Yesterday we woke to the news that the United States of America has chosen a new president: Donald Trump.

By Jonathan Havercroft, Associate Professor in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.

What happened?

As was the case with the 2015 UK General Election and the Brexit Referendum many of the pollsters and pundits were wrong in their projections that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. Presidency. I include myself in that camp, so there is no gloating from me over the outcome.

All I will say is that the rise of polling aggregation websites such as has created a bit of over confidence in the general public (and political junkies in particular) about how predictive polls can be. I am not an expert in survey research methods, but all of my professional colleagues who are tend to be far more cautious about making predictions as they are well aware that polls, and even aggregates of polls can go wrong.

Figuring out exactly how Donald Trump pulled off this upset is a bit simpler. Looking at where he did well at the state and county level in the U.S. shows that he overwhelmingly won white, noncollege educated voters in places such as the upper Midwest (states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin). While these voters have been trending towards the Republican Party for some time, Obama was able to keep enough of them in his electoral coalition to win twice. Enough of them broke for Donald Trump in key swing states that he was able to carve out an electoral college win.

What does this mean?

As has been the case since Donald Trump announced his candidacy, conventional political wisdom has often been wrong. Despite significant cynicism among voters, politicians do often at least try to keep their major campaign promises. In Trump’s case, despite his often overthetop rhetoric, he has been remarkably consistent about what he wanted to if he won the election. Let’s review his core promises.

“Build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it”

It is still difficult for me to imagine how Trump will persuade Mexico to pay for his proposed border wall (short of potentially threatening Mexico with the United States’ military might), but I do believe that it is likely that one of his first goals will be to ask Congress to fund the construction of a wall.

Implicit in this promise was also a plan to for stricter immigration. While he did waffle throughout the campaign about what exactly this would mean, at different points he did promise to prevent all Muslims from entering the U.S., and engage in mass deportations of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Again campaign rhetoric will quickly run into questions of cost and feasibility, but there is no doubt that Trump and the Republican Party will take his win as a mandate to crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration.

Trade Protectionism

The region where Trump pulled off his upset is often referred to as the “Rustbelt”. It is the part of the U.S. that has experienced the most significant deindustrialization over the last 40 years. Many members of the working class in these regions have lost their high-paying unionised jobs in steel factories and car plants as companies have moved their manufacturing facilities to other countries with lower wages.

Trump has promised to tear up unpopular trade deals such as NAFTA (a trade deal often closely associated with the Clintons) and get better deals. Again, what such better deals entail was never fully spelled out. But a Trump Presidency coming on the heels of a Brexit vote clearly signals that the era of free trade and low tariffs is nearing an end. From a UK perspective, suddenly needing potential trade partners, the timing of the rise of protectionism in the U.S. could not be worse.

Skepticism towards NATO and Military Alliances

While Trump promised to “defeat ISIS”, again his campaign never offered any coherent explanation of how they would do this. Aside from escalating the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, most of Trumps other foreign policy promises were decidedly isolationist.

He frequently signaled that he would seek détente with Russian President Vladimir Putin; and he indicated at several points a desire to rework the NATO alliance, going so far as in one interview to claim that he might not come to the aid of a NATO ally that was being attacked.

This is dangerous for a few reasons. First NATO, and other collective security arrangements, rely on the premise that “an attack against one member state is an attack on all member states”. This is intended to create a credible commitment between all members that will deter potential adversaries from invading any country. If the most powerful member in the alliance (the U.S.) signals that it no longer would be willing to come to the defence of a European ally, members of the alliance could be left defenseless against rival states.

As Russia has already invaded and annexed a portion of the Crimea, many states in Eastern Europe are concerned that a breakdown of NATO could leave them vulnerable to a Russian invasion. Secondly, if Trump does begin to withdraw the U.S. from its international alliances in both Europe and the Asia Pacific, it is not clear who or what fills the void. Does this election signal the end of U.S. hegemony in military affairs, and the rise of some new multipolar regime where every state (including the UK) must go it on its own?

Possible Attacks on the Rule of Law

One of the reasons this campaign was so nasty was because of the personal nature of Donald Trump’s attacks on his political opponents. At different times during the campaign he attacked the independence of judges (threatening one judge who was overseeing a lawsuit against him) and threatening to rewrite U.S. libel laws to make it easier for him and other public figures to sue media outlets for negative coverage.

Most jarring of all was his threat to lock up Hillary Clinton if she lost. The controversy over the handling of State Department emails has dogged her during the course of the Presidential campaign, yet despite several investigations, no one has been able to produce evidence that Clinton has committed a crime. Yet central to Trump’s closing argument during the campaign was a promise the “drain the swamp”.

