This journal goes to press three days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States (and most of its articles were finalised before we knew the result). Mail-in ballots on the West Coast, and provisional ballots throughout the country, are still being counted. It looks certain, however, that Hillary Clinton, not Trump, will win the popular vote by a margin of between one and two percentage points, or somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million votes. So this is the fifth time in American history that the winner of the popular vote has lost the electoral college and therefore the presidency. And it is the second time it has happened in the past five presidential elections. By historical standards, the popular-vote margin was not even especially close: Clinton’s winning margin is on the order of four times larger than Al Gore’s, and Gore won the national vote by a larger margin than Richard Nixon’s over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, or John Kennedy’s over Richard Nixon in 1960.
Beyond any solace of moral vindication that Democrats might cling to, the mismatch between votes and victory is significant because it is tied to the structural reason that Trump won and Clinton lost, offering at least a partial insight into the motivations of Trump’s voters. A complete analysis is not yet available, but Trump won over rural, small-town and working class white voters without a college education, in comparison to Clinton’s more racially mixed and more highly educated urban voters. Or, as others have put it, the losers versus the winners of globalisation.
The designations are relative and somewhat subjective. The plight of American blacks has been bad for centuries, but has gotten steadily better since the 1960s. They credit the Democratic Party for their improvement, and remember that Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the civil rights act of 1964 morphed into a Southern Strategy. Hispanics’ progress has been geographic – their parents or grandparents came to the US for a better life and, though that life remains tough, it is better than what they left behind and they know it. Other minorities – Asians, Jews – are economically natural Republicans, but they smell prejudice and racial fear-mongering, and have the muscle memory to know that the scapegoating of one minority usually ends badly for others. And they, too, are winners of globalisation.
For congressional races, Clinton’s voters are naturally gerrymandered – they are packed more tightly together in urban districts where the preponderance of Democratic votes is wasted. There was also, obviously, a mal-distribution of Democratic voters in the presidential electoral college. Certainly, many Hispanic votes are likewise wasted because of their concentration in California, safely Democratic, and Texas, for now safely Republican.
The difference from Trump voters was therefore at once ethnic, cultural and geographic. Rural, working class and less educated whites are objectively losing out, and certainly feel themselves losers of an economic transformation which benefits vibrant cities to which they cannot move, and which they may associate with changes in the very complexion of American society.
Trump’s campaign appeal was overtly racist, which is not quite the same thing as saying that the anger and motivation of his voters was predominantly racist. It might better be called white-ethnic anxiety, and has to be understood in the context of communities that really feel they are slipping – a slippage that was hinted at in research published more than a year ago that indicated an astonishing rise in white, middle-class mortality, a phenomenon utterly at odds with any comparable wealthy society and more reminiscent of post-Soviet Russia.
The racial subtext of American politics is enduring and difficult. One of its most powerful documents was the speech that Barack Obama gave just over eight years ago when his candidacy was threatened by a racial firestorm ignited by the sermons of the black preacher at the Chicago church that Obama and his family had attended. Obama spoke of the trials and tribulations of American blacks since slavery, but he also expressed a profound empathy for whites such as his grandmother – ‘a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.’ And then he said this:
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Genuine empathy for this resentment has a logical corollary that the conservative party in a two-party system is likely to be racially conservative as well, and the natural home for resentful whites. It follows that the strategic decision to embrace the disaffection of southern whites after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s was not fundamentally culpable. It put Republicans on the wrong side of history – yet, in a two-party system, it could be argued that someone had to be there. Richard Nixon may have done his country a service in siphoning votes from the overtly racist George Wallace without embracing Wallace’s overt racism.
But now Donald Trump has used Wallace language rather than Nixon language, and he has won the presidency. Here the Republican Party is culpable. The ground was laid for Trump in the exploitation of Tea Party rage that was so clearly directed against America’s first black president, in the pursuit of a policy of blanket obstruction throughout his presidency, going so far as to use the credit-worthiness of the United States as a means of extortion for political ends, and in the refusal to repudiate the odious birtherism – a feverish conspiracy theory that the black man in the White House could not be a legitimate president because he was not a real American. Where was the birth certificate? (Ironically, whereas Obama was irrefutably born in the American state of Hawaii, his opponent in the 2008 campaign was in fact born in the Panama Canal Zone.) The most prominent and energetic birther was one Donald Trump.
