Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Trump’s victory will not ‘ make America great again’

Some years are branded for all time by their political events: 1789, 1848, 1917, 1989. It is too early to add 2016 to that list, or to speculate on the historical significance of a Donald Trump presidency. But Trump’s election itself is the logical culmination of a year that has ended, decisively, an era in the West that began with the end of the Cold War. Liberal internationalism is in retreat, both in politics and in economics. White voters, especially working-class and rural ones, have rejected rule by elite consensus. Nativism, xenophobia, sexism and outright racism have been deployed more openly and effectively than for decades. The United States and its closest ally Britain have turned inwards.
Trump’s election has been widely described as a stunning upset. It is liable to be compared to Brexit. But such a view is difficult to reconcile with the facts. On the eve of the election, Trump was level with Hillary Clinton, or within the margin of error in national polls, and within striking distance in every battleground state. The most influential forecaster, Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight, rated Trump’s chances at 35% or over for much of the past week. A one-in-three shot hardly Leicester City. As with Brexit, the idea that this was a shock result only reveals the extent to which expectations are shaped by wishful thinking.
A victory for bigotry
In this narrow sense, Trump’s win was unlikely but not unexpected. More generally, the fact that Republicans had a strong night isn’t surprising either. Since 1945, there have been ten US presidential elections in which the incumbent party had been in power for two terms or more. In eight of those ten elections, the challenging party won.
Barack Obama is the third consecutive two-term president to be succeeded by a member of the opposite party. But, in so many other ways, this is one of the most bizarre and appalling events in American political history. Donald Trump will be the 45th President, but the first true outsider, with no history of either civilian or military government service.  Six in 10 voters, according to exit polls, regarded him as unqualified for the office. Majorities also doubted his temperament and judgment. Unlike every modern presidential candidate, he did not release his tax returns, and is believed to have paid virtually no income tax at all for the past 20 years.  Trump ran a campaign of open ethnic and religious polarization, targeting Hispanics and Muslims in particular. Perhaps the most unsavoury aspect of all was his sexism embodied in the leaked 2005 video in which he bragged about committing sexual assault. Over 60 million Americans have voted for a candidate who is brazenly racist and sexist.
It is fatuous to absolve these voters of moral responsibility for his election every vote for Trump is on the spectrum from tolerance of racism and sexism to an enthusiastic embrace of those things. His election is, thus, evidence of the enduring extent of bigotry in the US. A narrow majority of white women supported a candidate who has been accused of assault by twenty-four different women.
How we got here
Trump’s election is, rightly, the cause of such dismay that it is tempting, in pondering how we got here, to look not for causal factors but for people and institutions to blame. Such a list might begin with a Republican Party that has, beginning with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, practiced dog-whistle politics and subtle racial polarisation for half a century. In the early stages of the Republican primary, Trump’s rivals refrained from directly attacking him for fear of alienating his voters.
Bernie Sanders and his allies pushed an agenda that was free of Trump’s bigotry but similarly protectionist and anti-internationalist. These outsider candidates of right and left shared the view that globalization, particularly in the form of free-trade deals, has disproportionately benefited the Third World at America’s expense.  Liberal internationalism might have rejoiced in American policies that exported prosperity, but Sanders and Trump, in very different ways, embodied a new, inward-looking nationalism. Trump’s decisive victory in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania depended in part on Sanders supporters who didn’t vote for Clinton.
Others will point to a primary process that rewards ideological extremism, and to the electoral college system, which renders the votes of a majority of Americans meaningless, and concentrates the campaign in a handful of “battleground states”. FBI director James Comey will be accused of having swung the election unfairly, given the extent of Trump’s Rust Belt victory. The media, as usual, is a popular target, for providing Trump free airtime and for its prominent coverage of Clinton’s use of a private email server. But Trump was always going to be the most compelling story of this election and, on the whole, the media did a thorough job of covering his indiscretions. Voters were well aware of Trump’s record of racism, sexism, and dubious financial dealings and elected him anyway.
