AS the marathon quadrennial circus in the US drew to a close last week, most people expected to hear a monumental sigh of relief as the curtain came down.

Instead, there was a sharp intake of breath as the creepy clown emerged to have the last laugh, mocking all the pollsters and pundits who had confidently predicted that after all his grotesquely entertaining antics, the abominable jester would fall flat on his face.

Intriguingly, though, in his first public appearance, president-elect Donald Trump struck a very different note from candidate Trump. Suddenly, he was uncharacteristically conciliatory, even gracious in victory. The woman he had derided for months as “crooked Hillary” and threatened to throw into jail turned into “secretary Clinton” who — would you believe it? — had done the nation considerable service, apart from putting up a formidable fight in the electoral contest.

Could Trump have been defeated by Bernie Sanders?

Clinton reciprocated the goodwill in her somewhat belated concession speech, and the incumbent and his unexpected successor put up a reasonably convincing show of bonhomie on Trump’s visit to what will be his residence for the next four years from Jan 20, despite having relentlessly derided each other not just in recent months but over the years, with the unpleasant businessman leading the charge among those who refused to believe Barack Hussein Obama was American-born.

Last Thursday, Trump was humbly playing the apprentice, visibly thunderstruck by the enormity — in every sense of the word — of his achievement and the responsibilities that lie ahead. Unfortunately, at the end of the apprenticeship Obama will not be able to declare: “You’re fired!”

Post-election, most analysts and commentators have cheerlessly been willing to confess they have little idea of what a Trump presidency will look like. That’s not on the grounds the Republican nominee gave no indication of what he had in mind, but because it’s perfectly possible quite a bit of the campaign rhetoric will not directly be translated into policy, either because it was only ever intended to attract attention, or because Congress, despite both chambers being Republican controlled, will thwart or at least water down particularly egregious excesses.

There can be no excuse for complacency, though. It’s not hard to envisage a scenario in which Trump stumbles on issues such as reducing the US military presence abroad, backing out of trade deals, slapping tariffs on Chinese imports, setting up a vast infrastructure programme, restoring America’s manufacturing base, resetting ties with Russia and putting up an impenetrable barrier on the border with Mexico paid for by the Mexicans. He might find it easier, though, to summarily expel large numbers of undocumented immigrants, slap a moratorium on Muslims entering the country, rescind the Affordable Care Act, and facilitate a conservative Supreme Court majority willing to criminalise abortion, among other measures.

Not everything he has given notice of intending to do falls in the deplorable category. One can hardly ignore the fact, though, that extremists from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-fascists across Europe launched their jubilations as soon as Trump crossed the line on election night, and there have been reports from the US of a spike in racist and sexist harassment.

It was inevitable that the particularly reprobate elements in American society enthused by the Trump candidacy would be emboldened by its unexpected success, but it’s highly unlikely that a so-called whitelash after eight years of the first black president was key to last week’s result. Arguably the primary factor was that the Democratic contender represented the status quo, a neoliberal consensus that has simply not worked for vast numbers of working-class and middle-class Americans. Hillary Clinton may not have forgotten the key phrase from her husband’s first presidential campaign — “It’s the economy, stupid” — but she offered no convincing answers to the current malaise.

In view of the popular mood, Clinton was clearly the wrong candidate, long embedded within a distrusted establishment and propelled by a sense of entitlement — and the fact she won the popular vote doesn’t count for much beyond serving as a reminder that the electoral college is a potentially undemocratic anachronism. Sure, Trump’s anti-elitism is a sham, given he’ll be the richest US president in history, but the fact he’s never been part of the policymaking elite probably redounded in his favour.

Could Bernie Sanders have defeated him, as some commentators are claiming, given that he strongly appealed to the dispossessed and the disillusioned? Maybe. We’ll never know for sure. But the senator from Vermont may well seem, in the next four years, to effectively be the leader of an opposition the US will direly require, as the angry protests of the past few days demonstrate.

Meanwhile, as psephologists pore over the statistics to determine what “went wrong”, the fact that about 47 per cent of the electorate did not bother to vote at all stands out as a searing indictment of a debased democracy.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2016


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