Donald J. Trump has ended his US presidential campaign as he began it: suggesting the improbable, doubling down when challenged and riding the left-field approach to victory. It has not been an edifying sight. Not in living memory has a more crucial election been fought more bitterly on less substantive grounds. But being the 45th president of the US is an altogether different proposition from being a presidential candidate. Come 20 January 2017, substance will matter—for the US and for the world.
There has been speculation that cooler, more seasoned heads within the Republican Party will rein him in on crucial policy issues. There is little evidence to support this. He has run his campaign not just against the Democrats but against the Republican establishment. His success in blowing up the status quo sends a clear message to the party. Many in it have already caved; only a few have suggested that they will have the spine to stand up to him. Indeed, their retaining both Houses of the US Congress means the legislature could end up rubber-stamping much of what the executive does.
This will strengthen Trump’s hand, in particular, when it comes to the foreign policy issues that shape America’s role in the world—an area where the president’s executive powers are already at their greatest. Nor does he have an experienced foreign policy team around him. The majority of area experts and academics—including former Republican officials—have come out against his policy prescriptions, such as they are. This has left him with a threadbare team—and, in his words, his “gut instinct”.
This will be of particular concern to the European Union (EU). The one global leader with whom Trump seems to have established a rapport is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Conversely, he has more than hinted that he holds little regard for the framework that has defined the post-World War II US-Western Europe relationship. From his perspective, the US’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies are moochers living large on the US taxpayer’s dollar. It is within his executive powers to walk away from NATO. This may well present an EU, already in the throes of the existential angst triggered by Brexit, with serious questions regarding a Russia that, under Putin, views its national security interests extending at least to the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.
Trump could display similar heterodoxy when it comes to Asia. Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership and pivot to Asia must both be assumed to now be dead in the water. Trump has appeared dismissive on record of China’s South China Sea misadventures. Further, he has suggested that Japan and South Korea both acquire nuclear weapons to see to their own security. For decades, the US has been a net guarantor of security in Asia. Any change in that role will see Asian states—including India—jockeying to reorient themselves.
But to those who voted for Trump, such matters are of little concern. Trump’s greatest significance lies in his being a barometer of their concerns and disenchantment. In The Power of the Powerless, 1978, political thinker Václav Havel wrote eloquently of the shallowness of the powerless citizen’s obedience to his overlords—and of the precarious nature of political power when he decides to rebel. From Brexit to the rise of the far right in Europe to Trump, this rebellion, simmering since 2008’s financial crisis, is under way.
Globalization has failed these citizens; they are its losers and they have not been recompensed. To them, it doesn’t matter that Trump’s proposed trade protectionism will be good for no one, including them. Or that his economic policies—big spending paired with tax cuts, bringing back manufacturing jobs to the US, a supposed doubling of the growth rate and not even a whiff of reforming entitlement spending—dwell in the realm of the fantastical. They saw an opportunity to “drain the swamp”—cleanse Washington DC of what they perceive to be a corrupt, out-of-touch elite—and they have taken it. In Financial Times’ Edward Luce’s words, they have sent a suicide bomber to Washington.
Certainly, there are uglier sentiments at play as well. Many of Trump’s stated followers belong to Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables”, driven by racism and xenophobia. It is difficult to scrub all indications of a backlash against two terms of an African-American president from the consolidation of the white vote for Trump. But to pretend that is the entire story would be to display the same lack of connection with reality that had nearly every poll predicting a comfortable Clinton victory. And the high-handedness of the Democrat Party establishment, amply on display in leaked emails and elsewhere, only lent impetus to the anti-establishment insurrection.
The New Right of the 1970s and 1980s hewed conservative socially but hung its hat on classically liberal economics. This coming of the New Right across the Western world has retreated en masse from that economic model. In the process, it has started to threaten the post-World War II liberal internationalist order—one that pooled obligations and benefits via the World Trade Organization, climate pacts and the like—and the public good it creates. The overseers of that order must bear much of the responsibility for this withdrawal into isolationism. A Trump presidency is the comeuppance.
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