On the 9th of November, Donald Trump became President elect of the United States. 27 years ago to the day, the Berlin Wall, which far more than just a daunting physical structure, was a symbol of division and oppression, came down. Today, incredibly, another one, dividing Mexico and the US is a real and disturbing prospect. A tectonic shift in American politics has taken place, more significant than the election of a black American as President eight years ago. But rubble for some is also a renaissance for others. President Trump will do less damage, domestically and internationally, than what is feared he will unleash, simply because stultifying American bureaucracy makes no distinction when thwarting the vaulting ambition of the best and worst in politics. Because we are in uncharted political terrain, President Trump will also be far worse than what we can ever imagine today. From tone and expression to soft power and hard diplomacy, Trump and those around him will be a pronounced, sharp change from the incumbent, changing perceptions towards the US more fundamentally than Bush Jnr and his disastrous years at the White House.
And yet, in the echo chambers of our social media angst that Eli Pariser called ‘filter bubbles’, we continue to be disconnected from movements and conversations that only in hindsight become evident as those which could have foretold the electoral outcome. I offer no great insight into what happened in the US or why. Amidst all the uncertainty, what we can be assured of is a tsunami of political opinion that dissects what happened last week and why. All of Wednesday and most of Thursday was spent reading the post-election opinions published on, amongst other places, Nate Silver’s blog and site, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Twitter streams of journalists from around the world and the algorithmically filtered stream of consciousness that is my Facebook feed. There is a lot of fear, profound disappointment and not an insignificant amount of anger, shame and hopelessness. And yet, none of the euphoria of those who voted in Trump was registered. Renowned American comedian Stephen Colbert, on the Late Show programme broadcast on election night flagged this phenomenon through research conducted by PEW, noting how much, and how deep, the partisan divide runs in the US today. One party and its supporters are positively petrified of the other party’s policies and supporters, which directly translates into little to nothing by way of common ground, shared goals, civic identity and civil engagement. Even as news from Hong Kong last week flagged a more positive role of social media in the electoral process, the shift from human to entirely machine curation of news feeds on Facebook – a direct consequence of the US Presidential election – is symbolic of a media landscape that, simultaneously, is increasing the frequency of content one is partial to, blocking the access to content one is not partial to and masking content that one may well be partial to and interested in, simply because it is published or produced by, features the voice of or is liked by someone from a different partisan political mooring. Obama flagged this disturbing trend in the last days of the campaign. As Max Read writing in NY Mag’s select/all notes, “Facebook has seemed both uninterested in and incapable of even acknowledging that it has become the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history”.
It is a problem in the US. It is a problem here in Sri Lanka.
I have often maintained that the US Presidential race is the least representative of elections. The election of one person to the White House impacts, often in a direct way, the lives of billions outside the US, who obviously don’t have a say in who is elected. Obama over two terms was a President millions around the world looked up to and even loved. Trump will be a President millions within the US will look up to with hope. The cosmopolitanism of Obama, rendering and furthering US interests through an internationalism forged through hard diplomacy and soft power anchored to sheer charisma, grace, family and faith, held him in good stead outside the US. And yet, his domestic policies and their perception, we now know, didn’t endear himself or his party to many who, to use a phrase borrowed from the British political scientist Rob Ford, feel like strangers in their own country. Trump represents an America that we forgot about when the adulation and adoration of a First Family so easily glossed over, and for many years, the necessary scrutiny of a government’s policymaking and its impact on domestic constituencies. Obama was the exception, the international darling and distraction. Trump is, beyond himself, a symbol of an enduring reality that has festered for eight years and is now in our face, in the open, unrepentant, angry. Chris Arnade, writing a remarkably prescient article in the Guardian early this month, notes how much and how deep Trump’s (for us, violent, populist, divisive) rhetoric resonated with so many who remained, at best, on the margins of commentary, scrutiny and conversations that dominated the media landscape, and no doubt, the democratic party’s electoral strategy. By design or accident, Trump’s campaign managed to effectively marry disenfranchised, hopeless, poor white Americans and well as those of colour, with his and his party’s natural appeal amongst wealthy, white Americans.
There is however another perspective worth flagging – how those between 18 to 25 cast their vote. A widely shared map of US, rendered after tallying the votes in almost all the states, is overwhelmingly blue. This tells us that the new US President does not and tellingly, perhaps cannot connect to those new to politics and who voted for the first time. We cannot even begin to fathom how these demographic, geographic and ideological tensions will play out domestically.
Interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, the campaign and eventual result also divided Sri Lankans. An inward looking, less intrusive, right-wing government led by Trump will bring with it a foreign policy that will no doubt appeal to even the present Sri Lankan government as it struggles to meet commitments around transitional justice. Many who wanted Clinton as President, well beyond those who broke over a thousand coconuts to invoke the blessings of the gods, projected onto her the continuation of Obama’s foreign policy, which would have resulted in comparably far greater scrutiny around our rights record and international commitments. But with Trump ultimately triumphing, we will be left alone in the human rights sphere. It remains to be seen how without US led pressure, such as it existed and manifest itself in Geneva, Washington and beyond, our government will remain as vested in fulfilling its commitments around, amongst other things, the UN resolution.
A man who, proudly, stands apart from the very ideals the US is founded upon is now its leader. He will change the institutions, culture, timbre and expression of government, the perception of the US internationally, and the relationship with the UN and other allies. This is just the start.
We are in for a ride. Buckle up, and batten down the hatches!