I went to bed on Tuesday night thinking that Hillary Clinton would sail to victory in the US presidential election.
A few hours later I witnessed staff at the US Consulate in Cape Town consoling each other as Mr Apprentice Donald J Trump made a clean sweep.
I watched teary Americans shaking their heads in disbelief as Mr Make-America-Great-Again said: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
How did we get it so wrong? Why did all the major American media houses I trust predict a Clinton victory? And who are these millions of people who voted for Trump?
Here are 10 initial reflections:
1. There are no easy explanations for this extraordinary political upset. The America we think we know by watching CNN, listening to Lady Gaga or Bon Jovi or watching Walt Disney movies is only one part of a complicated country. There is another country, far from Barack Obama’s “land of the free” we’ve gotten used to over the past eight years. We had a glimpse of that America under George W. Bush and his strongmen and I guess we will see more of it soon.
2. I underestimated the level of aversion the US electorate has to Clinton. She is clearly a deeply disliked character, to the extent that states like Wisconsin voted Republican for the first time in almost 30 years.
3. Most white men (apparently close to 70%) voted for Trump and the turnout under white men was high. I’m sure there will be plenty of demographic and turnout analysis in the following days, but at this early stage it seems like white American males were united in their hatred for Clinton and/or admiration of Trump.
4. It’s too easy to say it’s the white men that did it for Trump. CNN’s polling shows that thousands of black and young voters in states like North Carolina didn’t bother to vote. These people voted Obama previously. A significant portion of Hispanic voters voted for Trump. Why?
5. Trump had the “change” card on his side. Last time it was Obama’s card to play – “change you can believe in”. Trump’s campaign strategists masterfully painted Clinton as the status quo candidate defending the established elite and pinned everything that went wrong under Obama (and in the global economy) on her and the Democratic Party. The lure of change – any change – seems to have been stickier than Clinton’s predictability.
6. Clinton was boring and predictable. She was positioned as the “safe” candidate and didn’t offer hope or inspiration the way Obama did. The fact that a 75-year old man in Bernie Sanders attracted the youth vote should have sent clear SOS signals to the Democratic Party, which they seemingly ignored.
7. Uncertainty creates fear and instability. The unknown presidency of Donald Trump just made the world a much scarier place. What does his flirtation with Vladimir Putin mean for the people of Syria? How will America’s relationships with Islamic states be affected after Islamophobia was displayed so crudely during his campaign?
8. Britain’s vote to exit the European Union and Trump’s victory indicate we have entered a new era of conservatism where (predominantly white) people retreat to what they know, away from “the other” where they feel safe. For these people, globalisation has not yielded material benefits and they are attracted to big man talk of “let’s fix what belongs to us and keep the enemy outside”. The “enemy” is anyone who stakes a claim to “our” resources. This could have devastating consequences for America’s foreign policy and people living in the United States who don’t look or talk like Trump (like Mexicans and Muslims).
9. Somewhere, something went badly wrong in the Clinton campaign and they were not able to fix it. I buy the argument that Trump ran much more of a ground-up campaign than Clinton, who just couldn’t break the image of representing big capital and the Washington establishment.
10. We are not perfect, but for a moment South Africa’s problems felt relatively small compared to the reality of a Trump presidency. Yes, President Jacob Zuma and the ANC have many faults we point out on a daily basis, but at least he is not planning to build a wall on the banks of the Limpopo River or ban Muslims from entering OR Tambo Airport. I take pride in our Constitution and hard-won human rights, but we should never, ever take these for granted. Donald Trump’s victory should be a wake-up call for all peace-loving democrats around the globe. Now is not a time to keep quiet.
– Basson is News24’s editor. Follow him on Twitter: @adriaanbasson.