In 2014, two years before the last US presidential election, Lord Robin Renwick, former British ambassador to SA and the US, published a book. Time has not smiled kindly on the slim work Ready for Hillary?, and even less so on its subtitle: Portrait of a President in Waiting.
However, in the few days remaining before the 2020 election Trump and opponent Joe Biden, and hundreds of millions of campaign dollars, will be concentrated on just five or six states, the so-called swing states, where the presidential election will be determined via the arcane electoral college.
Even the staunchest admirers of the US shake their collective heads in disbelief. Although about 160-million voters are registered in the vast country, only about 40-million vote in the states that really matter: Ohio (8.07-million registered voters), Wisconsin (3.5-million), Pennsylvania (9-million), Michigan (8.06-million) and Florida (14.06-million). And with razor-thin margins likely in each, a relative handful of voters could — absent a landslide — tip the outcome.
All of these states — bar Florida — sit in the so-called Rust Belt of the US, a swathe of places that have experienced rapid deindustrialisation, outsourcing of jobs to cheaper labour markets in Asia, and the replacement of third industrial revolution work such as the old-style car plants in Detroit, to fourth industrial era new technology firms such as Tesla, which makes electric cars in California and China.
The blowback against globalisation reflected in the shift of both work and votes was the underwritten back story to the last US election. Precisely for this reason, in the Renwick book for example, there is no reference in its pages or index to Donald Trump, the unlikely winner of the contest. Now, arguably, the counterargument — the return of nationalism, autarky and “beggar thy neighbour” protectionism and the severance of global supply chains — is probably oversold.
Trump was the bullhorn who ventilated the frustrations of left-behind workers in the Rust Belt — long ignored or taken for granted by their natural party of affiliation, the Democrats. When in the run-up to the last election Clinton referred at a fundraiser to the grievance voters who supported Trump as “a basket of deplorables” it is now easy to see how such elite disparagement did her in. It is even easier to now cast Clinton as the worst possible candidate to defeat Trump.
In the current contest, given the choice between a mendacious incumbent, who has not managed to reindustrialise the heartland and has calamitously mishandled the coronavirus, and a mediocre challenger like Biden, the polls price in a probable Biden win. He excites fewer negatives than the polarising Clinton.
However, there is a connection between the concentration of so much time, candidate energy and campaign dollars on a handful of states — an intense example of localism in action — and the likely contours of foreign policy choices after the election, even assuming a Democrat returns to the White House.
While a huge amount of attention has focused on Trump’s indecorous behaviour and narcissistic bombast, less focus is applied to how much leeway any president has in foreign policy and how constrained he often is in domestic matters.
For all Trump’s swagger he has not “built that wall and got Mexico to pay for it”. He has not replaced Obamacare (though he has gutted aspects of it). Nor has he raised the minimum wage, or delivered paid maternity leave for working mothers in the private sector. And his $1-trillion promise of infrastructure build remains unmet. Of huge significance is his appointment of conservative federal and supreme court judges. But for many of his kitchen table promises he needed the support of an unavailing US Congress.
However the likely arc of foreign policy, where any president has much greater freedom of action than in domestic matters, Trump has changed the mould in ways that will have an impact on the world long after he has departed, whether it is within weeks or another four years. And here there is a direct connection between those Rust Belt voters and the decisions that matter to the world, including SA.
Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist whose parents were South African, last weekend lamented the absence from the presidential debate of any mention by either candidate “of a single African state”. But this continent was in good company: not a word was uttered about Brexit, the EU, Syria or France. However, China got plenty of mentions. And the new normal in the US today, across its bitter divides, is growing hostility to the world’s second-biggest economy and rising superpower.
In 2012 Biden, as vice-president, acted as a warm host when China’s president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, visited the US. In 2020 he denounced his one-time guest in unvarnished terms: “This is a guy who is a thug.” There is a broad menu of choices for Democrats and Republicans alike: China’s repression at home, coercion in the region and its transformation from a cautious “hide and bide” foreign posture to a far more aggressive stance in the world.
Former Obama Asia adviser Evan Mederios summed up the US response today, and that likely into the future, as a transition from “balancing co-operation and competition to competition and confrontation”. And for those Rust Belt voters, the issues of market access for US firms in China and the theft of US intellectual property rights and the job losses involved are key concerns.
And while our country and continent have not received a nanosecond of attention in the presidential election this year, a journal forum convened of Democratic candidates by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019 provided direct insights.
For candidate Biden, Africa provided an opportunity to “demonstrate the American model of democracy and economic development”. But in contrast to his boilerplate pieties, his then rival and now vice-presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, was far more explicit. She wrote: “There are so many important interests at stake in Africa, from bolstering global security to fostering shared prosperity. The US must engage now and build strong diplomatic and economic partnerships with those nations, or illiberal countries such as China and Russia will fill the gap.”
SA is, of course, closely aligned to those two “illiberal countries”, flagged by the likely next US vice-president as a danger to US interests. The US and China are heating up a hitherto cold war. It will be an interesting dynamic how a new US administration — even if the next president disavows the isolationism and ill manners of Trumpism — reacts to countries such as our own who move in lockstep with China and Russia.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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