Eight years ago, the United States of America voted in Barack Obama, its first black president, on a mandate of hope. His campaign slogan? "Yes, we can!" It was a time of great economic upheaval, when older, more experienced, hands him laid claim to the presidency. But he beat political heavyweight Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, and then Republican candidate John McCain to win the election.
Obama's victory was a remarkable achievement, not just on a personal level, but also for what it represented. For the first time in American history, a black man lived in the White House that had been built centuries earlier by black slaves. It felt like the dawning of America's golden age, and it seemed as if the country's name was justified. The United States of America — perhaps it really was possible. Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, a controversial choice, but the award reflected the hope that his campaign and subsequent election ushered in.
Trump's presidency may well put civil liberties and climate change action back by a generation. Or it may turn out better than feared.
Fast forward to 2016. There's been another remarkable election campaign in the US, and another unexpected victor. Donald Trump, businessman, tax dodger, misogynist, homophobe, racist, xenophobe, Islamophobe, protectionist and hate preacher, has just been elected to the presidency of the United States. His campaign slogan? "Make America Great Again." An inoffensive enough phrase, but the changes Trump suggested set the tone for an ugly presidential race. Among the highlights of his campaign were repeated threats to build a wall across the US-Mexican border, feeding into resentment among some voters about changing demographics. Muslims were to be banned from America.
His politics are clearly controversial, but what of his credentials? He has never before held office and has defeated the experienced if polarising Hillary Clinton, who has served as First Lady, as Senator and as Secretary of State.
And the result is emphatic. In state after state, including long-held Democratic ones, Trump has held sway. He has won in states, including Florida, where the high percentage of Latino voters was expected to win the vote for Clinton.
Trump is seen as an outsider, as a doer, and therein lies his appeal to many. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has personified the establishment for decades. She is widely seen as corrupt.
So what happened? For one, white working class America came out in force to support Trump. Those in the rust belt states who feel left behind by globalisation came out to exercise their mandate. But that's not the whole story. Educated white people voted for Trump too. As did women, a demographic he has shown scant regard for. In fact, 53% of white women voted for Trump, even though he has consistently made derogatory remarks about them, calling them "dogs" and "slobs". Even though his opponent was a woman seeking to become the first female president of the country.
Was their anger at immigration and the changing economy stronger than the revulsion people felt for Trump's numerous missteps? Or does it have something to do with disenfranchisement with the political establishment itself?
Trump is seen as an outsider, as a doer, and therein lies his appeal to many. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has personified the establishment for decades. She is widely seen as corrupt. There has been widespread opprobrium about her appropriation of a personal server while she was Secretary of State. Beyond the security implications of her breach of protocol are concerns that she used her time in office to further her own fortune. The very people who should have stood behind Hillary — the young, the idealistic, the liberal— couldn't bring themselves to vote for her. They didn't think Trump would be elected, but they just couldn't get excited about a figure they saw as untrustworthy.
As Barack Obama said, we must not "get cynical"... we must hold hope ahead of hate. If we don't, it would be handing victory to the vitriol of Trump's campaign.
So there we have it. If you combine a candidate with a powerful message that resonates with people and a candidate that others feel ambivalent about, it is the people who believe in the powerful message who will come out and vote. Eight years ago, with Obama, that message was hope. Today, it is hate. It is a turning in on oneself and rejecting all that is different. It is a rejection of consensus politics, of appealing to different constituencies. It is nationalism taken to its hideous extreme.
We have seen this sentiment play out before, in the badly fought out Brexit referendum in the UK. It has resulted in a rise in xenophobia, a ruling party plunged into a leadership battle, an uncertain approach to the very Brexit the politicians campaigned for and, more recently, attacks on the judiciary suggesting that Prime Minister Theresa May take her Brexit plans to Parliament.
We are seeing this all over the world. A rise in nationalism. An assertive majority that has grown to resent years of liberalism. A lacklustre opposition losing out to compelling invective. And with key elections to look forward to in Germany and France next year, it makes sense to expect more of the same.
The world is changing. Trump's presidency may well spell an end to open borders, to NATO and to free trade. It may well put civil liberties and climate change action back by a generation. Or it may turn out better than feared. Trump may be reined in by advisors, as other presidents have been before him.
And those of us in democracies, those of us with a franchise, must exercise it. As Barack Obama said, we must not "get cynical". We must be the change we believe in. We must defend the principles we value —liberty, justice, freedom of choice and expression. There will be other elections; other opportunities for change. And, most importantly, we must hold hope ahead of hate. If we don't, it would be handing victory to the vitriol of Trump's campaign.
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