Trump and the Republicans today find themselves in control of both Houses of Congress, and in a position to swing the balance of power on the Supreme Court to a conservative majority. Americans are fond of praising their governmental system as one built on checks and balances designed to prevent tyranny. But we find a President Elect today who is openly disdainful of the rule of law, without any other branch likely to check any attempt he might make to overstep his authority.

While it seems absurd, it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that Trump and the Republicans might use this victory to fulfill their campaign promise to prosecute Clinton and her political enemies. President Obama may have to use his Presidential power of the pardon (much as President Ford pardoned President Nixon after Watergate) in order to prevent a constitutional crisis over whether victor of an election can use the powers of the executive branch to punish the loser.

How dark is it?

This is a hard question to answer. If we take Trump at his word and look at his mandate, he is in a position to implement much of his platform if elected. Obviously there are ways for political opponents to resist these actions through both legal avenues and protests, yet all of the most effective levers are in the hands of Trump.

During the course of the Presidential campaign, many on the left openly asked if Trump was a fascist, and occasionally went so far as to compare him to Mussolini or Hitler. I think that this strategy (one that the Clinton campaign played into by trying to brand Trump as unfit for office) backfired. The danger of comparing Trump to the worst figures of the 20th Century is that if he does not seem as bad as them the accuser ends up seeming histrionic.

I think a more interesting, and perhaps disturbing possibility, is that the liberal consensus of respect for the rule of law, commitment to global free trade, free movement of peoples, and collective security between democratic nations, might have been exceptional; and democratic authoritarianism (i.e. popularly elected leaders who reject the rule of law and liberalism) might be more common.

President Erdogan of Turkey, President Putin of Russia, and Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy are all recent examples of right wing populists who have exercised power in this way. Rather than being a deviation from the norm, the victory of Trump might be viewed as a rejection of the liberal consensus that has governed the U.S. and much of Western Europe since the end of World War II. Coming on the heels of a Brexit vote that was very much fueled by similar sentiments, and the rise of right wing populist movements on the continent, it is worth reflecting on why so many voters are rejecting the liberalism that Westerns have taken for granted for much of the last century.

Justice Obama?

By Dr Russell Bentley, Associate Professor in Political Theory and Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education) at the University of Southampton.


It will never happen, but the question was put directly to Hillary Clinton by a voter in Iowa: if elected president, would she consider nominating Barack Obama for a seat on the Supreme Court? It isn’t an idle question. Nominations to the Supreme Court might be the sleeper issue in the 2016 presidential race. Three, possibly four current justices could retire during the next president’s first term. On a court that so frequently breaks 5-4 on issues that traditionally divide conservatives and liberals, appointing even one or two new justices could define the character of the Court for a generation. Appointing three or four? The constitutional implications could be profound.

Confirming Obama would be an interesting spectacle, to say the least. The only former president to serve on the Court was William Howard Taft, who was nominated to be Chief Justice in 1921 and received Senate confirmation with ease (only four nay votes out of sixty-four). The practical considerations of nominating Obama would certainly be more fraught. The modern Senate is not the place that confirmed Taft. Lengthy and occasionally inquisitorial hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee confront any nominee. Witnesses are called and a kind of prosecutorial grand-standing typically characterises the event. Since we have every reason to assume that Republicans will retain control of the Senate, that simple majority could be the insurmountable obstacle for nominee Obama – which further assumes that the nomination survives the committee stage. Practically, then, this suggestion is dead from the start. Some will surely cling to the idea that he is especially qualified, nonetheless. There is sometimes a suggestion that he would be an appealing nominee because of that Harvard Law Review background and the law professor style. This hardly makes him different from the rest of the Court, however. There are currently five justices with a Harvard education (three from Yale and one from Columbia).

Nevertheless, the prospect of Justice Obama makes an interesting thought experiment. What kind of justice would he be? Advocates of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights (or simply, and more accurately, “civil rights”) could rejoice that a president who had steered America away from the dark days of “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act (both legacies of Bill Clinton’s years in office) would now be sitting on the highest court. Those who thought they would never see a major health care reform bill make it out of Congress might also rejoice. Obama can be congratulated for marshalling support for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and for getting it signed before Republican majorities took over both houses of Congress. He can also be congratulated that the Supreme Court upheld key provisions of the ACA (twice – in NFIB v. Sibelius and King v. Burwell). He might be congratulated a bit less, though, since the bill that became the ACA bore much more resemblance to Hillary Clinton’s health care proposals in 2008 than the plan on which Obama campaigned that year. Nevertheless, with a Justice Obama on the bench, the Affordable Care Act would likely see off any future challenges.

