Donald Trump’s victory is no ordinary shock. For once the word seismic is merited. On the domestic front, it was a rejection of the US establishment personified by Hillary Clinton — in much the same way Mr Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination closed the book on the Bush era.
For a country seething with resentment at Washington’s oligarchic ways, there could be no more tempting piñatas than America’s leading dynasties. The Clintons and the Bushes are now over. Mr Trump’s victory also marks a sharp break from more than 70 years of American global leadership, a role he has railed against for decades. Having launched a hostile takeover of the Republican party, Mr Trump has now pulled off the same with the US federal government. Democracy’s capacity to surprise apart, Mr Trump’s win signals a disruption of almost everything the world has taken for granted about America.
Tuesday night’s first casualties are the bipartisan elites that have run the country for decades. This is as true of the Republican Party as the Democrats. Virtually every leading light of the George W Bush administration, barring Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, signed a letter dismissing Mr Trump as “recklessly irresponsible”.
So too did Mr Trump’s rivals for his party’s nomination. Ted Cruz, the runner up, described him as a pathological liar. “The man is utterly amoral,” said Mr Cruz. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, said Mr Trump was an “erratic individual” who could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, described Mr Trump as “extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America”. On election day the Bush family revealed it had not voted for Mr Trump.
At the height of the campaign, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, refused to appear on stage with his party’s nominee, describing his comments on women as “sickening”. And so on. Far from an outlier, Hillary Clinton’s view of Mr Trump as “psychologically unfit” to govern was bang in line with Republican conventional wisdom. America either did not care or was not listening.
Much has already been said about how pollsters, the chattering classes and so many others could have so badly misread America’s mood. The clues were hidden in plain sight. For years, a majority of Americans have said they believed the country is on the wrong track and that their children will be worse off than they are. Such un-American pessimism has been building up since the start of the century.
In a very different form, Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was a dramatic sign that the US craved radical change. Mr Obama will leave office with relatively high personal likeability ratings. But Tuesday’s vote was a repudiation of his political legacy.
The median US household will emerge from eight years of Mr Obama’s presidency with a lower income than when it started. That is precisely what happened under Mr Bush — the first time the US middle class had ended a business cycle poorer than where it began. Moreover, the average life expectancy of white blue collar males — Mr Trump’s most vocal voting block, and also its angriest — has been declining since the start of the century. The gap between the average lifespan of America’s richest and poorest income deciles has more than doubled over the past generation. There can be no graver measure of inequality than this. Rising suicide rates, an opioid epidemic and broken post-industrial communities are critical ingredients of Mr Trump’s hostile takeover.
Clinton’s watershed mistake
His victory was also propelled by America’s growing racial, geographic and educational divides. Much like the populist wave that delivered the presidency to Andrew Jackson in 1828, Mr Trump’s support coalesced around a shared hatred of elites. Its foundation was people without college degrees, who live in small towns and rural America and who are largely white and disproportionately male. Given the xenophobic tone of Mr Trump’s campaign, it would be easy to echo Mrs Clinton’s description of them as “deplorable” — a watershed mistake in her remote and disconnected campaign.
Yet Mr Trump’s electorate also included people who voted for Mr Obama and a surprisingly large ratio of Hispanic voters. Most people had assumed Latinos would be universally repulsed by Mr Trump’s denigration of illegal immigrants from Mexico. They may have overlooked the degree of resentment that those who entered the country legally — and paid their dues — feel towards those who came in through the back door. They also made the error of lumping Hispanics into one group.
The same applies to women. Along with the media, the US establishment projected its assumptions on to the female vote, much of which was clearly as scornful of political correctness as blue collar males.
So what happens now? Mr Trump will enter office as the most powerful US president in recent memory. This is not just because Republicans control both chambers of Congress. It is also because Mr Trump speaks for his party in a way no other elected Republican can claim to do so. That applies particularly to Mr Ryan, whose small-government philosophy bears as little resemblance to Mr Trump’s populist nationalism as Mrs Clinton’s progressive agenda.
The one point on which Mr Trump’s agenda unites with Republican conventional wisdom is on sweeping tax cuts. He promised a historically large reduction in personal and corporate tax rates that Congress is very likely to enact. He also vowed to nominate pro-life names to the US Supreme Court. That too will meet with his party’s approval.