Instead of scapegoating Comey or the media, Clinton supporters would be better served examining the failings of their party and its candidate. Like Britain’s Labour Party, the Democrats have abandoned their historic base the white working-class in favour of a new coalition of college-educated urban voters, young women and minorities.  Barack Obama’s targeting of the white working-class was central to his successful re-election of 2012. In attempting to preserve the ‘Obama coalition’, the Clinton campaign lacked a coherent strategy to prevent this group from defecting to a Republican who appealed directly to them. Assuming that “demography is destiny”, Democrats believed that the increasing minority share of the electorate guaranteed them victory.
The outsider
How does Donald Trump become President of a country in which Barack Obama has an approval rating in the mid-50s? In large part because the Democrats produced a candidate ill-equipped to beat him. In the year of the outsider in the US and beyond Hillary Clinton was the ultimate insider. Her supporters, including Obama, peddled the absurd claim that she was “the most qualified person ever to run for President” when, in truth, she had performed her various political roles with no particular distinction.
Her reputation for insincerity and opportunism was enhanced by her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and by revelations that the Democratic National Committee had egregiously favoured her in her race with Sanders. Like all supposed ‘Clinton scandals’, her use of a private email server was overplayed by both the media and her opponents, but the original decision and her handling of the fallout spoke to a strange lack of political judgment in a politician with decades of experience.
So did her speeches to Goldman Sachs and other corporations, and her courting of less-than-reputable foreign donors for the Clinton Foundation. Her campaign itself was alarmingly complacent: in Wisconsin, a state that Trump won, she declined to campaign at all, assuming she would win. Clinton represented all that Trump successfully claimed to be running against. At a time when voters show little regard for formal experience, he had a narrative, while she had a resume.
The experience of the Iraq and Afghan wars have led Americans to despise hawkish interventionism. Even though her original support of the Iraq invasion cost her the Democratic nomination in 2008, she continues to be an interventionist. In every sense, Clinton represented the post-Cold War liberal internationalism that voters have rejected in 2016: centrist economics, with broad support for Wall Street and free trade; high levels of immigration of both skilled and unskilled workers; interventionism; and, above all, rule by elite experts.
Clinton’s command of policy detail is as impressive as that of any candidate in recent history, and certainly dwarfed Trump’s, but that almost served to count against her. The Iraq disaster, the financial crisis, and the wage stagnation and economic insecurity caused by deindustralisation have led many voters to distrust elites. It is this that explains the central fracture of the 2016, even more than race: the divide between the college-educated minority and the non-college educated majority.
Finally, Trump was the beneficiary of longer-term changes or decay in American political culture. As long ago as 1982, Gore Vidal said, “As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.”
Trump is, of course, the first reality TV star to be elected President, in an era when politics has become a form of entertainment. Central to reality TV is the fiction that it is unscripted this, as much as a hatred of political correctness, enabled Trump to get away with his many outrageous, false and hateful statements. Every fact-checker found Clinton to be more honest, but it was Trump, a brazen and prodigious liar even by political standards, who was perceived as authentic.
It will be for historians to judge whether the role of race in this election represents cultural decay or consistency. But the nature of the opposition to President Obama from the immediate formation of the Tea Party to birtherism was a prophecy of the open racial polarisation that helped elect Trump.
What lies ahead
In less than three months, Donald Trump will take office as President. It is said of every President that his first task tragically still “his” is to unite the country. Never has this cliché been truer, and never has there been a President less suited to the task. Where Bush was tragedy, Trump may be farce. But Bush had not alienated large swathes of the electorate. Trump’s paradox is expectations: from his opponents and from the media, these will be the lowest conceivable; for his supporters, they will be Trump Tower-high. Some have already imagined what a Trump presidency would look like. The nature of his cabinet appointments will reveal whether we are to expect a fairly conventional Republican administration, or something without precedent. In domestic terms, the most immediate areas of interest or fear are healthcare and the Supreme Court.