Happy days, then, if this sounds like your kind of progressive legislation. However, Obama inherited a fairly awful foreign policy situation from George W. Bush. Besides the era of endless war that Bush’s disastrous doctrines and policies ushered in, he also greatly expanded the scope of executive authority. Obama has dismantled none of that and, arguably, has taken it to new levels. Under Obama, the worst kept secret is that the United States engages in an Oval Office-directed programme of assassinations through the use of drones. Cloaked in language about targeting suspected terrorists, the US launches what are called signature strikes. These are targeted killings of individuals whose signature behaviours and other indirect evidence suggest that they are dangerous militants. The individuals in question may not be known to the drone operators, but their behaviours provoke the appropriate suspicions, so to speak. The programme is reported to have killed many innocent people. It has said to have killed four US citizens. The programme has raised more than a few legal questions and criticism has not been muted.

Less happy days, then, if this does not sound like your kind of progressivism. Justice Obama would be a friend of the executive branch if any challenges to presidential privilege were to make it to the court. Moreover, the phrase “extrajudicial killing”, which is what the drone programme does, is a somewhat curious piece of baggage to bring into the judicial branch. Hillary Clinton, no doubt facetiously, responded to the Iowa voter that getting Obama on the Supreme Court would be a great idea. Maybe that would be the dish served cold, her revenge for a first-term senator denying her the Democratic nomination that she had been preparing to accept at least since the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Obama was less warm to the suggestion of joining the highest court.

Many Democrats are already wearing rose-tinted spectacles for the Obama years. The domestic legacy is held up as monumental. The foreign policy legacy and the never-ending war that calls for a never-ending commander-in-chief mode of presidency – well, the accolades fade out on those points. It is difficult to say if we should be grateful that Obama is not interested in joining the Court. The presidency has been transformed practically beyond recognition since the 9/11 attacks. No one in the executive branch has really had to give an account of themselves since then. Obama appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee might be the open airing of some unflattering history that the US sorely needs. However, Justice Obama will never be.

Bernie v. The Establishment

By Dr Russell Bentley, Associate Professor in Political Theory and Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education) at the University of Southampton.


Bernie Sanders should have done much worse in the Iowa caucuses. He should have been respectably ahead of O’Malley, which he was, but not within a hair of Clinton. The pollsters had noticed that he was improving his chances as the race developed, but this is not the outcome the pollsters were expecting. It certainly was not the outcome Hillary Clinton was expecting.

The Democratic nomination is quickly shaping up to be a very curious contest – not between Clinton and Sanders, but between Sanders and Clinton as a personification of The Establishment. Clinton is acquiring the unenviable position of being the Democratic version of the thing Republicans have been railing against at least since the emergence of the Tea Party movement: status quo politics in Washington. Sanders gave an extraordinary almost-victory speech after the Iowa results were announced and, early into that speech, he managed numerous references to “the establishment” – political, economic, media, perhaps anyone or anything that is not formally allied with the Sanders campaign.

Sanders is the insurgency candidate from the American left (not to be confused with the European left). He is the Democratic candidate who was an independent until recently, who had to join the Democratic Party well after declaring his candidacy for the party’s nomination. There was a bit of stupid talk some months ago about Hillary Clinton having supported the 1964 Goldwater campaign while Bernie was busy fighting for civil rights. The chatter – a moment of social media over-excitement – was meant to suggest that she is really a DINO, a Democrat in name only. The truth is, however, that she has been working within the Democratic Party for so long that she is one of its elite members and chief influencers. For an insurgency campaign like Sanders’, she is the perfect foil for his message. Whatever she has done, whatever she has had to do to get ahead in the party over nearly fifty years has made her the poster child for that amorphous thing that is just called The Establishment. Good ideas, practical policies, realisable goals, a capacity to get things done – Clinton can demonstrate them all. But a success under each heading ends up making her even more visibly the personification of The Establishment.

At the beginning of the campaign, when Clinton first announced, it all looked to be going her way. She was unbeatable. When the expectation is decisive victory, anything less is defeat. Sanders only had to meet expectations, but he romped ahead of them and did so by redirecting the campaign towards a debate about what The Establishment stands for and what the American people stand for. Clinton becomes a placeholder in that Sanders-driven narrative. Can she shake it off? The odds are against her in New Hampshire, the next chance that voters have to express a preference. After her upset in 2008, however, we should expect The Establishment to strike back with vigour and to keep this contest alive well through Super Tuesday and beyond.