The Straits Times says

Putting populist genie back in bottle

Demonstrators march in Chicago on Nov 12, 2016, to protest the election of US President-elect Donald Trump.PHOTO: AFP

After a bruising presidential campaign which had deeply disturbed many Americans and the United States' global partners and friends, it's reassuring to see how this exceptional nation is drawing on its strengths to recover. The losers are not contesting the verdict and have accepted it with grace, although some protests are visible at grassroots level in some cities. For his part, Mr Donald Trump, who had earlier threatened to jail his Democratic rival if elected, has heaped praise on her for her determination during the race and for her long record of public service. These are positive beginnings because the rifts that have opened in the past months are not mere cracks but potentially major sinkholes in the country's national fabric.

Mr Trump, shortly after claiming victory, said he would rule as a president for all Americans, and he must. He has contributed much to the national polarisation during the past year. Taking jabs at veterans, threatening to wall off America against Mexicans and Muslims, dissing longstanding trade agreements and putative ones, Mr Trump played to the deepest insecurities of Americans. A cynical interpretation is that the billionaire rode the poor man's pony to the top by exploiting populist anger over threats to livelihood, identity and security. The voters he energised with his dire warnings apparently seemed more eager to vote, especially in the states that mattered. Many others simply stayed away.

The politics of fear won big, riding on America's electoral system. Even if Mrs Hillary Clinton won a slight majority of the popular vote (as indicated towards the end of counting), Mr Trump's message appealed to a sizeable section of the population. The net result is a deeply divided nation, captured by contrasting images of euphoric Trump supporters and livid anti-Trump street protesters. In particular, the young, the college-educated and the minorities might not be comfortable with the forthcoming Trump presidency.

Anger, stoked during campaigns, can lead to opposing anger in a vicious circle. Mr Trump ought to recall how during the Vietnam War, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration was encumbered by protesters outside the White House chanting "Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" America will have to dig deeply to prevent discontent from spreading. This could prove a harmful distraction for Mr Trump when he is called upon to pay close attention to the economy and the world order. The Republicans, therefore, should focus on helping to heal the open wounds of the nation and not on rolling back President Barack Obama's legacy. America's capacity to persevere is well known. Its fans admire its openness, commitment to liberty, meritocracy and acceptance of diversity. Its leaders will win over its sceptics by showing they can rise above sharp differences to jointly address the roots of populist anger.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2016, with the headline 'Putting populist genie back in bottle'. Subscribe