Trials and triumphs of Trump

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Andleeb Abbas

If Brexit was a shocker, the US election was a stunner. Lost for words and logic, all the wise analysts on media and social media who had been creating one caricature after the other of Donald Trump are now feeling like Donald Duck that has seen all their predictions turn to an ugly duckling. Trump wins, and wins from where he was not supposed to win. Trump trounced Florida and Wisconsin where the swing vote was supposed to be swinging the democrat way. Trump played his cards riskily and won his bets for outsmarting experience, tradition and history. But then nothing about this campaign was traditional; it was the loudest; it was the nastiest; it was not fought on who was better but on who was worse; it was not fought on who made the best policies but who made the best attacks; and it was not fought on values and principles but on who could twist the facts and seem less deceptive. One consistency in this inconsistent result is Trump’s ability to keep on beating the more saleable and established competitors. In his primary run he contended with 16 competitors to win the Republican Party nomination, and then won against the Democratic Party’s most experienced nominee, Hillary Clinton. But Trump is a marketing man from the business world, and he knows what sells. The age-old mantra of playing on your strengths and creating a differential advantage over the competitor’s brand is exactly what Trump did. Trump’s brand positioning of himself as an open, brash, loud, distressed, aggressive and non-traditional entry into politics against Clinton’s traditional, steeped-in-cautious-establishment-politics and non-transparent image truly resonated with the disgruntled masses. While Clinton was politically correct Trump was politically incorrect, and while she was a proper bureaucrat, he was a brash commoner who could speak and behave like ordinary Americans. Trump was also clever to use techniques of outrageousness to get massive free publicity. He shocked the media, enraged his opponents, and ensured that social media such as Twitter made it breaking news and a trend to follow. He spent much less than Clinton on advertising, and pushed this point across the masses that Clinton’s fund-raising was sponsored by the very people whom she was promising to tax when she came in power. Clinton, increasingly, came out as an untrustworthy person whose contradictions in what she said and what she wrote — the email scandal — till the very end of her campaign created many doubts and confusion amongst the swing voters. Thus the main swing states like Florida and Wisconsin voted against her, and even many that were her main constituencies like Pennsylvania where she held the Democratic convention voted against her.
Trump aggressively tapped into the voter rebellion, ostensibly learning from the Brexit success. Both in Europe and America the baby boomers and yuppies have not seen anything like the recession that has confronted them in the last 10 years. Unemployment and declining government benefits have hit them hard. Being born and bred in an economy of abundance, the economy of austerity has made them disgruntled and resentful. The traditional politician has failed to pacify them. Thus the likes of Boris Johnson in the UK and Donald Trump in the USA who speak and behave with gay abandon against globalisation and trade taking away jobs appeal to them. The anti-trade rhetoric of Trump was incomprehensible to analysts, but his ridiculous solutions of building a wall on US-Mexico border and a ban on Muslims resonated amongst the white, under-educated, unemployed Americans, who wistfully think about the US of the past where people of colour were much fewer and less competitive in a saturated job market. That is why Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” had a punchier appeal than Clinton’s slogan “Stronger Together.” Trump’s main challenges were his sexual abuse stories related by women who came forward with stories of sexual harassment. It definitely put a dent in his ratings. However, he made the claims sound frivolous, firstly by terming them as just “locker room banter,” and then accusing Clinton of using the establishment’s vilification campaign against him. The Clinton camp thought that this was the final nail in the Trump coffin as his ratings sharply slid, but consequently, they did not capitalise on it as aggressively as they should have. In fact, in many ways this slide in polls made them complacent about women voters.Trump had never branded himself as the proper guy, so even when he did ‘improper’ things they were accepted as being part of being ordinary. When women were asked about why they would still vote for somebody like Trump they justified it by saying men will be men. On the other hand, Clinton’s claim of values and morality were in sharp contrast with her duplicity in her past financial transactions and her contradictory emails. It was these brand promises and living or defaulting on them that gave a clever licence to Trump, and created dislike against Clinton.Finally, the belief in polls. Clinton with all her experience of data mining and analyses missed out on the fact that they were based on people who were giving opinions. There was a reasonable segment of hidden vote for Trump that was shy of being known as Trump supporters but would vote regardless. Clinton rightly pursued Latinos, Muslims and women but was unable to strike the chord in them the way Barack Obama did to persuade them to come out and vote in large numbers.Additionally, young people who were approached by Bernie Sanders in the primaries were already disillusioned by her, and were not addressed well in her communication and mobilisation strategy. Another shortcoming is that the research polls have not been able to factor the impact of social media on forming and changing public opinions faster than a click on the keyboard. One video going viral can wash away 10 points off the popularity chart in a matter of minutes.While the shock waves recede, the world in the 21st century is going back to being divisive, polarised and isolated. The big powers are struggling to retain their supremacy as they are being threatened by Asian countries, and an immigrant population that is smarter and possibly more dangerous and numerous in numbers than ever before. This voter change in the UK and the USA is a reaction to this changing geopolitical demographic and dynamics. However, what these countries need to review is that politics and policies based on fear, hate and aggression can bring short-term populist results but will eventually endanger the human prowess towards peace, progress and prosperity.