By Ashok Sajjanhar*
On the morning (IST) of 9 November, a veritable earthquake of high intensity on the political Richter scale jolted the world. Within a few hours, the huge edifice so painstakingly constructed by the media over the last more than a year giving a decisive edge to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the long-drawn bruising battle for the Presidency of the United States, arguably the most powerful job in the world, came crumbling down.
Although it was being routinely mentioned by all analysts and commentators that the election was too close to call and that it was a neck-to-neck battle between the two contenders, it had been taken for granted by the world, as also by a significant section of the vocal US electorate, that Hillary Clinton would win convincingly at the hustings. The only factor unknown was the margin by which she would romp home.
The confidence of pollsters misled Hillary’s supporters to consider her win as a foregone conclusion. This made the voting result even more shocking and stunning.
It is not the first time that poll predictions and projections have gone astray. Not long ago, the Brexit projections met the same fate. Several months ago in July 2016 when Donald Trump was declared the official nominee at the Republican National Convention, I had termed it as the Brexit moment of the USA. The wide discrepancy and divergence in nearly all poll forecasts in the Presidential election has seriously dented and diminished the credibility of mainstream media. It will take it a long time to recover from this blow.
Several questions emerge. How did Trump manage to do it? Was it only limited to his appeal and outreach or did his opponent’s perceived inadequacies and character traits also contribute to her defeat? Is Hillary’s defeat also a reflection on Barack Obama’s tenure of eight years? Some commentators in India have sought to speak about Trump’s victory in the same breath as Prime Minister Modi’s triumph in 2014. Are the two comparable in any way? Let me try to briefly respond to these and some other related questions.
A whole host of reasons can be attributed to Trump’s decisive win. On the top must feature the fact that Trump was able to sense and capture the anger, disaffection and frustration of the ordinary white male, less educated, unemployed or underemployed blue collar worker in the rust belt. This segment has seen its living standards fall, factories close down, healthcare costs rise, infrastructure deteriorate, continuing economic decline and urban decay, growing disparity between rich and poor etc. This large segment of the population had witnessed role of minorities and immigrants grow to their disadvantage and at their expense. This group was deeply resentful of policies pursued by Washington in Middle East and Syria as it felt that USA should not be involved in actions far away from its territory which were sapping its economic and human strength. Trump was able to appeal to this large aggrieved, distressed and exploited swathe of people and directed their wrath at the Washington establishment of which Hillary Clinton has been an integral part and significant player in her capacity as first lady, senator and Secretary of State for the last several decades. Hillary’s election would mean four more years of the same policies that had been pursued over the last eight years. On the contrary Trump has been a businessman all his life. He knows how to deal with foreign countries and companies, create wealth as well as jobs and employment. The left-leaning liberal media was not able to sense this angst and despair as it was living in a self created bubble in which its own thoughts and voices were reverberating and getting reinforced after being reflected by those who mirrored and shared the same opinions and views.
In addition to the deteriorating economy, immigration became a big issue both because illegal migrants were seen to be taking away jobs of Americans and also because of the radical Islamist terror that they were fomenting. Several recent terror attacks in San Bernardino, California; Orlando; Chattanooga, Tennessee and others had brought home to the people the lurking dangers of terrorism. It is in this context that the rhetoric of constructing a wall on the border with Mexico and making it pay for it, as well as temporarily banning the entry of Muslims and “suspending immigration from regions linked with terrorism until a proven vetting method is in place” found resonance amongst the people. This bombastic rhetoric which initially surfaced after the Bernardino killings in Dec, 2015 was progressively watered down to the above proposition in June, 2016.
Trump was able to provide a grand “vision” and hope of better days to the people. His slogan of “Making America Great Again” struck a chord with ordinary Americans and gave them a reason to look forward to better days in future. On the contrary, the lack lustre and dull campaigning style of Hillary failed to establish a rapport with the common people or provide them with any optimism for the future.
Trump was seen as a person who spoke from the heart and who was able to put his finger on the pulse of the people. Hillary was on the other hand seen to be a long serving member of the establishment who was always politically correct in her pronouncements. Common people wanted to hear and relate to someone who spoke their language, was candid, forthright, honest and said what they were thinking and feeling. This Hillary was unable to achieve.
It would however be wrong to say that it was a Trump victory outright. He was assisted in this heavily by the deep distrust and disaffection bordering on revulsion that Hillary Clinton aroused in a large number of common citizens. Starting from her use of a personal server for her emails thereby jeopardising security of the nation to receiving large funds for the Clinton Foundation from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, people looked upon her as being dishonest and unscrupulous. She was not able to energise and enthuse even her core constituencies like the women voters by projecting her candidature as the historic opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman President of the country. Many supporters of Bernie Sanders and those who had voted for Obama voted for Trump and not for her.
The election result cannot be seen as a reflection on the popularity of President Obama or a referendum on his Presidency. He had taken over an economy in early 2009 which was deep in throes of recession. Today the economy is cruising along at a healthy pace of 2.9%. Obama’s popularity ratings are also poised at a healthy, robust level of around 53% which is the highest any US President has enjoyed at this stage in his career. Obama has also had many significant achievements on the foreign policy front like Agreements with Iran and Cuba, disengagement and recall of most US forces from Afghanistan and much stronger and vibrant ties with India. Hillary’s defeat is in spite of Obama’s impressive performance and record and not because of it. Both he and his wife Michelle campaigned relentlessly and aggressively for her but the sense of “fatigue”, “anti-incumbency” and the deep yearning for “change” tilted the scales heavily in favour of Trump.
Lastly, it would not be prudent to compare Trump’s victory with that of Prime Minister Modi in 2014. First, Modi’s victory in 2014 did not come as a surprise. The only aspect not clear in 2014 was the margin of victory. It was always known with the enthusiastic response that Modi’s rallies and meetings were evoking that Modi would romp home convincingly. It appears that Trump’s win came as a surprise even to most Trumpers!! Second, Modi never made the sort of derogatory, scurrilous and slanderous comments against minorities, immigrants, women etc as done by Trump. Third, Trump has won when performance of incumbent Obama Administration cannot be criticised beyond a point. On the contrary the UPA government in India was saddled with a number of scandals and scams like CWG, 2G, Coalgate etc, afflicted by policy paralysis and staring at abysmally low economic growth before the elections in 2014. PM Modi conducted a vigorous and spirited campaign through the length and breadth of the country which completely demolished the opposition at the hustings.
The world waits with bated breath to see the first moves of President elect Trump and his selection of senior officials and advisers in his administration. This will give an indication of policies he would follow on the domestic and international arena over the coming four years.
*The author is a former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.