Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Editorial: Trump quake

Al-Ahram Weekly

The surprise results delivered by the US polls — the election of Donald Trump as US president — was a political earthquake. Although Trump’s victory speech sounded moderate, reassuring and therefore different from all his speeches and remarks during the campaign, this did little to alleviate the shock. As all quakes have aftershocks the question now is: How and where will these be felt after Trump enters the White House? But the answer to this is inextricably bound to the question as to how to explain the outcome of the ballot box which defied all predictions that Hillary Clinton would win.

The search for an answer to this riddle leads us through an interesting multi-tiered maze. Several weeks before the elections, Clinton was leading in all opinion polls. A vast array of political elites, media personalities and opinion pundits, and music and film celebrities were rooting for her and, simultaneously, fiercely attacking Trump and warning of the disastrous consequences if he won. Moreover, in a development unprecedented in US electoral history, as the race entered its last lap in the run-up to the elections, leading figures of the Republican Party disassociated themselves from Trump, declared their refusal to support him and urged a search for an alternative candidate. How could such a situation turn around entirely and produce the results that stunned the world?

The changing “mood” of the American people is perhaps the most frequently cited word used to explain the emergence of the Trump phenomenon — the political rise of someone from outside the political establishment who has never held public office of any sort, who totally lacks political expertise and who expresses his ideas directly, crudely and with total disregard for diplomatic subtleties or glosses of political correctness. He has taken his boorish bluntness so far as to call for banning Muslims from entry into the US, building a separating wall along the Mexican border and exacting protection money from various US allies. He has also threatened to hike up taxes on US transnational corporations if they move their factories and other operations to countries with large markets of cheap labour such as China and Mexico. This type of rhetoric coincided with a popular mood that was shaped in part by economic straits, which helps explain his victory in the mid-west industrialised states where factories have been moved abroad to such countries as China and Mexico. It was also shaped by socio-cultural factors, most notably a latent xenophobia against immigrant minorities from Latin America, Africa or Islamic countries that only needed the rhetoric of someone like Donald Trump to ignite and fuel it. Opinion polls would not have reflected such changes because a large portion of the Republican right that embraces such bigotry would not openly acknowledge this. But they are a major part of the reason for the Trump electoral surprise.

Another explanation for that earthquake is that, like other free and democratic societies, US society, in general, is not keen on supporting a single party for long periods of time. This is a characteristic of peoples who sometimes tend to prefer change merely for the sake of change. Looking back over US elections, we find that since World War II, American voters never elected a president from the same party as the outgoing incumbent with the sole exception of George Bush Sr after Ronald Reagan (both being Republicans).

At another level, there is the highly controversial question of FBI intervention when it announced that it would submit the case regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to Congress in spite of the fact that it had closed its investigations into the matter months ago. To what degree did this impact the outcome of the polls? The FBI delivered this political bomb a week before election day, precipitating a political and legal debate that will probably continue for a long time to come. At the centre of this debate resides FBI director James Comey. In turning the Clinton email case over to Congress, was he acting in the capacity of a government official who was exercising his duties with integrity and impartiality? Or were there other explanations for his behaviour that gave the kiss of life to the Trump campaign at a time it was floundering due to leaks and slips of the tongue? Legally, there remains the matter raised by the US Justice Department that held that Comey’s action violated the law that prohibits any government agency from intervening in this manner during a period of at least 11 days before polling day. This question grows more critical when we consider that Comey was member of the Republican Party until very recently.

On the aftershocks and fallout from the US quake, the Trump victory is clearly a part of a global phenomenon that is sweeping countries around the world in varying degrees: The rise of the extreme right. Whether we call this trend the ultra right, the isolationist nationalist right or the neo-conservative right, what concerns us is the need to identify the causes of this phenomenon and its possible repercussions.

The Trump victory, Brexit and other developments in Western Europe as well as in Russia and some Eastern European countries are indicative of a climate characterised by mounting racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, ultranationalism and a tendency towards isolationism and insularism. What is striking is that all these phenomena are moving in the opposite direction to globalisation, which began about 20 years ago and that held the promise of erasing boundaries and barriers between peoples and promoting the free and unfettered movement of people, goods and services, ideas and information. Whatever happened to cause the sudden shift from calls for humanitarian openness to others and intercultural communication to tides of intolerance and narrow-mindedness? Are the choices of governments and the agendas of political parties responsible for this shift or does it come from cultural outlooks and grassroots attitudes bubbling up from below?

The election results in the US suggest the latter. The new global mood appears to be a manifestation of the rise of new populist cultures and outlooks. Trump did not have the backing of American officialdom. He was a total political outsider, even to the Republican Party establishment which lost enthusiasm for its own candidate in the last months of the campaigns. That he ultimately succeeded in prevailing in the polls means that we are looking at a new and unfamiliar phenomenon that is gaining ascendency. It is essential for us to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon, which requires a deep and comprehensive analysis of its origins, causes and possibilities of growth, since there is every reason to fear that the repercussions of the US earthquake will spread to other parts of the world.

As it does, the dreams that the peoples of poor and developing countries attached to the promise of globalisation and increased inter-human closeness and understanding could turn to nightmares. There are some foul winds blowing in many places in this world and it appears that the peoples of the Middle East are destined to suffer the consequences.

Our hope is that they can ward off the worst.

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