Donald Trump’s election shook the world as no other event of 2016. His presidency is still four weeks away, so it would be wrong to pass a verdict on it before there is any evidence. Yet the world can be justifiably fearful. Mr Trump’s cabinet picks, an overwhelmingly white male cohort of low tax and small government obsessives, climate change denying oilmen, and career soldiers, add to the dismay. But it is Mr Trump who matters. This week, the president-elect has revived the idea of a ban on Muslims entering the US and has given the green light to a new nuclear arms race. For Americans to choose someone with Mr Trump’s prejudices and instincts remains as outrageous now as it did on 8 November. It will not be hard to stay shocked.
Never before has a candidate tried so hard to make America hate again. That’s why the Trump election was bigger than Brexit, both in itself and because of its global impact. Never before has someone endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan prepared to enter the White House. Never before, if you believe the CIA, has a foreign power intervened so audaciously in a US election. The impact on America itself is already enormous. No elected president has been greeted with more overt hostility, more protests and, perhaps most important of all, more soul searching.
The biggest question for 2017 and beyond is how Mr Trump’s personality, judgment and behaviour will impact and shape America and the way it is governed. Election has not obviously changed him. He remains by turns shameless, impulsive, vain, threatening, slapdash, abusive – and much else. The personality matters; it shapes his judgment. It also matters because he appears to recognise so few boundaries between his private interests and his public responsibilities.
This is one of those moments when those who report politics and analyse policy need to summon fresh rigour to their tasks. Mr Trump’s election will not mean politics as usual. His victory, the election of an authoritarian and demagogue in the world’s most important democracy, has raised fundamental questions of whether America is in some sense falling apart, its historic norms now unsustainable, perhaps to the extent that it is a failed state. Serious people are even asking how far and in what ways it is appropriate to consider Mr Trump a fascist or whether the republic itself can endure.
To ask such questions is not to presuppose that the answer is yes. America is not a failed state. Mr Trump is not a fascist (though it is unnerving even to discuss whether he is a little bit fascist). The US remains one of the most prosperous and innovative places in the world. It is still governed according to the rule of law. It has both a well-educated and a large ageing population – each of which is a seedbed for stability, not revolution. And America is a more serious place, in the best sense, than it can seem from outside. As David Runciman has written, “its frustrations are those of a country where all this is true and yet still things are going wrong”.
But the echoes of the 1930s should be taken seriously. Mr Trump says his nation is broken, corrupt and violent and he is the answer to all three problems. Race remains an often virulent obsession among his supporters. He charged during the campaign that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors,” language drenched in classic antisemitism – as he must surely know. This triggers the question of whether those who voted for him really believed him. What they believed, perhaps, was that he would shake things up in ways that might be good for them and that no other candidate would do.
To reach a verdict on Mr Trump means keeping several once unthinkable questions in mind. One of these is whether Americans truly believe that the US is a place whose institutions no longer provide stable government. Another is whether these institutions have forfeited consent so badly that the people want them overthrown and replaced. A third is whether they genuinely expect Mr Trump is going to do that.
America is certainly not working. Its failings have generated destabilising fears (see graph above). These have in turn produced Mr Trump. He was not a normal candidate. The election was not a normal election. Mr Trump will not be a normal president. It remains to be seen what he does in office. But it is neither honest nor true to pretend that this is the same America as in earlier eras. This is another America, and it has to be judged as such.
Yet rigour also means acknowledging things that point in a different direction. The US stock market is currently surging in the expectation of a big fiscal stimulus in the spring. Though the president-elect’s favourability ratings remain negative – and are far inferior to Barack Obama’s increasingly positive figures – they are clearly narrowing. And a Pew poll this week showed that fewer Democrats now feel angry about the result of the election than expected to, just before it happened. None of this may last. All of it may be transient. But it can’t just be ignored.
Two days before the election, Mr Trump went to an old steel-making community near Pittsburgh. There he told a cheering crowd: “We are going to win the great state of Pennsylvania and we are going to win back the White House … When we win, we are bringing steel back, we are going to bring steel back to Pennsylvania, like it used to be. We are putting our steel workers and our miners back to work. We are.”
Parallels with Brexit
Some bits of that have come true. Mr Trump won Pennsylvania – by 44,000 votes. He won back the White House – though more than 2.8 million more people voted for Mrs Clinton. Other parts, however, were and are lies. It is not true that Mr Trump will be bringing steel back to Pennsylvania like it used to be. He can’t. It is not true that he will be putting steel workers and miners back to work. He won’t.
Most Trump voters were relatively well off, not poor; most of the poorest Americans voted for Mrs Clinton. But blue-collar white workers in swing states like Pennsylvania tipped the election to Mr Trump. Just 80,000 of them in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania made the difference. These voters were fired up that here, at last, was a candidate who took, or said he took, their lives seriously – and who might win.
But that does not mean they believed his promises. The elusive truth about the Trump presidency may be that it rests on a tacit understanding on both sides: that he was telling lies, that his voters knew it; that they were going to vote for him anyway because he would rattle the system; but that they could simultaneously rely on the system to shield them from the worst effects of their reckless choice. In that respect, there may be a parallel with the UK’s Brexit vote.
Two things can nevertheless be said with some confidence. The first is that, even if they do not believe him, Americans have elected their most unpredictable and dangerous president of all time. The second is that Mr Trump will fail in the end, in spite of the damage he does on the way, because he will not be able to satisfy those who swung the vote his way in November. However you look at the possibilities, the Trump presidency makes 2017 a fearful prospect for America and the world.
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