Many Republican leaders did recoil when it became apparent that Trump would win their party’s nomination for president. Some refused to support him and have maintained that refusal. Most, however, rallied around. And their decision has paid off, for they are about to take control of all three branches of the federal government.
This is another important reason that Trump won. In a polarised country, the decision of the party institutions and its elected officials to back him made it acceptable for many Republican voters who had their doubts, but were driven by animus against the Democrats, to follow suit. Trump was normalised by this Republican support. When some piece of outrageous rhetoric or behaviour drove some of his voters away, the institutional backing of the party allowed them to come back in good conscience.
As did their animus towards Hillary Clinton. A large mystery of this campaign was how a woman whom polling showed to be extremely popular when she finished her service as secretary of state just four years ago could have become such an object of distrust and even hatred.
The post-factual generation of that enmity is at least part of the explanation for how the American system could install a manifestly authoritarian and illiberal candidate into the presidency of the United States. The narrative towards the end had been at least mildly reassuring. Trump’s unfitness extended to the conduct of an even minimally competent campaign. He wasted irreplaceable campaign weeks on such erratic behaviour as attacking, via Twitter, the Muslim parents of a martyred American soldier, smearing a pageant winner who had gained a little weight after he took ownership of the Miss Universe Contest, and threatening to sue more than a dozen women who stepped forward to confirm that he had in fact assaulted them in the manner a 2005 video recording had captured him bragging about. Meanwhile, to fill out a policy platform that included various war crimes, mass deportations, extorting Mexico to finance a great border wall and banning Muslims from the United States, he vowed, dictator-like, to jail Hillary Clinton upon assuming office, and said he would keep America ’in suspense’ about whether he might accept an election defeat. With more generally bizarre behaviour in the three national debates, these statements appeared to destroy his candidacy. Two weeks before the election, polling averages gave Hillary Clinton a lead of more than five percentage points. The system seemed to be working.
And then it didn’t. Part of the normalisation of Trump was the absurd equation of Hillary Clinton’s careless email practices with deep corruption and even criminality. The conventions of media coverage were hard to surmount: if reporters covering the Trump campaign were going to press Donald Trump on the countless bizarre and dangerous statements emitting from his lungs, then the different set of reporters covering the Clinton campaign would have to pursue her about something. Her use of a private email server while secretary of state was the best they could come up with. A small portion of the emails passing through it contained classified information, though the level of secrecy in these was in fact trivial. The system was set up for admittedly frivolous reasons of convenience. But there was zero evidence that she used it to hide anything untoward. That was the conclusion of the FBI Director James Comey who, after his bureau investigated, declared in July that ‘no reasonable prosecutor’ would bring charges based on such evidence. He also said she had been careless with classified communications. The Trump campaign and Republican leaders in Congress expressed fury that the director was letting Clinton off the hook, and it turns out that many FBI agents were angry too, so when a separate investigation (into the bizarre and lurid sexting habits of former congressman Anthony Weiner, who happened to be married to Clinton’s trusted aide Huma Abedin) turned up a computer that seemed to contain more Clinton emails, Comey sent a letter informing Congress that these would be examined as well. This ;was 11 days before the election. Comey’s letter violated decades-old Justice Department guidelines to avoid any statements on ongoing investigations that might affect the outcome of an impending election. If he felt compelled to inform Congress before his anti-Clinton and pro-Trump agents leaked the information, this says a lot about the FBI’s own discipline and carefulness with secrets. In any event, Comey at the time had no idea what new evidence the unexamined computer contained – and the answer turned out to be none. This episode came in the context of a steady drip of Wikileaks’s release of other emails hacked from Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign computers, according to US intelligence agencies, by groups associated with the Russian state, with the aim of interfering in the American election. These leaks revealed that the emailers in question talked and behaved like normal human beings, which is to say that they wrote things that they might not want to see published. Such was the post-factual environment in which Trump’s repeated claims that Hillary Clinton was the most corrupt and criminal candidate in American history, and belonged behind bars, could be taken seriously by many of his supporters.
