Jonathan Jansen: Trump win means little for SA

JonathanJansenWhat does the American election mean for South Africa? Not much, actually. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a different story with the Cold War and the partisan involvement of the United States in the Southern African theatre that pitted “communist regimes” supporting liberation movements against white minority governments and their armed surrogates supported by the West.

With the election of Donald Trump, the only effects might be in trade relationships where a nativist president might well tighten agreements in favour of the US.

If his inward-looking platform was anything to go by, foreign policy excursions would be a thing of the past. I doubt the president-elect knows the difference between Botswana and Bechuanaland.

For some strange reason, I felt safe under President Barack Obama. On a writing sabbatical in the solidly democratic state of California, and in the progressive Bay Area of the Golden State, it was like a funeral the day after the November 8 election.

My American friends and the scholars around me used words like “devastated”, “anxious”, “worried”, and “deeply disappointed”.

You could sense they were embarrassed about their country in the eyes of the world.

It was literally a case of “not my circus, not my clowns”, as the saying goes, and yet I felt a deep connection to the land of the free.

Maybe it’s because my two children were born there. Or perhaps it was the soaring optimism embodied by the first black family in the White House that hooked me.

More likely, the personal connection to their post-election misery comes from a longstanding internationalism that guides my sense of the world – a commitment to human struggles has never been confined by national borders.

I watched how some South Africans responded on social media to the US election, with disgust that “the American people” could choose a bigot and a boaster for their next president.

So let’s set the record straight. Nearly half (46.6%) of the eligible voters did not bother either to register or to show up to vote, and Clinton won substantially more votes than Trump.

The US has a strangely anti-democratic arrangement called the Electoral College in which each of the 50 states is accorded a set number of votes in relation to the size of its population.

A large state like California therefore has 55 Electoral College votes, while a small state like Wyoming has only 3.

The first candidate to reach 270 of the 538 total Electoral College votes wins. What this means is that a candidate could win the popular vote and lose the presidency. Which is what happened.

Nobody expected Trump to win, not even the more thoughtful television talking heads in his corner.

Every major poll showed Hillary winning because of the edge she was said to have in the swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Well, they all swung the way of The Donald, as he is sometimes called in the US.

The first casualty of this election was scientific polling; some smart people point to the reliance on landlines in an age of cellphones and believing what people say on a telephone – maybe you’re just too embarrassed to say you’re voting for Trump.

American exceptionalism took a blow with this election.

It turns out what happened in the US was no different from what happened with Brexit in the United Kingdom or the rise of national populism in places like Germany, France and the Netherlands.

The white working classes and some among the struggling middle classes who felt left behind by globalisation, expressed through free trade and open borders, were responding with vengeance against governments whose interests were organised around the urban elite economy.

What Donald Trump, the celebrity television host, did better than anyone else was to tap into that populist resentment by making the problems seem so clear, the politicians so incompetent and the solutions so simple.

Like all populists, he said what struggling workers wanted to hear – he would support coal miners in a green economy; he would bring back jobs that were stolen abroad; he would build a massive wall along the southern border to keep out Mexicans and make their government pay for it, and he would bomb the Islamic State (Isis) out of existence. Just like that, pure and simple.

In the process, nobody really cared whether he paid any taxes or whether he sexually assaulted women or whether the thrice-married man had any moral convictions at all.

Four years from now, the American voter will experience a very different kind of funereal experience – buyer’s remorse.

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