SUNDAY TIMES - With Trump, as with Malema, fear is the key to poll success
23.20.215.116, 23.20.215.116, 127.0.0.1
Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis By Tony Leon, 2016-02-28

With Trump, as with Malema, fear is the key to poll success

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters in Gaffney, South Carolina February 18, 2016.
Image: JONATHAN ERNST REUTERS

Never underestimate the power of the negative — especially when it comes to election campaigns. Scare tactics often trump logic at the ballot booth.

If you are feeling scratchy after the budget hair shirt our maestro minister of finance had to wear on Wednesday in parliament, look away from these shores for some relief.

I don't want to strike the Jacob Zuma one-note "all our economic pain comes from the world, not from my government" chord. But in the unfolding spectacle of the rapidly escalating primary election contests in the US, there is happy distraction and local relevance.

First, if you don't like our local political leadership crop, just look at the leading contenders hoping to lead the world's superpower, the homeland of global finance and innovation and one of the world's oldest democracies.

On the Republican side, the improbable frontrunner, Donald Trump, is a self-declared misogynist, xenophobe, anti-Islamist, papal-bashing braggart. Yet he taps deep into the psyche and feels the pulse of his party better than any other contender.

The irony is that the party leader stands deeply outside the Republican mainstream on everything from the war in Iraq to Obamacare - he opposes the first and has some appreciation of the latter. He even likes Planned Parenthood, the family planning group that is about as popular with the majority of anti-abortion Republican voters as the statue of Cecil John Rhodes is among local university "fallistas".

And he won big in South Carolina, regarded as the Bush family firewall. In the process he rubbished former president George W and bundled his subprime brother Jeb out of the race entirely.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is consolidating her position as the likely nominee. But there's an extraordinary disconnect between her accomplishments - as a US senator, innovative first lady and secretary of state - and what people think of her.

It's highly complicated: people don't like negative, divisive environments. But they frequently reward them in elections

Although she has policy mastery and actually speaks in perfectly joined-up sentences and not the soundbite rants of Trump, voters viscerally distrust her.

An extraordinary metric from the first primary contest, in New Hampshire, aside from Clinton's big loss there, was an exit poll of Democratic voters. Of those who declared that "trustworthiness" was the most important attribute in a president, 90% chose her opponent, the septuagenarian senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. In Nevada last weekend, Clinton won, but lost again on the "trust" issue by 6-1.

Back at home, last weekend's Good Governance Africa poll suggested that 78.7% of people regard their government as corrupt or incompetent, which doesn't mean that they won't still vote for it.

Actually, Sanders makes Trump seem like a party insider.

He was not even a member of the party he hopes to lead until a few months ago.

The 74-year-old has shattered many assumptions: that a self-declared "socialist" could get so far in a country that apparently worships at the altar of the free market or that an angry old man could be a huge favourite among hip young voters.

The obvious explanation for all this tumult is that "the rage against the machine" trope has relevance not just on South Africa's university campuses or in disruptions in our parliament but across the Atlantic as well.

Someone recently told me that protesting students here or enraged local parliamentarians had much more to complain about than broadly middle-class Americans and their elected representatives.

But when you drill down on some statistics in "the land of the free and the home of the brave", a far less happy and prosperous picture emerges.

Trump and Sanders, and even Clinton, do not appeal to the winners inside their country's magic circle of elites. They all, to varying degrees, understand that real US median income today is $4,000 (about R62,000) below its peak in 2007 and that 49% of Americans believe that the US's "best days are behind us". (The Good Governance Africa poll found that even a higher percentage here have "given up hope that government will listen to them".)

Younger Americans - who typically leave college $35,000 in debt - face, in the words of the Financial Times, "more competition for jobs which they might never find". Most school-leavers here will identify with that.

Trump's greatest supporters are the most pessimistic Americans - working-class whites - and although some certainly are racist, many are simply "people struggling to get by in an economy they no longer understand". Their candidate's solutions, from a trade war with China to building a wall against Mexico, might be madcap. But they resonate.

If you want a tour in crazy economics in South Africa - in contrast to the sober words provided on Wednesday by Pravin Gordhan, surf the EFF's website. It promises free everything, from land to food to new roads. Paid for how? It does not say. Which doesn't really matter, though, to supporters of Julius Malema.

If Trump's symbol is the figurative middle finger, then Malema's is an expletive outrage, not fit for a family newspaper.

Like Trump, he burrows deep into the zeitgeist of the marginalised and the left-behinds.

Professor Achille Mbembe once wrote of the EFF leader: "For those ... who know all too well what it means to experience social humiliation first hand, Julius Malema fills the gaps of disappointment ... his stock has risen in a landscape of ruins."

It might very well be that Malema is caught short in the local government polls, unable to translate his populist fury into votes. Trump, too, might yet be stopped by US Senator Marco Rubio. And Clinton, trust deficit and all, is likely to be both her party nominee and the next US president.

Here at home there was a lot of tut-tutting about the latest disgraceful bouts of behaviour in our parliament and the name-calling and personalised attacks, particularly on President Zuma.

But in South Africa, just as in the US, never underestimate the power of the negative. Whatever high- mindedness our constitution summonses us to perform - as the winners of the American contest will demonstrate - scare tactics resonate. Or, as Clinton's electorally successful husband, Bill, put it: "It's highly complicated: people don't like negative, divisive environments. But they frequently reward them in elections."

Watch the temperature rise further here and in the US to demonstrate the universal truth of that observation.