Interview: “Candidates Are Trying To Outsmart Each Other”

Prof. Emmanuel Yenshu VUBO, Political Sociologist, University of Buea, sizes up the US election campaign after the recent debate between the two main candidates.


You have been watching the evolution of campaign ahead of the November 8, 2016 presidential election in the United States of America. How do you assess the pace after the first public television debate between the main candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

The campaigns have continued to heat up with the candidates trying to outsmart each other in a bid to win more votes as well as optimize the number of states they will win in the up-coming elections. As you know, the elections will not be based on a global sum total for the US as in universal suffrage, but will eventually be a sort of indirect suffrage where each state in the federation will make a choice. It is worthy to note that a state is made up of a number of electoral districts, each making a vote that will be expressed through a grand elector. The outcome will be decided by who arrives first with more than 270 electoral votes on November 8. That is why you have some states referred to as swing states and others battleground states because it is at that level that the outcome will be decided.

After the debate, the contrast between the two candidates has become sharper and more pronounced. This reflects the growing dividing lines between two trends in American politics, namely the traditional politics that emerged after the Civil Rights Movement and the 1968 Revolution. The new role of the US as sole global hegemon at the end of the Cold War is represented by Hillary Clinton and the counter-revolutionary nationalist right wing – not really Republican – by Donald Trump. Personalities and important media outfits who are wary of the country losing the gains of that traditional position are shocked by Trump’s behaviour and lack of knowledge on foreign policy. His atypical stance on several foreign policy issues is pushing some people to vte for Clinton by simply distancing themselves from him or denouncing him outrightly.

USA Today came out forcefully while several important Republican figures saying they will vote for Clinton. On the other side of the spectrum, Trump has continued to appeal to the populace with his crude approach to issues, his hardly veiled negativity towards diversity (race, aliens, religious tolerance, immigration) and his call for an American greatness that will mean near total global disengagement. This means an America that will see transnational corporation return home to provide jobs, withdraw from NATO or cease to provide protection to protégés around the global.

This means an abandonment of the hegemonic position that has come after a long struggle with the former Soviet Union and more recently Russia. It is not his uncouth declarations about people (including his rival) that has sent the establishment closing ranks around Clinton, one would be tempted to think. It is rather the challenge to the establishment position, which he sees as corrupt and the threat that his views pose to that establishment’s view of America. The current campaign is narrowing down to that.

How do you assess the general atmosphere in the campaigns as Election Day draws closer?

The campaign is said to be tight, but each candidate is trying either to stretch a lead in the polls that very recently showed a slight advantage for Clinton or overturn the trends as in the case for Trump. Typical of American elections, personality issues have come to play a critical role, even to the extent of becoming nasty. After several months of public scrutiny of Clinton in relation to her role in attacks on the American diplomatic station in Bengazi, Libya where there was loss of life, her use of a private e-mail server which sort of jeopardized national security, the likelihood of conflict of interest in the management of the Clinton Foundation and her health, cast doubts on her readiness to serve in the highly demanding position of President, the focus has turned on Trump.

There are rising questions about the latter’s own foundation, treatment of women, business records, repeated problems with justice and unwillingness to provide his tax returns. These issues to me are not really reflected in public opinion as the candidates continue to appeal in their own ways as reflected in the polls. I think that the appeal was influenced significantly by the debate that touched significantly on policy issues, but also allowed the candidates to face and answer the personality equation that is echoed in the campaign.

What do you think are the issues through which the electors are judging the candidates and that are highly determinant in the final results?

The first issue on which Americans will vote is the two views of their country. A nation presented as the land of continuous revolution and the other in which the country is seen as a self-contained piece for Americans only (implied in racial terms as WASP maybe, whither the anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner rhetoric and the recent spate of shooting of black people by white police men). Holders of the first position are proud of the election of a black person as President and are working to see that a first woman should be. The holders of the second are tempted by the recent upsurge in extreme right in the West with exclusionist ideologies and even extreme right or the alt-right.

Whether consciously or not, Americans are evolving towards this position. If the likelihood of the second position becomes very high, one is likely to witness an enlargement of the movement that was already restive in the Republican Party right up to the Convention – the Never-Trump. Serious media are already sounding this message. This kind of development was observed in France when Jean-Marie Le Pen of extreme right fame arrived in second position during a first round of voting in the Presidential Elections after Chirac and before Jospin. Politically correct Right and Left voted together against Le Pen. That is the real referendum in this election more than the person of each of the candidates.

The second issue, which is tied to the first, is that of the personality to vote for. It has been misleadingly presented by some media as an election between two bad candidates and the choice between the lesser of two evils. It is unfair to two persons who are active, presenting their worth to the electorate – one as experience and knowledge in public life and the other as business success. The elections will very much be vote between two persons – a first woman with a long experience in public affairs with all its positive and negative sides, and a business magnate with no experience, who promises to change American public life alongside its position in the world. The outcome of that choice will be critical for the US as for the rest of the world.

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