Ivanka Trump Twitter feed with Donald Trump at HQ as votes come in
© Twitter

The American people have spoken — or perhaps shouted — and nothing is likely to be the same again. Donald Trump’s stunning victory will put US democracy to a test it has not faced since its civil war 150 years ago. Never before has the US elected a president who threatened to jail his opponent, investigate his rivals, sue his female accusers and smash the existing order. Nor has any candidate taken office facing a multitude of civil law suits. The mere fact of Mr Trump’s victory puts him halfway towards obliterating an establishment that was largely united in revulsion at his candidacy.

Only elected Republicans — and non-partisan federal agencies — now stand between Mr Trump and pursuit of his radical agenda, assuming he meant half of what he promised. With both the Senate and the House of Representatives remaining in Republican hands, Mr Trump will effectively control the first two branches of the US government from next January. This will give him huge power to shape the composition of the third branch — the Supreme Court — which is the ultimate defender of the US constitution. America’s ominous military power will be at Mr Trump’s undisputed beck and call.

Whatever hope there is that America’s system of checks and balances will continue to function as normal will hinge on the integrity — and spine — of people who are prepared to make a stand against America’s 45th president. Mr Trump is a relentlessly unforgiving man. But his enmity quickly vanishes towards detractors who fall in line. Just ask Chris Christie, his former rival, who stands a reasonable chance of being nominated as the next US attorney-general. The ebullient governor of New Jersey is precisely the kind of figure Mr Trump could use in that role. Another is Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

Those who see the glass as half full will be praying Mr Trump was posturing to get elected and that he will now morph into a pragmatic businessman who unexpectedly won the presidency. Mr Trump’s biography gives little confidence this is how things will turn out. Like everyone else, politicians should be judged by the friends they keep. Those around Mr Trump, such as Roger Stone, a key henchman, or Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, the hard-right conservative news site, have based their careers on targeting enemies and dirty tricks. George W Bush promised to be a “uniter not a divider”. Although Mr Trump spoke of a united nation in his victory speech, it is hard to take him at face value.

That said, even an unrestrained President Trump would have a hard time carrying out all his promises. Building a wall on the US-Mexico border is technically possible but he cannot force Mexico to pay for it. Firing Janet Yellen as head of the US Federal Reserve is also possible though Mr Trump may be reluctant in practice to trigger a larger markets nosedive than the one which greeted his victory. Walking away from Nato is also within the president’s executive power — as is abandoning Nafta. Time will tell which of these promises Mr Trump wishes to pursue but reality will put some limits on what he can do.

The larger implications of Mr Trump’s election will take a while to sink in. Every pollster in the land misread the US public. By electing a man whom voters knew to be disrespectful of US constitutional niceties, America has dispatched the electoral equivalent of a suicide bomber to Washington. Mr Trump’s mandate is to blow up the system. His forecast of “Brexit times ten” was an understatement. The UK may have cut itself adrift but the consequences of its decision are largely parochial.

The US, on the other hand, is both creator and upholder of the postwar global order. Mr Trump ran on an explicit pledge to walk away from that order. Precisely how he carries out his “America first” agenda is secondary at this point. The US public has sent an unmistakable signal. The rest of the world will act accordingly.

edward.luce@ft.com

Get alerts on Donald Trump when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article