Earlier this year, the American journalist Anne Applebaum wrote that ‘right now, we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it’. The elections she had in mind were a British vote to leave the EU, the election of Trump as president of the United States, and the election of Marine Le Pen as president of France. Only the third has not yet happened; France votes next year.
In the American case, we now step onto terra incognita – we have not had a genuinely illiberal president in any living person’s memory. Certainly since the Second World War, Democrats and Republicans have conformed to a basic liberal consensus. George W. Bush, notwithstanding his administration’s unilateral impulses, was a liberal internationalist – arguably to a fault. Richard Nixon, though privately an anti-Semite and beset by other personal demons, pursued domestic and international policies well within the mainstream of American politics.
On the eve of Trump’s election, Francis Fukuyama, in conversation with Vox editor Ezra Klein, sounded very worried:
We went through a period like this in the 1930s after the Great Depression where you had a lot of economic distress and a lot of radical policies being pursued, and Germany and Italy went off in this authoritarian direction and the United States chose Franklin Roosevelt – a radical in the context of American politics, but [he] stayed well within the political frame. I think people thought that just reflected a very different kind of American political culture that is deeply democratic and liberal. I think this election year has suggested that maybe we were just lucky back then and there was nothing deeply constraining that kind of move other than just good leadership.
What kind of leadership should we expect from President Trump? There is not much to go on except what he said in the campaign that he would do as president: reverse President Obama’s climate-change regulations, because climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to ruin the US economy; deport 11 million undocumented immigrants (‘humanely’, he has said, but this is a definition of humane that includes breaking up thousands of families); build a great wall with Mexico and extort the Mexican government into paying for it by threatening to cut off remittances and applying other economic pressures; reinstitute torture for terrorist suspects and make it worse than waterboarding because, even if it doesn’t work in terms of intelligence gathering, they deserve it; kill terrorist family members because that is the only effective deterrence against terrorists who are willing to sacrifice their own lives; ban Muslims from entering the United States; if intervening in places like Syria or Iraq against the Islamic State, do it in a smart way for American interests which means, at the very least, seizing the countries’ oil; tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran; take a more transactional approach to the American alliance system, which means, for example, if the Baltic states cannot pay adequately for American defence, then, ‘congratulations, you will be defending yourself’; impose 35% and 45% tariffs on Mexican and Chinese imports; sue the women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual assault; and instruct the anti-trust division of the Justice Department to go after Amazon’s Jeff Bezo, the owner of the Washington Post, because Trump was unhappy with the Post’s coverage of his campaign.
Against this dire programme, there are two thin hopes. First, maybe it was all a kind of grievance theatre for his much-aggrieved followers, and one that we do not need to take seriously as a plan for governing, not least because much of it is logically impossible. Second, President Trump will operate within the institutional checks and balances of the American constitutional system, which will act to restrain excesses.
The first hope requires us to ignore everything we saw and heard over the past 16 months – but who knows? On the second hope, some of the agenda, obviously, constitutes war crimes. The former head of the CIA and various retired generals have stated that America’s spies and soldiers will refuse to carry out such orders. Trump’s first response was: if I order it, they will do it. Then he backed off a little. So maybe that is a fight he would not seek. In more general terms, Congress is in Republican hands. There are elements of this agenda – the trade wars and the abandonment of NATO – that are at odds with Republican consensus. Other elements – the mass deportation of undocumented Hispanics – are at odds with Republicans’ long-term political interest in not permanently alienating the fastest-growing segment of the American population. So Congress could fight him on these issues, although it is not clear why we would expect their calculation of interest and ideology to be any different now that he has won than it was when he was a candidate.
