Murari Sharma: Takeaways from US elections

Outsiders find even normal American elections crazy. This year’s elections were crazy even by American standards. They have imparted troubling lessons for the United States as well as the rest of the world, including Nepal.

The crazy normal: The perpetual campaign, colossal spending and personal vitriol.

The members of the lower house of Congress are always in campaign mode because they face elections every two years. Similarly, as soon as one presidential campaign ends, another begins, thanks to the need in the Democratic and Republican parties for candidates to cross the intra-party primary whoops in all 50 states before they become nominees to face the inter-party contest.

Each presidential candidate must raise millions of dollars to finance their continuous and prolonged campaigns. And unrestrained personal attacks are all too common in American politics and election campaigns.

This year’s presidential contest was unprecedented in its craziness. The Republic presidential campaign was virtually policy-free, fact-free and evidently the vilest ever. The Democratic campaign also essentially proved to be Republican-lite.

The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, never bothered to spell out his policies and programs. He only said he had a plan and pouted some populist slogans. His principal election plank was the vilification of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Clinton mentioned her policies and programs in the three televised debates and in the last few days before the election on November 8. But she spent the rest of the time highlighting Trump’s flaws and unelectibility.

Trump ran a nearly a fact-free and mendacious campaign. When he was caught telling lies, he simply denied it loudly. Out of his campaign claims, 59 turned out to be whoppers (big lies) according the Washington Post Pinocchio test. Clinton also received seven whoppers.

No US presidential campaign in my living memory has been as vile as the 2016 one. Sure, in the past, the opponents assailed each other on policy and character flaws. But they always maintained basic civility and decency in their words. This time, Trump hitched the campaign into the gutter.

He called his opponent corrupt, crooked, nasty, and liar. He even said Clinton should be locked up. On the other hand, Clinton questioned Trump’s temperament to become president and commander-in-chief citing his mercurial nature, bullying, and thin skin.  She left vilifying Trump largely to her surrogates.

Trump openly demonstrated his anti-women, anti-foreigner, and anti-Islam words and behavior. He insulted Megan Kelly, a Fox News anchor, bragged about sexually abusing women, berated a gold star family, promised to ban Muslims if he became president, and called the Mexican and Latinos in the US criminals and rapists.

Yet, Trump triumphed.

Some have argued it was a victory of change over continuity, which might be true only partly, if at all, because no one wants change when times are rolling good.

Generally, it is one of the best times for America and American voters: The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent (near full employment), the crime rate is lowest in history, income is rising and prosperity is growing for all classes, the world is in relative peace, and not many American boots are involved in overseas conflicts.

Why throw the good known for the unknown? So Trump’s is the victory of sexism and misogyny, racism, xenophobia, obfuscation, incivility, cheap populism, and bureaucratic, Russian and Wikileaks meddling.

Sexism won in this election. Despite Trump’s troubling sexist and misogynist words and behavior, 53 percent white women voted for him. It seems that most US women accept sexism and misogyny as something to be disregarded.   

Trump and his key supporters stoked up racism with their anti-minority and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The religious, non-college educated white American voters took the bait and threw their support behind the New York tycoon.

Trump’s xenophobic, Islamophobic, Mexico-phobic, narrow nationalistic and protectionist rhetoric won over the segment of the white voters that has been adversely affected by globalization and that has been worried about its shrinking majority in the country. 

Trump’s secrecy and obfuscation trumped Clinton’s relative transparency. For instance, Trump never released his allegedly controversial tax returns, and it worked to his advantage. Clinton released her tax returns of more than 27 years, and let her enemies find a reason not to vote for her and throw dirt at her.

Clinton lost the election partly because she took Trump’s nasty, sexist, personal berating in her stride and the American voters seem to have taken her civility as the admission of guilt.  Trump tit-tatted every slight, and his supporters accepted it as a sign of his innocence.

Trump threw the red meat  of cheap populist slogans like building a wall on the US-Mexico border, bringing back manufacturing jobs, deporting all illegal immigrants, etc. and the poor, religious, and non-college educated and rural white voters fell for it. Clinton’s far more practicable policies lost the battle.

As Clinton has blamed, FBI Director James Comey’s relaunching of inquiry into her State Department emails days before the election stopped her momentum and helped Trump.

Certainly, Comey used double standards. He refused to investigate Trump’s dealings with Russia and Russian involvement in cyber attacks against the USA to stay clear of politics. On the contrary, he reignited the once-ended FBI inquiry into Clinton’s emails just 10 days before the vote. Trump used the inquiry to convince many wavering voters that she was going to be indicted. 

Russia tipped the scale in Trump’s favor. Trump called on Russia to hack into Clinton’s emails and Russian agents found access to her campaign manager John Podesta’s emails. Wikileaks disseminated the hacked emails just days before the election. It hurt Clinton and helped Trump.

So the takeaways from the American election this year is this: Appealing to the base instincts in voters works very well in politics.

Similar sentiments — anti-globalization, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. — had convinced British voters to pull their country out of the European Union in the referendum held in June this year. Thos year’s American presidential election reaffirms the British experience.   

If such regressive sentiments can sway voters in America and Britain, two of the most advanced and democratic countries in the world, you cannot expect better from voters in poor countries, including Nepal.  

But regression is not the way forward. Voters, be aware: You get that you vote for. America has Trump to deal with, Britain has the slumping pound and the slowing economy, and Nepal has its venal leaders and abiding poverty.

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