A historic but deeply divided mandate
The 2016 US presidential election, probably the longest political reality show in the world, finally reached its dramatic climax on Wednesday and will put Donald Trump in the White House. With sub-plots, twists, and turns that would strain even the credibility of a Bollywood potboiler, the curtains came down on, perhaps, the most contentious and vicious hustings in the history of the US. In the end, it was not so much a contest to determine who was the more popular candidate, but rather a competition to see who was less unpopular; it was, as one political commentator mused, “a race to the bottom”. The winner was merely just a little less unacceptable than the loser.
Nonetheless, Trump’s victory is historic. He is the first silver-spooned political novice, who has never held any public office in his life, to win the presidential election. In fact, Trump was only the second presidential candidate in the 160-year history of the Republican Party never to have served in any public or political office (the other was the 1940 nominee, Wendell Willkie, a lawyer and corporate executive who lost the election to Franklin D. Roosevelt by a wide margin).
Although Trump comfortably won the Electoral College votes, Hillary Clinton is projected to win the popular vote by the narrowest of margins, reflecting a deeply divided country and mandate. In fact, not only is the country divided, but even the triumphant Republican party is split, with the traditional elite publicly opposed to Trump while the grassroots members have overwhelmingly supported the real-estate mogul. While pundits had predicted a civil war within the Republican Party, the victory has put that on hold for now. However, the deep divisions are likely to resurface and will be most apparent in the relationship between President Trump and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan.
Yet, based on the outcome of seats, for the first time since 1928, the Republicans will control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. This will potentially give them the opportunity to determine not only the composition of the Supreme Court, but also make significant policy shifts, even though many of these will not have the support of nearly half the US population. This, in turn, is likely to exacerbate the existing national divisions.
There are two possible explanations for Trump’s victory: one global and the other domestic. At the global level, the Trump phenomenon is part of the growing trend of isolationism and narrow nationalism, which is a reaction to the globalization process that the world has witnessed since the end of the Cold War. The Trump victory is merely the biggest wave in the populist isolationist tsunami that saw the success of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Like Brexit, the electorate was swayed not by facts but by feelings, emotions and the promise of a nebulous better and brighter future.
At the domestic level, experts note that Trump also benefited from the growing trend of populations to migrate and concentrate in areas with politically like-minded people. Thus, Republican and Democrat voters chose to move to states and even areas within states where people similar to them lived. This, on the one hand, dramatically reduced the number of so-called swing or purple states to a handful (experts point out that in the 1960 election, as many as 37 states were swing states). On the other hand, such singularly dominant political constituencies (exacerbated by gerrymandering of voting districts) has increased the political divide, as monochromatic population pockets see no need and make no effort to bridge differences with those who oppose them.
At the same time Trumps’ victory was also supported by Clinton’s inability to attract minority voters—African-Americans, Hispanics and others—who had all voted for President Barack Obama. Even more telling, Clinton was also unable to hold on to those white voters in swing states that had voted for Obama; almost all of them turned to Trump. Clinton’s defeat is likely to bring into the open the latent tussle within the Democratic Party.
There are two possible scenarios of how a Trump presidency might unfold. In the first scenario, Trump would seek to reconcile with the Republican Party leadership and reach out to some of the most respected and accomplished policymakers within the party to fill his cabinet. This would allow him to provide broad political direction but step back from the day-to-day running of the country and leave it to the experts. This model would be similar to the Ronald Reagan presidency who appointed some of the best and brightest policymakers (such as George Schultz and James Baker) to carry out his agenda.
The second scenario would see Trump remain estranged or even at loggerheads with the Republican Party. Such an unreconciled Trump might not turn to the party’s talent pool but might look elsewhere. In this case, he is likely to reach out either to family members or others in his close circle who are likely to be political novices like him. Such a kitchen cabinet might put his administration in direct conflict with the Republican-held Congress and might bog down his agenda.
It remains to be seen which of these two scenarios comes into being, but the indications, at least from Trump’s running of the campaign and his personality, are that he might opt for the second. That would serve neither those who voted for him nor the country well.
W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation.