The American Presidential election spectacle has come to an end, much to the glee of the GOP and chagrin of the Democrats. Donald Trump got 59.4 million votes compared to 59.6 million by Hillary Clinton. Yet Trump secured 290 Electoral College votes compared to 232 by Clinton. Though news of Trump's victory stunned the world, global leaders hurriedly sent in congratulatory messages to the President-elect.
Opinion pollsters have misled people by projecting what they thought was the mood of voters. They simply failed to gauge voter anger against the establishment. The media, by constantly demonising Trump, made him bigger than he actually was.
Let us see how Trump made it to the presidency. People in general in every society suffer from a state of inertia despite all the problems they face. There is always anger or dissatisfaction amongst some people against their government. They want change but do not know how to bring it. Occasionally, someone appears addressing the problems that afflict them. People flock towards that popular leader for redress of their grievances.
Contemporary history is full of populists like Marie Le Pen (France), Silvio Berlusconi (Italy), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Nigel Farage (Britain), most recently Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) and now Donald Trump.
Populism seeks to galvanise aggrieved people against an institution or government. It tries to unite the marginalised sections against the traditional rich and powerful elites. It appeals to the baser instincts of voters. Use of powerful slogans about the malaise in the society is its hallmark. Bigotry and exaggerated lies are used to gain the support of angry people. It succeeds in convincing people that the conventional political system is so corrupt and inept that it is unable to deliver the needs of the society. It tries to oust the ruling elites through direct participation of people. Populist leaders can come from any political persuasion - left, right or middle. It is a harmful concept as it polarises the society.
Outsider Donald Trump declared himself to be Republican and jumped into the electoral ring with a populist slogan to “make America great again”. He blasted his way through the disenfranchised lower-middle-income white Americans, haranguing on issues that they loved to hear.
Trump launched his “movement” by injecting fear amongst the marginalised segments of the society dwelling on economic insecurity due to globalisation, changing demography and culture of America, and failure of political elites in Washington to deliver. As these issues resonated among white voters, Trump became increasingly popular.
The American economic recovery after the devastating recession of 2008 created a large majority of households either with lower incomes or without jobs. Income distribution in the US has deteriorated over the past years and wages of unskilled workers have gone down because of excess supply of unskilled workforce. Globalisation drove away jobs from America to other nations with cheaper labour. Trump declared he will bring back jobs and promised better wages and living conditions to the “forgotten men and women”.
Trump used xenophobic rhetoric to attract white voters. He addressed the rapid growth of immigrant population as a serious threat to the white dominated American society. He vowed to build walls and stop immigration from certain countries.
The other issue that he cleverly exploited was the failure of the elites in Washington to deliver. They were unable to work together to move the economy and society forward. There was too much bickering on Capitol Hill between the Republicans and Democrats that made the government immobile.
Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of the existing establishment, could not come out clean over the e-mail scandal that Trump used effectively to wean away voters from her camp. What was worse a week before the Election Day is that the FBI came out with a damaging revelation that more suspicious emails were detected, which immediately dipped Clinton's polls rating. Besides, Clinton failed to stitch together a coalition as Obama did in 2012.
Another aspect that helped Trump to secure the Presidency is the incumbency factor. After eight years of a black Democratic president, white Americans wanted a white Republican in the White House. The voters evidently were not ready for a woman president.
A clever rhetorician, Trump easily connected with the vast majority of people in the most unorthodox language and did not care about decency. Trump's victory was secured by the large turnout of white votes (58 percent) mostly in the battleground states.
Trump's biggest challenge will now be to heal the wounds of division that he inflicted during the campaign. He has already changed his tone and his acceptance speech was sober and more president-like compared to his campaign rants. The media has also started building a positive image of Trump. Hillary Clinton conceded the election, saying, “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead”.
What is striking is that the GOP not only got the White House but also secured majority in both Houses of the Congress. That is a formidable combination for the new president to get things moving. Dejected Democrats will now have to figure out how they can play the role of the spoiler.
As Washington gets ready for a smooth transition of power to the new President, people around the world will be watching Trump's foreign policy carefully, as it is closely linked to America's security concerns while also observing what he does to the global financial architecture. Will he carry out all the threats he made during the campaign? What will he do for the powerless groups in the American society? That is something we shall have to wait and see.
It was populism that carried Trump to victory and fundamentally changed American political discourse.
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.