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 fivethirtyeight.com 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, non–college 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 over–the–top 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.
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 Trump’s 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.