Trump’s election vindicates, politically if not morally, the Republican strategy of blocking Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Court’s ninth seat. Trump will restore to the Roberts Court the conservative majority that, among other things, struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, thus easing the suppression of minority votes that contributed to Trump’s election.
Like all Republican candidates, Trump promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as ‘Obama care’. With majorities in both house of Congress, he has no excuse not to. This is likely to be a messy and drawn-out process. In the absence of an alternative plan for universal coverage which Trump has praised as an ideal, but without specifics repealing Obama care could confiscate health insurance from millions who have recently received coverage for the first time.
But with healthcare, as with most areas of policy, it is difficult to know exactly what to expect of Trump. Many have speculated that he is a closet liberal, but it is difficult to see how he would reconcile this with the party that elected him. Others see him as a conventional pro-business Republican, but governing in this way would constitute a betrayal of his working-class base.
One way in which a Trump presidency should cause all of us not just Americans alarm is the environment. He has floated the theory that climate change is a hoax peddled by China, and his likely choice as the head of the Environment Protection Agency, Myron Ebell, is a climate change denier as is Jim Inhofe, the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The real, but insufficient progress on climate change under Obama is likely to be reversed, with horrific consequences.
Trump is unlikely, as some have feared, to be an ally of Russia. The opposition to such a stance within the American national security establishment would be too strong to overcome. But his inward-looking nationalism, under the ‘America First’ slogan, has already terrified those states, beginning with the Baltic republics who, in the post-Cold War era, looked to the US for protection against Moscow. Under Presidents Bush and Obama, Russia has invaded non-NATO states with impunity. Under Trump, there is the incredible prospect of NATO itself falling apart. The question of NATO commitments, and of the American defence of Japan and South Korea, will be an early test of whether the Republican and national security establishments can successfully ‘normalise’ or, in Yes Minister terms, ‘house-train’ Trump.
The decline of America Whatever the actual consequences of his presidency in policy terms, Trump’s election itself has changed both America and the world, not irrevocably but at least for the foreseeable future. Domestically, he has revived the racial politics and ethnic nationalism that sanguine liberals had thought they had defeated in the 20th century. After 9/11, George W Bush said repeatedly that his government was at war with Islamic terrorists, not with Islam itself. Trump, by contrast, has made 3 million Muslim Americans feel unwelcome and unsafe in their own country. His open sexism, and the fact that it was successfully harnessed to defeat the first major-party female candidate, has set the cause of women in American politics back just as it was on the cusp of its most important victory. Hillary Clinton will, eventually, receive immense regard for how close she came, twice, to breaking the “highest glass ceiling”, but it is difficult to see a woman being elected President in the near future. The second half of the post-Cold War era, from the Iraq invasion onwards, has witnessed a progressive decline in America’s standing in the world, a decline only slowed, rather than reversed, by Barack Obama. Trump’s cry of “Make America Great Again” is essentially ironic: he is the first presidential candidate to embrace this decline.
It is this narrowly domestic view of America’s interests, America as competitor rather than leader on the world stage, that animates his trade and foreign policies. That Bernie Sanders adopted a version of this worldview as did Britain’s Brexiteers, and others in Europe underlines how broadly shared it is across the West. White America, like white Britain, has turned inward. Trump’s election symbolises this shift. Yet, for the first time in living memory, Americans have to look abroad to understand their new commander-in-chief. Is he Berlusconi? Or Mussolini? Whatever he turns out to be, his campaign as an authoritarian strongman, trumpeting narrow nationalism, fits right into a world in which Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have centralised power in the name of national interest, in a sharp departure from the heady liberal optimism of the 1990s.  That optimism came out of the American victory in the Cold War of the belief that the US could export free elections and free markets and pay for their defence. Whether President Trump turns out to be an effectual strongman, or merely a clown, his election marks the death of that vision.

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