We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
21 July 2017 08:51 (South Africa)
Opinionista John Matisonn

President-elect Trump and the future of US

  • John Matisonn
    John-Matisonn.jpg
    John Matisonn

    John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations’ Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, which has just been published.

Being of a certain age, Leonard Cohen’s death in the same week as news of this new president has synchronicity. His death was announced midway in the cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and the early stages of acceptance that our political world has spun us. Cohen may have checked out at just the right moment.

“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

The consequences of the Trump victory will affect much of our lifetime. Not only does Trump get to replace Antonio Scalia, the leading right-wing Justice at the US Supreme Court who was approved by every Democrat in the Senate on the grounds that he was a competent jurist and the president had a right to appoint him even if his philosophy was alien.

Liberal judges starting with Ruth Ginsburg, who had been holding on in the hope of a Democratic president and Senate, will find age catch up with them. Of all Trump’s promises, very few are certain to be kept, but conservative justices are what he can least avoid. Republican congressional co-operation on things he cares more for can be bought at what for him will prove a modest price. If he chooses judges in their 50s, he can define the court for a full generation.

I drank the pollsters’ Kool-Aid too. When even the never-wrong Nate Silver of 538.com gave Hillary a pretty safe 70% probability of being the next president, I thought a Clinton victory was assured. Was I ever wrong.

Not that the pundit analysis is free of after-the-fact over-correction. She won the popular vote by around 300,000. Clinton got 60,274,974 votes, Trump 59,937,338 (as of this writing). Republicans have only won the popular vote once since 1988, in 2004. So it was an awfully close outcome. But her vaunted organisation proved flawed. CNN’s reporters got their belief in the Clinton blue firewall of the rust belt states including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from Clinton’s organisers themselves. They were wrong.

They thought Wisconsin so safe that the Democrats never scheduled a single Clinton event there, and she lost Wisconsin.

There is no comeback. The Clinton era is over. Trump may throw her a crumb, some special envoy job or other, or not. Either way, her political career is finished. Bill will continue to age and slow down, delighting crowds and running his foundation. They have the family business.

She was a weak candidate. Called on repeatedly to define her message to voters, she said she would get up and work for women and children every day. Not a bad thing to do, but where was the beef? Perhaps more important, where was the inspiration, the poetry?

She now epitomises the Democratic Party’s widened distance from the working class. Trump’s core supporters were non-college-educated whites first, but he did less badly among Latinos and even African-Americans than he deserved. The American working class looks different from its counterparts in other countries. Often better off and somewhat mixed in with the middle class, trade unions have fewer members and less impact on them. Hillary lacked the working-class appeal of a Joe Biden or a Bernie Sanders. She looked like a friend of the bankers, while Trump presented himself as different. But bank shares on Wall Street soared by Thursday. Wall Street knows better.

What will Trump’s four years look like?

Since there is so little he said that he has not at some time said the opposite of, it’s impossible to say. After he gives the right their first judge, he’ll probably feel remarkably free. He will probably ask the congressional Republican leadership what they want for quick wins. They will probably say scrap Obamacare and environmental regulations, some rules for banks, and so on. Little wonder banking shares are the biggest gains in Wall Street – not the manufacturers he claimed he will bring back.

After that, don’t rule out some economic success. If he starts new infrastructure projects and cuts taxes, in short the beginnings of a new bubble, he will create jobs and grow the economy. If he does, he will be doing something both previous conservative Republican presidents, Reagan and W. Bush, did: expand the government budget deficit like gangbusters.

“For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the convenience of the present,” Reagan said. “We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding: we are going to begin to act, beginning today.”

Denouncing the trillion-dollar debt, he said, “A trillion dollars would be a stack of $1,000 bills 67 miles high.”

When Reagan retired eight years later, the debt was $2.9-trillion, and the annual deficit had tripled. Just words.

George W. Bush inherited a surplus from Bill Clinton. He turned it into a deficit overnight, and ideologically conservative deficit-hating law-makers voted for every measure. Republican conservatives only hate government debt when Democrats are in power. The promise to cut it is the first ideological betrayal that Trump will ask of the Republican congress. If history is a guide, he will get it.

What about the bigotry? What about the Wall, the deportations, dismissals of race and gender?

The best analysis of what he can get away with and retain his constituency comes from Saleno Zito, an Atlantic correspondent who reported on Trump’s followers. “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally,” she wrote during the campaign. In other words, they conclude that he is basically going to do things for them, even if they are somewhat different from any specific promise. If that’s the case, and I think it is, he can get away with changing his mind a lot.

The immediate damage he has done is to the atmosphere in the country, and in countries that access American media, which is most of us. As after Britain’s Brexit vote, hate crimes will rise. Bigots feel they have permission. The old Trump of the campaign is not dead. Of demonstrators shouting “Love trumps hate” around America this week, the president-elect said they were just professional, paid demonstrators, nothing legitimate in it.

I am glad I’m living in South Africa. After our years of tolerating a corrupt and divisive president, the country has woken up. We are not out of the woods, and Jacob Zuma has zero remorse for the damage he has done. He has learnt nothing. But we the people have. He may not go quietly, but he will go. And when he does his supporters will be as rare as supporters of apartheid became in 1994. “Support Jacob Zuma? Me? Never did.” DM

Note: Carl Jung defined synchronicity as meaningful coincidences, events with no causal relationship that have meaning without any direct connection.

John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of CTV’S BETWEEN THE LINES with John Matisonn.

  • John Matisonn
    John-Matisonn.jpg
    John Matisonn

    John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations’ Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, which has just been published.

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