The election as vice-president of Mike Pence, one of America’s most prominent Christian conservatives, will cement Mr Trump’s ties with the party’s evangelical supporters. Republicans will also agree on abolishing Obamacare, overhauling the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform — possibly scrapping it — and other measures. If Senate Democrats choose to filibuster bills they dislike, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, could invoke the “nuclear option” that would enable him to pass non-budget bills with a simple majority.
But in many ways Mr Trump’s economic vision is a big departure from Republican orthodoxy. His fiscal plans, such as they are, will add $10tn to the US public debt over the next several years, according to the conservative Tax Policy Foundation. Mr Trump’s economic advisers, led by Stephen Moore, the former Wall Street Journal journalist, and Larry Kudlow, the television anchor, care little for fiscal conservatism. Their agenda is a far bigger version of the supply-side tax-cutting of Ronald Reagan’s era.
Add to that Mr Trump’s big spending plans on infrastructure, and his seminal promise to leave US entitlement spending untouched, and you arrive at a recipe for a large jump in the US fiscal deficit. Many economists forecast Mr Trump’s large stimulus will lead to a short-term boom followed by a recession. His agenda will also drastically complicate the US Federal Reserve’s widely expected decision to increase interest rates at its next meeting in December. Much like the Bank of England following Brexit, the Fed will be faced with a conundrum of market panic and unpredictable effects on growth. It may be hard to push ahead now with its expected move.
Moreover, Mr Trump promised on the campaign trail to fire Janet Yellen, chair of the Fed. He also threatened to renegotiate US sovereign obligations. Whatever Mr Trump says in the coming days — whether he seeks to reassure or signal full steam ahead — could send markets spiralling in opposite directions. There is no precedent for this.
’Mother of all power struggles’
The same applies to Mr Trump’s plans for the rest of the world. Many will be hoping that the Manhattan billionaire was simply posturing on the campaign trail for populist effect. They are almost certainly wrong. As Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has shown, Mr Trump has held isolationist views for almost three decades. In 1987 he paid $95,000 to take out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times fulminating against America’s freeriding allies and claiming the US was being fleeced by Japan. Substitute China for the latter and Mr Trump’s mercantilist message is little changed today. The US trade agenda as we know it is dead.
Mr Trump will walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Parallel negotiations with Europe will also almost certainly die. On top of these shocks, Mr Trump will have the powers as president to pull the US out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and impose steep duties on imports from China and Mexico. Again, it remains to be seen whether he will carry out these threats. The mere prospect will be disruptive to the global order.
It will also turn Washington upside down. More than anything, Mr Trump’s “America first” agenda undercuts both the Republican and Democratic worldview. American exceptionalism — the notion that the US has a unique responsibility to uphold global order and spread universal values — will be replaced by a crude version of Nixonian transactionalism. This will pit Mr Trump against America’s closest allies, Washington’s bipartisan elites and the military-industrial complex. Anyone who predicts how this will turn out is shooting in the dark.
“What we are about to see is the mother of all power struggles in Washington,” says Mr Wright. “It is not just Republicans; the Pentagon will also play a big role as the top brass try to convince the president-elect of the necessity of alliances.”
Among other promises, Mr Trump has said he will walk away from the Paris climate change deal, renegotiate Mr Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and extend the hand of friendship to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Ukraine’s aspirations may be an early casualty of Mr Trump’s administration. Nato will also come into question.
’I love the poorly educated’
Could Mr Trump have a change of heart? Much of the answer to that will be revealed in who he nominates for senior roles. Expect Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, and Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker, to take big roles. All three are political pugilists who share Mr Trump’s distaste for the ancien regime.
The uncertain consequences of a Trump administration will be on display weeks before he takes his oath of office. Later this month he will take the defence stand in court in a class action suit against Trump University. There is no parallel to this in US history. There are more than 70 pending suits against various Trump businesses, according to a USA Today analysis. Mr Trump’s ability to influence the law — his power over the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other key law enforcement agencies — poses a conflict of interest without precedent in US history.
The last 18 months have been a vertiginous ride. Mr Trump has torn up the rule book, shown a middle finger to the US establishment and promised that he alone can fix America’s problems. “I love the poorly educated,” was perhaps his most telling line on the path to power.
On Tuesday night, Mr Trump brought America’s educated elites crashing down to earth. He ended the night by extending an olive branch to the half of America that voted against him. The future of the republic may depend on whether he was sincere.
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