Seven takeaways from the victory of Donald Trump

The FT editor assesses the election that shook Washington and the world
Donald Trump will face a sharply divided electorate and has promised a slew of policies that could be tricky to deliver © FT illustration; Getty Images

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The election of Donald Trump has triggered a thousand questions and much soul searching about America and the future of the west. Here are my initial takeaways based on five days in New York, including election night.

1) Cultural and identity politics are the common thread of instability running through the world right now.

From Donald Trump’s triumph to Brexit and the rise of a new caliphate in the Middle East, the tension is likely to get worse before it gets better. In the US, Trump played on middle class and working class fears about immigration and cultural nostalgia for a bygone era in America. He brilliantly exploited anger about political correctness, especially among elites, including the mainstream media. Ultimately, as in Brexit Britain, identity politics may have “trumped” pocketbook politics.

2) The anti-globalisation movement is growing.

Mr Trump’s anti-free trade rhetoric was not challenged by Hillary Clinton. The elites, including the media, have become complacent about globalisation, failing to grasp the importance of defending the postwar liberal order, institutions and treaties which have underpinned growth and prosperity. Illiberal democrats such as Marine Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany will take heart ahead of elections in 2017. Trump has shown that populism is not just framing the debate, it can win. The unthinkable is now possible.

3) The parallels between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan are overdone.

Trump has no previous political experience and he is a creature of reality TV and the moment. By the time he became president, Ronald Reagan had been a two-time governor of California and a trade union organiser in Hollywood. When he won the White House in 1980, Reagan had a political philosophy. He was the political leader of a low-tax, small-government movement. Mr Trump said in his victory speech that he too was head of a movement (not, interestingly, a party), but many of his positions on the economy and foreign policy are incoherent, contradictory and inherently high-risk.

4) There are huge questions about a Trump administration’s foreign policy.

Mr Trump loves to be liked, and his five favourite words are: “The art of the deal”. But a transactional foreign policy which places all bets on personal relationships and negotiating skills — rather than alliances and long-term policy planning — is a source of serious concern in Europe and Asia. His threat to undo the nuclear deal with Iran is high-risk too. In his first two years, he may well face a showdown with North Korea over its nuclear programme. His temperament and judgment will be put to the test.

5) The Democrats are in a terrible state.

They have won the popular vote in six out of the past seven elections, but only won the White House four times. Mrs Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate who failed to motivate voters. If turnout had been a little higher in key states (Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) she could have won. But her decades of public service counted for nothing and Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont, did more damage to her candidacy during the Democratic primary campaign than realised. Now the question is, can the party rebuild — or will it turn to its own Trump-like populist?

6) Fears that the Trump victory heralds the start of illiberal democracy in America are overblown.

Mr Trump is no Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orban, and the US is not Russia or Hungary. Mr Trump must operate within the checks and balances and separation of powers under the US constitution. True, the president has considerable executive power, but America has strong institutions that will act as a counterweight. See my Lunch with James Baker, former chief of staff to Reagan and former secretary of state, and his prescient words of advice on how to read a US election.

7) Trump destroyed two political dynasties (Bush and Clinton) and threatens to blow up Washington.

Now he must show if he is capable of playing a new role: the builder. The real estate mogul and political neophyte defied convention in every respect. He rewrote the rules of campaigning, spent next to nothing on TV advertising and relied on brand Trump and a simple message: “Make America great again.” The business of government will involve much harder choices and priorities. He must work with Congress through the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Mike Pence, his vice-president and a former congressman, will play a leading role, maybe even as influential as Dick Cheney. We know Trump can play showman-in-chief, but he must now show, in terms of temperament and judgment, that he is ready to become commander-in-chief.

Letter in response to this article:

How Trump tendered for the job of Potus / From Neil Fisher

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