Reflections on Trump’s Victory: How Come and What Follows

S W R de A Samarasinghe,  of Tulane University, Washington DC, courtesy of The Island, 11 November 2016, with the title   What Trump’s victory means for US and rest of the world

US President-elect Donald Trump described his presidential campaign as a “Movement” and not the usual party fight between Republicans and Democrats. The poltical pundits did not take him seriously. He broke almost all the rules of the US campaign rulebook and won. Trump and Hillary Clinton each have polled about 59.5 million of the popular vote while Trump has won the 538 Electoral College vote 299.5 to 238.5. Trump’s “Movement” mainly consisted of white blue-collar middle class voters drawn from suburbs, and small towns and rural residents. In contrast Clinton’s support came mainly from a coalition that consisted of more educated and more prosperous white middle class suburbs, and racial minorities mostly from the big cities.


Many deemed Clinton to be untrustworthy. She found it hard to relate to the average voter. However, she was considered to be a very qualified candidate and she ran a normal campaign. Trump was the polar opposite. He was crass in his style, blamed the media for biased coverage, and claimed that the electoral system was rigged. His track record in personal behavior ranging from alleged sexual assault on women, insulting women, religious bigotry, racist remarks, mocking of a disabled reporter to dismissing war heroes was such that anybody but Trump would have lost public favour instantly. In the case of Trump nothing disqualified him. Exit polls show that many who found him to be unqualified and repugnant in many ways still voted for him. In effect they were voting not so much for Trump the person but for something he promised to do if elected, and that was to “change” the way business was done in Washington.

The election campaign was full or rancor and recrimination. Trump in his election rallies almost always referred to “Crooked Hillary” who was unfit for the presidency and encouraged his supporter at meetings to shout “lock her up.” Clinton and Obama described Trump as temperamentally unsuited, ethically compromised and experientially unprepared to hold the office of presidency.

Results:  In the last two weeks before the election date, most national polls were tight but Clinton had an average lead of around 4% points. Statistically these polls had a plus or minus 4% point margin of error. Thus the polls were generally accurate because the total national vote for each candidate at the time of this writing was about 59.5 million with some more votes yet to be counted. But the crucial difference was in the southeastern state of Florida (29 Electoral College votes) and the “Rust Belt” Midwest states of Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10) and the northeastern state of Pennsylvania (20). Clinton was expected to win Florida by a narrow margin with the help of Hispanic voters (20% of the population) and African Americans (17%). But Trump won by 1% point thanks to doing better than expected with the Hispanics and an unusually high turnout of white voters from small towns and rural areas who strongly supported him.

Even if Clinton had lost Florida she could have yet won the election with the help of the three Rust Belt states. They have been reliably democratic with large blue-collar populations and significant African American populations in the larger cities. Obama won all three comfortably in 2008 by 10% points or more and in 2012 by 5% points or more. All three have been home to traditional industries such as steel and coal but have now fallen on hard times as these industries moved out of USA under globalization. Trump appealed to the Rust Belt voters by promising to bring back the industries that they have lost if elected. They were also receptive to Trump’s rhetoric of “Making America Great Again” that hinted at restoring the dominance of the whites in a country where racial diversity has increased in the last three decades bringing down the white population from 83% in 1980 to 61% today. Trump’s message produced the result that he desired. Trump had created a new coalition of voters in these states largely consisting of disaffected white blue-collar workers and small town and rural conservative white voters. Trump won Wisconsin and Pennsylvania each by a margin of about 1% point and Michigan by a mere 0.2% point. That made the pathway to Trump’s presidency.

Post Election Rhetoric: All parties concerned spoke many conciliatory words after the results were announced. Trump as the victor addressing his supporters in the early hours of Wednesday talked of the need to bring the country together. Clinton gave a concession speech on Wednesday mid-morning acknowledging that Trump was the president of all Americans and he must be given a chance to lead. Obama addressing the nation a little later stressed that while elections produced winners and losers, all were Americans that must work together. He promised to facilitate a smooth transition over the next two months. While these are soothing words the fact is that the election exposed very deep divisions in US society along race and class lines. It will not be easy to heal these divisions unless there is compromise involving all parties and interest groups. The results of the elections largely point in the opposite direction.

Republican Control: With the victory of Trump Republicans now control the White House as well as the Senate and the House of Representatives. This makes it easier to pass legislation. In the bitterly partisan atmosphere that currently prevails in Washington the Republicans can steamroll legislation with little regard for Democratic (opposition) view.

Republicans who prefer conservative Supreme Court judges now also have a chance to appoint one judge almost immediately to fill an existing vacancy and tilt the third arm of government in a conservative direction five to four. They may also have a chance to appoint at least one more Supreme Judge in the next four years assuring a conservative court for one or two decades. This was a major consideration that made some conservative voters support Trump.