Those campaign promises that fit with the Republican agenda are very likely to be implemented. These include an abrogation of any action against climate change; appointments of conservatives to the Supreme Court; and very significant, regressive tax cuts, which will require draconian cuts to discretionary domestic spending. With countervailing increases in defence spending, these fiscal policies will almost certainly bring a return of massive structural federal-budget deficits. We can also expect in many Republican-controlled states a further restriction of voting rights, under the guise of combatting practically non-existent ‘voter fraud’. These will include measures such as requiring certain forms of photo identification that may sound innocuous but are actually more expensive to acquire in real terms than the notorious poll taxes of the segregated South.
‘Leadership’ is an oft-used and somewhat vacuous mantra, but we are about to understand its more precise meaning by virtue of its absence from the liberal West. As Applebaum perceived, the disintegration of that community predated Trump’s ascent. Institutions such as the EU and NATO may survive, but they are likely to be robbed of credibility and solidarity. Britain’s strong, if prickly, position as a leader of the European Union is finished; it will now spend many years in collective contemplation of its navel, a dispiriting but unavoidable exercise of figuring out the values and technicalities of its new place in Europe and the world. The political dynamic that caused Brexit is the same as that which carried Trump. Certainly, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen all welcomed Brexit because they are positively hostile to the EU. President-elect Trump has expressed similar hostility towards NATO.
Maybe there is enough memory of liberal purpose and recognition of stark interest in individual middle-ranked powers to bridge, selectively, part of the abyss. At the beginning of this century the French parties of left and right cooperated to deny Marine Le Pen’s father the presidency; this required socialists to stifle their distaste for Jacques Chirac. They could do it again. Britain will leave the EU, but a High Court decision has required a greater role for Parliament in setting the terms; since most MPs were against Brexit, perhaps this majority will find a programme for privileging common European hopes over tabloid exploitation of baser fears and resentments in negotiating their departure. Germany will not abandon its destructive anti-Keynesian orthodoxy, but maybe in this era of prolonged crisis German leaders can accept that the harsher forms of austerity are corrosive to what is left of broader European solidarity. The community of Western values will not be enlarged in the foreseeable future; indeed, ‘enlargement’ projects were part of the overreach that led to the current crisis. But NATO has the conventional and nuclear means to defend its members, including Baltic states, and even if the leader of its leading power might be indifferent, treaty obligations mean something.
The military defence of NATO members is easier than restoring their solidarity, and both are lesser challenges compared to two truly existential threats. The first of these is a social, technological and moral threat to capitalist democracy. Brexit and Trump rode the currents of resentment against globalisation; yet globalisation may be only a smaller part of technological transformation that will increase the already huge disparities as autonomy and artificial intelligence devastate the viability of a jobs-based distribution of income. Maybe this nightmare scenario springs from a Luddite failure of imagination about the jobs of the future. But maybe not. As we stand on the cusp of a revolution in driverless automobiles, to take one example, we might consider how many people earn their living as drivers.
The second threat is environmental: catastrophic climate change. Technology in clean energy has advanced more quickly than we could have hoped for a few years ago, and that advancement allowed the presidents of the United States and of the People’s Republic of China to reach a bilateral agreement that was the basis for a truly meaningful Paris agreement. The global-governance challenge, as my colleague Jeffrey Mazo has long argued, was always going to be at least as difficult as the one faced by the founders of the Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. In fact, it is more difficult, because Bretton Woods was among allies, where as China and the US – the world’s leading carbon polluters – are developing a relationship of rivalry, if not enmity.
Bretton Woods required American leadership, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, at least on this threat, such leadership will be absent for the next four years. And four years is a fairly large share of the time that is left to humanity to bend the curve of global emissions downward, before truly catastrophic temperature increases become irreversible. European states, for all their troubles, are not governed by political parties that deny the science of climate change. Perhaps they remain wilful and coherent enough to seek accommodation with China, and other big developing states such as India, to bridge the time until America comes to its senses. There could be geopolitical peril in such accommodation. Yet, if they could pull it off, the Europeans would have performed a worthy historical service and repayment of genuine debt for America’s past sacrifices: the old world stepping forth to the rescue of the new.
Dana Allin is Editor of Survival, and IISS Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs.