US presidential election 2016

The Trump phenomenon

After a seemingly interminable and increasingly undignified election campaign, the people of the United States will be electing their new president and other office holders tomorrow. Elections and referendums have consequences, and some are graver and more important than others. As the US is the only truly global superpower today, who becomes the next president has worldwide repercussions: in some cases, such as in war zones where the US military is active, the decisions by the next American president could well be the difference between life and death.

Given the topsy-turvy nature of the campaign thus far and Brexit a few months back, I am rather wary of assuming the outcome one way or the other, however Hillary Clinton is still likelier to emerge victorious, according to most polls and projections, despite the recent furore over her e-mails. From the perspective of someone looking at US politics from the outside, the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the next US president fills me with a deep sense of dread. Mr Trump gives the impression that he might start a nuclear war, just because Kim Jong-un sends an unkind tweet at Mr Trump in the middle of the night ridiculing his hair and the size of his hands. Mr Trump is perhaps a far more consequential and dangerous version of Rodrigo Duterte: I’m not sure to whom this comparison is unfair. In any case, so scary! Mrs Clinton, a politician thorough and thorough and the ultimate establishment figure, does not strike me as someone who could be riled by such antics. In international matters, she represents a safe(r) pair of hands. Individual instances of her instinct and decision-making may be questioned, but it would be hard to press a case that she has blundered in the past to the extent of disqualifying her from presidency. If Mrs Clinton were to be elected, then it is another historic occasion, as it would be the first time that a woman is elected as president, and it ought to be recognized and celebrated as such.

Mr Trump’s divisive rhetoric against many groups of people as well as dangerous and incendiary utterances are grotesque and abhorrent, yet they appear quite familiar to observers of European politics, and it is possible to find echoes in the Brexit debate and the rise of the far-right parties across Europe. At the core of the conspiracy narrative is that immigrants are to blame for many of the social and economic woes, which coincides with loss of sovereignty, aided and abetted by the establishment and the mainstream media rigging the system. It may be argued that Mr Trump is appealing to losers: not in the derogatory sense used by the Republican nominee for president, but meaning those who have been adversely affected by the economic upheavals caused by globalization. The brashness and hyperbole with which Mr Trump trumpets his lines might be typically American as seen by Europeans, but the foundations of the narrative are the same in many of the European political parties on the right as already alluded: I am rather surprised when some Europeans and Britons express shock, or worse when they observe the current US presidential election with a smug sense of superiority.

This narrative of anger by Mr Trump is at odds with the broad coalition that I associate with Republicans, be it social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, foreign policy hawks, small-state libertarianism, or proponents of free-trade globalization and deregulation. Mr Trump and his policies do not fall neatly into many of these categories, as far as I can divine from his comments and press reports. His personal life is colourful to say the least and his views on abortion seem to have changed over time; he calls for tax cuts for the rich and deregulation, but he promises to bring back jobs by protectionist measures rather than promoting free trade; and his foreign policy stances are not particularly hawkish, especially towards Russia. I feel quite uncomfortable about social conservatism that seems intent on enforcing quite narrow sets of personal morality and ethics to others using the mechanisms of the state. As for the other characteristics I have listed as typically Republican, such as fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire economics, I may disagree with some and possibly quite strongly, but I find them justifiable and reasonable political positions.

It was astonishing that Mr Trump succeeded in ‘hijacking’ one of the two major parties in the US. There is arguably the case that the same thing happened with the Labour Party in the UK, where an outsider in Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election twice. The Republican primaries were a crowded field, and some of strongest candidates who emerged were feared or hated by the party establishment: Mr Trump and Ted Cruz. On the other hand, the party establishment candidate eventually won in the Democratic nomination in a small field. In a parallel universe, the presidency is contested between Mr Trump and Bernie Sanders. In another parallel universe, it is a contest between Mr Cruz and Mrs Clinton, and in another perhaps a more reasonable Republican and a Democrat without much baggage.

In a primary or first-round contest where there are many participants, having a strong and motivated base counts, even if the ceiling – the maximum possible support a candidate can draw – is too low to win the election at the end. Perhaps the French presidential election in 2002 is a good example, where many candidates put their names forward in the first round, and Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen went through to the second round. The National Front leader came ahead of the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin by a small margin. Mr Chirac won a resounding victory in the second round, or perhaps more accurately, Mr Le Pen was soundly defeated. To be elected in a two-way contest, represent the whole country, and govern in the interest of all, not just some, governments and political leaders usually have to occupy some of the centre ground in order to govern effectively and prepare for re-election: veer too far into one direction, while it may make the base happy, it galvanizes the opposition and alienates the centre.

Whoever emerges victorious will have a tough time unifying the country. The election has been divisive and it seems to be a reflection to the degree that politics have become highly partisan over the past few presidencies. The two candidates have not helped, as they both came with a lot of baggage and skeletons in the cupboard. The biggest issue, should Mr Trump lose, is how to engage with his energized base, some of whom do indeed hold horrible and deplorable views about other people. And if he were to win, how much of the incendiary promises will he keep? This phenomenon is not restricted to the US: those who feel they have been spurned and ignored by the political, economic, social, and media elites have been finding their voice in parties that promote intolerance and divisiveness. Addressing that issue may be the challenge of the next US president and other leaders in the next few years.