If Trump brings into his cabinet and other senior positions some individuals with Democratic leanings it may help build some bipartisan trust and cooperation in Washington. However, we have to expect a Republican dominated agenda at least in the next two years until fresh Congressional elections are held in 2018.

Changing Course: The post election rhetoric may be soothing to the ear. But the reality will be more turbulent and challenging over the next four years. Obama considers his health insurance reform and agreement with the Iranians on getting the latter to compromise on the nuclear weapons program in return for lifting sanctions against the country as two of his signature achievements. Trump has promised to tear up both on his first day in office.

Obama worked hard to get 195 countries to sign off on the Convention on Climate Change (Paris Agreement) in December 2015. Trump, who considers climate change to be hoax that the Chinese have perpetrated, has threatened to withdraw support for the Paris Agreement. USA currently has about 12 million undocumented immigrants. Obama initiated some key steps towards resolving the problem. Trump has promised to expel them and build a wall on the Southern border paid for by Mexico. The Mexican president has publicly rejected the idea.

Economic Policy: Trump has described Obama’s economic policies to be a colossal failure and the US economy to be very weak. The fact is that following the great recession of 2008, the economy has recovered and added 15 million new jobs. The current unemployment rate is below 5%. In 2005 household median income rose by 5.2% for the first time after 2007. Trump’s declared policy, which is the same as that of the Republicans for the last 35 years since President Reagan, is to cut corporate and personal income taxes in the hope of encouraging private investment. Tax cuts will largely benefit the rich. But the trickle down theory that underpins this approach usually fails to produce the expected growth and jobs. This policy is bound to disappoint the average middle class voter that supported Trump.

Obama and the Republicans have had broad agreement that free trade agreements are mutually beneficial to USA and other partner countries. Trump rejects free trade and wants to impose high tariffs on Mexican and Chinese imports.

Foreign Policy: NATO is the major institution of the US led western security alliance. It is enormously beneficial to USA. Trump has made a remark that suggests that he may not defend NATO allies against Russian incursions. He has demanded that other NATO members should pay more for the maintenance of the Alliance. He also wants the US led coalition to leave Syria giving Russia a free hand in that country. There is bipartisan agreement in Washington against nuclear proliferation. Trump has suggested that there would be no harm if countries such as Japan and Saudi Arabia were to acquire nuclear weapons for their own defense. He considers waterboarding that is a form of torture in international law as an acceptable interrogation technique and promised to support even harsher methods. He has said that families of terrorists were fair collateral damage when fighting ISIS and other such enemies of USA. We may also soon see the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that will make the rightwing Netanyahu administration in Israel happy but further alienate the Palestinians and Arab States.

Powers of President: We must not exaggerate President Trump’s capacity and power to do what he pleases. First, US has a strong and well-established constitutional system of governance and a strong set of institutions that no president can ride over roughshod. In the foreign policy and national security front, while US is the sole superpower there are countervailing forces ranging from accepted international rules and norms to other major powers including EU, Russia, and China, that will keep Trump in check. In other words “realism” will be a check on an imprudent President Trump.

Systemic Reform: Finally, the US election brings to attention a more fundamental issue with global ramifications. After World War II the global system that combined market capitalism and liberal democracy under the leadership of USA worked reasonably well for USA and many other countries and for a large segment of the populations of those countries. US has tirelessly pushed for the adoption of this model everywhere. This is the dominant model that prevails in Europe, Asia, and Latin America and in parts Africa with each country or region adding its own unique features to suit local conditions. However, the fundamentals are the same. Brexit, the growth of a nativist nationalism and the far right in countries such as France, Germany, Austria and Poland in Europe and now the US presidential election results that reveal deep socio-economic class and racial divisions in USA call into question the viability of this model as it exits. I do not see a completely different model that is capable of replacing it. However, the current system is not viable, mainly because it denies a sizable segment of society the fruits of progress. In USA a significant percentage of the voters for Trump came from this segment. They rejected Clinton as the symbol of the establishment and believed that Trump would make a difference and alleviate their condition.

In principle Trump has the opportunity to build a grand coalition of the less privileged cutting across race and traditional party affiliation. I doubt that Trump has such a vision and even if he has it would go against many of the traditional beliefs of the Republicans. Had Clinton won such a grand collation would have been a real possibility because Democratic beliefs and policies are more in accord with such a vision. What we are likely to witness in the next few years is a Republican Party that struggles to find a fresh framework under Trump and a Democratic Party that seeks a new political philosophy to help bring back its traditional coalition of the working class and liberal middle class.

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ALSO  NOTE: Greg Sheridan: “hypocrisy of Dumping on Pumped-up Trump” ... The Australian, 17 November 2016

AND Mangala’s Reading …

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