It is tempting to draw grand narratives from events that happen in different countries and continents, because no two events are ever exactly the same.
There are always little things that come together to produce the stunning electoral outcomes that 2016 has brought, from Nigeria, to Britain, and now to the United States, but the single common thread they share – the election of Muhammadu Buhari, the vote for Britain’s exit from the European Union, and now Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton – is a rejection of the establishment.
Since becoming military head of state right at the end of 1983 and being removed in a coup in 1985, Muhammadu Buhari remained very much outside the political establishment, save for a brief period as head of the Petroleum Trust Fund under Sani Abacha.
Since 1999, he had run for the Presidency a further three times, all without support from the political establishment, but on his fourth attempt, he ran on the platform of the major opposition party, against an incumbent that had all the advantages of a party that had stayed 16 years in power. He came with a message of change, insisted things could be better, and Nigerians decided they had enough. Goodluck Jonathan became the first elected president in Nigeria’s history to lose at the ballot box.
The message of the successful Brexit campaign was much darker. Immigrants and an ‘unaccountable’ EU government in Brussels were to blame for Britain’s woes, and the British public were urged to ‘take back control’ by Pro-Brexit campaigners. Throughout the referendum campaign, hostility toward immigrants and disdain for the opinions of experts about the effects of Brexit were ignored. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove said it best:”This country is tired of experts”. He was proved right, and now it falls to Theresa May to implement an exit from the European Union, subject to parliamentary approval as ruled by the courts.
Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan was very similar to ‘Take Back Control’, and it was just as effective. America was coming to the end of eight years of Barack Obama, and the white majority electorate were ripe for someone to come along and play to their fears. It also helped greatly that Hillary Clinton was the candidate, first of the Democratic establishment, and later of the GOP establishment after Trump had obliterated all their hopefuls on the way to clinching the nomination.
And just like in the case of Brexit and Buhari, the establishment was firmly rejected, despite several scandals involving Trump that would have destroyed every other campaign, and many eloquent advocates for Hillary Clinton.
There are still so many things to unpack from this election. Even though Trump’s history before and during this campaign pointed to an explicit use of racist language and viewpoints, there is still the possibility that his win was not driven majorly by race, but is more about a cultural rebellion by rural America against the elite in the coastal cities, and the fact that all the polling missed the Trump phenomenon is because the political and media elite are based far away from those most likely to most vote for Trump.
One thing that is not in doubt is that this anti-establishment wave is real, and there is no telling when it will end, either. Perhaps all that needs to happen is for these insurgents, having attained power, to fail at governing and trigger a return to the center.
For now, the anti-establishment is very much on the front foot, and it has taken possession of the 2 of the biggest economies in the world. It is important for the establishment to understand what is driving these movements and work to nullify them, or else, it will be a very wild ride.