Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

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FM Edition:

Finally, America has its own gargoyle-like Jacob Zuma in Donald Trump — a soufflé-haired punchline with a casual indifference to the truth, hoisted to an unlikely success on a populist wave of incoherent bigoted prejudice.

An illustration on the cover of The New Yorker best summed up the visceral reaction to the election of the 70-year-old TV celebrity, as a man reads a newspaper bearing the lament: "Oh Sweet Jesus Please God, No. Anything But That. Come On".

This echoes the sentiments of many on a rainy December day in Polokwane in 2007, when Zuma outfoxed Thabo Mbeki to ascend to the ANC presidency, laying the platform for his elevation to the presidency of the country 15 months later.

Like Trump, Zuma had ridden to power on a current of populist anger at the "establishment", "the elite" (or "clever blacks") and stale politics. Like Trump’s rise, Zuma’s ascent had been discounted by the experts, who said he’d been too politically damaged by the Schabir Shaik trial (2004-2005), his rape trial (2005- 2006) and the small matter of 783 corruption charges (2007-2008 and, just perhaps, not yet finalised).

Yet none of it mattered — just as none of the lewd behaviour, racism, misogyny, transparent lies, or bungled performances in the presidential candidates’ debates mattered for Trump.

Zuma’s supporters included Zwelinzima Vavi, Mathews Phosa and Julius Malema, who hailed Zuma as an "anti-establishment" messiah destined to reinvigorate the "revolution". All smart people, they somehow failed to interrogate how a man who had shown he manifestly couldn’t govern his own desires should be mandated to govern a country of 51m people. Today, it’s pretty clear the only "revolution" has happened in the coffers of a single family in Saxonwold.

Today, Vavi, Phosa and Malema speak of Zuma like spurned lovers, with a simmering rage at their own credulity. This is the fate that awaits Trump’s shills, the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie.

To be fair, they probably didn’t believe he would be elected. Trump seemed such an obvious buffoon, a narcissistic financial prodigal, that he seemed unelectable. This is a braggart who, pressed for policies by Hillary Clinton during one debate, offered the vague promise that "I’m going to cut taxes, bigly".

His promises were outlandish: he promised a "beautiful wall" with Mexico, he promised to tear up trade deals, recant on climate-change agreements (and his tax plan had a gaping, unexplained US$2.9bn hole).

Still, here we are. So what is most likely to happen?

Mercifully, not much, if Zuma’s presidency is any clue. Trump, like Zuma, is a populist prone to promising the earth and will soon clash with the institutions of the constitutional democracy that have been created precisely to prevent someone like him abusing power.

Fingers crossed

Prospect magazine points out that there may be another reason why Trump won’t get anything done — implying a further similarity between him and Zuma. "His appetite is less for power than for celebrity and a kind of louche high-living," it said. (In other words, less damaging policy, more Nkandla-style excess.)

Governing is tedious and unglamorous. Add in Trump’s "impatience, boredom with process, and notoriously thin skin, and he could find himself outmanoeuvred, outclassed — and out of office, either after a single term or, should he overstep his bounds, via impeachment," the magazine said.

Fortunately, "little in his history indicates either ideological mission or even a serious work ethic".

We could say the same about Zuma. Imagine the damage an industrious Zuma with any conviction for the job could have done. It surely would have dwarfed the odd unfathomable act of naked self-interest, like firing Nhlanhla Nene.

Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian who spoke at the Discovery Leadership conference this week, described the ingredients that spur populism, which include a backlash against immigration, inequality, a struggling economy, and perceptions of corruption.

But he added that while Trump and Brexit suggest the northern hemisphere is only now getting its dose of populist leaders, the southern hemisphere states (in Latin America, say) have had their fill. They now want real policies again, not crowd-pleasing guff. Let’s hope he’s right, rather than simply grasping at straws.

The choice of Zuma’s successor will be illuminating in assessing whether this is indeed the case.