Tony Leon: The president-elect might pay little attention to SA or tear up key treaties in order to ‘make America great again

Karl Marx was right and Thomas Friedman was wrong. That’s one of the “huge” — to use one of US president-elect Donald J Trump’s favourite words — consequences of Wednesday’s US electoral earthquake. The politics of class fused with an angry nationalism easily outpolled the promised rewards of globalisation, of which Friedman was an early apostle.

In 1999, Friedman published the holy grail of the brave new world entitled The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalisation. He proclaimed that, ineluctably, national borders, nuclear missiles and trade union protectionism were historical relics.

Silicon Valley in northern California, with its high-tech entrepreneurs and geeky engineers, were the hub and the foot soldiers, respectively, of the new technological frontier. This was the future, and the Rust Belt states straddling the upper northeast — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio — were in decline.

Trump swept through that rust belt with the fury of an avenger on Wednesday.

“The Donald” famously does not read much and apparently has a short attention span. But if a new book were to be written about the tidal wave of changes and forces unleashed on the world, first by Brexit in June and now with Trump’s big win, one might entitle it The Bridge and the Wall.

Back in 1996, when Bill Clinton coasted to an easy victory over the ultimate Republican insider, senator Bob Dole, he promised to build a “bridge to the 21st century” and to overlay it with a fast track of globalisation. This would mean outsourcing old US jobs and importing cheap products. Electrons, not fossil fuels from the Middle East, would bind an interconnected world cemented with trade treaties and not military alliances.

Just three years before that, in 1993, he pushed through Congress — despite strenuous objections from his union supporters — the legislative text of the new age in the form of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. All seemed fair set until the great global recession of 2008, centred on the US housing subprime bubble and breaking the back of the US motor industry in Michigan and elsewhere, swept aside these comfortable, essentially elitist, assumptions. And along with a lot of economic pain and dislocation came a huge distrust of the establishment in Washington and Wall Street.

Whatever else they got right, the globalisation punditocracy got one big thing wrong: the new world they were constructing was extraordinarily light on jobs. Famously, in 2012 when Facebook, which did not exist when Clinton ended his presidency in 2000, bought the photo-sharing site Instagram for $1bn, it employed exactly 13 people. In the same year, when Kodak went bankrupt, it was recorded that in its heyday, it employed 145,000 people.

Anti-Establishment Backlash

The Republicans, unlikely harbingers of radical change, incubated the first iteration of the anti-establishment backlash in the form of the Tea Party, whose rage was also fuelled by the fact that the White House was now occupied by someone of such exotic background, Barack Obama. He was born of a Kenyan father, grew up in Indonesia and was gifted with the middle name Hussein. He might have swept to office as a reaction to the 2008 financial crisis and the hope of change, but a lot of Americans, yearning for past certainty, were deeply discomfited. In her campaign, Hillary Clinton dubbed them the “basket of deplorables”, but they still constitute a majority of the US electorate.

Without inventing a new title, a recently published memoir by JD Vance, who grew up poor, white and rural in the Rust Belt, provided a clue. He gave his tract, which tracks the resentments (and the income and job losses) of the white working class to the elite condescension, the title Hillbilly Elegy.

True, long before the improbable Trump, a billionaire property tycoon with a New York lifestyle of vulgar loucheness, offered to be the voice of these “left behinds”, Ronald Reagan had captured those labelled “Reagan democrats” or blue collar unionists. But he did it with sunny optimism, not snarling rhetoric and insult, and he stuck to the sort of politics of which the Wall Street Journal approved: low taxes, global trade and less government.

Trump not only stands outside the Republican establishment, but other than tax cuts, he tore up their playbook. He has promised massive infrastructure spending, more entitlements to his working-class supporters, to “build a beautiful wall” sealing off the US from Mexico, and to declare a trade war on China.

In the early hours of Wednesday, Trump delivered the greatest political shock since Harry Truman defeated favourite Thomas Dewey in 1948, and redeemed one promise at least: that Tuesday’s presidential election would be “Brexit plus, plus, plus”. Indeed, the isolationist gale that shook the UK out of the EU clearly has a following wind in the US.

That Trump could insult huge swathes of the electorate, from Latinos to gold-star families of fallen soldiers, women and minorities, and still rack up such an impressive win is a wonder of modern populism. And he did it by deconstructing the so-called “blue wall” of impregnably Democratic states in the Rust Belt. This makes him, improbably, the “best darn change agent” of recent times.

Actually, that phrase was used by Bill Clinton to introduce his wife, Hillary, at the Democratic National Convention in August. In fact, as the election cruelly revealed, she was the ultimate insider in a year when, against probability, polls and pundits, the people, like the peasants of yore with their pitchforks (this time with ballots), embraced the Trumpian promise “to drain the swamp in Washington”.

Foreign Policy

Quite how Trump will convert his vague and sweeping election promises into a programme of government remains to be seen. But with the Republicans now in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — from the White House to both houses of Congress — coupled with a sweeping mandate, he starts with the wind behind his back.

This control will also allow Trump and his Senate majority to choose the next justices of the Supreme Court, which means the checks and balances on the presidency are likely to be loosened even further.

Little is known of Trump’s foreign policy intentions beyond his desire to “bomb the s**t out of ISIS” and cancel billions of dollars promised by the US to UN climate change programmes. For the record, president-elect Trump believes global warming is either a “hoax” or caused by, in his view, the currency-manipulating and emissions-offending China.

It is perfectly true that a large corner of ANC insiders in SA have an animus towards the US. The vanquished Hillary Clinton, who has all of her husband’s intelligence but little of his electoral skills, discerned this when she noted the difference between the Mandela era and the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies that followed.

In her memoir, Hard Choices, she observed how Zuma and his predecessor “both harboured suspicions of the West left over from the decades when the US supported the apartheid government as a bulwark against communism in the cold war”.
She described Zuma’s government as “sometimes a frustrating partner”.

Clinton’s understated views are now of interest only to academics, who will trawl through the tea leaves to discern the complexity of the US-SA relationship in times past. Trump, other than one tweet on SA being “a very dangerous place”, has given little if any thought to the region and he has plenty of other priorities crowding his inbox. Whatever interest Obama, for reasons of background, and George W Bush, from a fundamental belief in eradicating the scourge of HIV/AIDS, had in Africa and this region, will very likely be largely absent from the next US administration.

Still, as I know from experience elsewhere in the Americas, diplomats abroad have to put the best gloss on changing events at home. Thus early on Wednesday, and despite his background in Democratic Party politics, US ambassador to SA Patrick Gaspard apparently offered a breakfast bromide to guests at the embassy that “no matter what happens, the bilateral relationship remains strong”.

I seriously wonder about that reassurance — and Gaspard will be gone in two months. SA (and the region) is a huge beneficiary of the recently renewed Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, on which our entire automotive industry, and other sectors, depends. But it is unilateral in favour of the region and reflects an (admittedly) small debit on the mighty US trade account.
Trump’s animating offer to “make America great again” is premised on tearing up, renegotiating or discarding precisely such treaties or agreements.

If I were in the world of diplomacy still, I would fight this corner and watch that space with unrelenting focus. As the planet might soon discover, the forces and tides that swept Trump to such an unlikely victory on Wednesday, might have “huge” consequences for this country, and indeed for the world.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition in SA, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA