic population can also get 30 percent of their vote. Or how someone who boasts about sexually assaulting women can get overwhelming support from college and non-college educated women. And how someone who disparages African-Americans as poor and criminal can get 8 percent of the black vote – more than Mitt Romney in 2012?
It did not matter to the millions who voted for Trump that the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails was abetted by their sworn enemies, the Russians. Nor did it seem to matter that Trump was the first presidential candidate to refuse to release his tax returns in generations.
Depressed as I am by the results I have had to tell myself that this is the real America, not the one of my idealistic imaginings, or what one of my friends calls my “naïveté”. The truth is that Trump did not parachute from the heavens. He was elected by red-blooded human beings who could as well be my neighbours or colleagues.
The vote is such a personal and private decision that even friends could have voted for Trump – and Trump himself was caught peeping over his wife’s shoulder to check if she was voting for him.
Watching the election returns you would have been forgiven for thinking the US was restaging the Civil War, except that Dixie has now become America, as Michael Denning eloquently put it. This reminds me of the cognitive dissonance of liberal, English-speaking whites in South Africa under apartheid.
Many of them were genuinely morally offended by apartheid but they also knew that the system protected their interests. Thus, the liberal, English-speaking section of the population quietly increased its support for the National Party.
What is clear is that Trump could not have won by appealing to only one segment of the US electorate. For example, the economy is only part of the question. Trump did the unthinkable by changing to red (Republican) what are traditionally blue (Democratic) working-class states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Clinton and the Democrats took these states for granted and got a big slap in the face, just as happened to the ANC in the last local government elections. Clinton was so confident of winning that she did not once go to Wisconsin.
But given Trump’s lewd remarks about women, how could college-educated white women support him in such large numbers? Trump must have offered this constituency something that makes his remarks pale in comparison.
And that brings to view anti-black racism and anti-immigrant nativism. Could it be anti-black racism that makes them blind to Trump’s perversions? Millions of white voters supported a guy who questioned the citizenship of the first African-American president of the US. That is the same Barack Obama who rescued the US economy from the Great Recession and created 15 million new jobs. He put 20 million people on health insurance and conducted himself with grace and dignity.
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And yet Trump won by railing against Obama’s legacy – in part because white Americans truly believe Obama’s health-care law benefits African-Americans. Contrary to the tendency to accuse black people of race consciousness, polling shows that white nationalism is rising on the fear that the president is there to benefit his people. This is ironic given Obama’s persistent efforts to shy away from race over the past eight years. If running away from race is no protection against racism then what is a person to do? I suspect this is the challenge Obama will be seized with in his post-presidency.
But if Trump’s campaign was driven by racism, how come more African-Americans voted for him than for Romney in 2012? It can only be that a share of African-Americans share in the anti-immigrant xenophobia of white Americans. The anti-immigrant nativism explains why Trump obtained 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. I suspect those are the “good” Hispanics who want to demonstrate their loyalty to the nation.
Trump also broke every rule in the book through his performance. He refused to go along with the calls on him to “pivot” to the general public by toning down his language.
Trump was smelling the blood and followed his instincts. He was pilloried for being a buffoon in the mainstream American media but had a large social media following.
CNN commentator Van Jones observed that just like Roosevelt mastered the radio, Kennedy looked better than Nixon on television, and Obama raised a movement through the internet, Trump was the first social media president.
There are parallels with the uncharted territory we find ourselves in as South Africans. Trump and Jacob Zuma come from very different social backgrounds. But they do share a complete disregard for rules – any rules.
Zuma has spent the better part of democratic South Africa in an awkward dance with the nation’s rules – whether those are rules pertaining to government contracts or the building of his house in Nkandla or what role the Gupta family should play in our national affairs. He will soon get his comeuppance.
But there is a cognitive dissonance in the ANC as well. The ANC continues to support Zuma even as he violates the very rules that the ANC drafted into laws and our fine constitution. The party supports him even as he is leading it to certain destruction.
If that isn’t cognitive dissonance of Trumpian proportions, then I don’t know what is.
There is one thing I know. Tuesday was a dark day in America. But the Americans have an advantage over us. They now have the opportunity to work towards the peaceful replacement of Trump four years from now, while we will be stuck with whoever the ANC anoints to protect Zuma.
Trump’s victory also demands honest reflection by progressive forces. What is clear is that the right-wing conservatives worldwide are much more organised.
Obama made a mistake in demobilising the massive infrastructure of his 2008 campaign. In the end, he had no multiracial, multiclass civil society allies when his programmes came under attack. That is what happens when politics is viewed as periodic mass mobilisation for elections instead of a long game of organisation building for the long term.