Trump’s election has been a rare if not a unique phenomenon. But in one sense it was logically coherent with the history making changes that are taking place in the world in which both the international and domestic orders have been under challenge reflecting and affecting much instability specially in the Islamic world.
The West is under threat from this instability in the form of refugees and terrorism. And it is also under challenge, on one hand from rival rising powers constraining the West’s ability to dominate the world as before, and on the other by globalisation that has created social discontent and income inequality leaving the lower classes behind.
So the class consciousness has reached the Western shores — first in Europe and now in the US where the white and the uneducated among the lower classes have felt victimised and excluded at the hands of forces they do not understand prompting them to look for scapegoats. In times like this when foreign countries and foreigners are taking away your factories, jobs and personal security there has been rise of xenophobia, especially Muslim phobia, inciting a sentiment of whites only at home and America first abroad.
It is the economic anxiety caused by global and domestic forces on one hand and threat to security from terrorism from the Islamic world on the other that Trump successfully tapped into. And he also nourished the nostalgia for the original white identity of America and a yearning for some strongman who could be tough with the terrorists and the countries that were taking advantage of the US.
But these perceptions have not engulfed the whole country nor is Trump phenomenon all about white supremacy and racism though he did incite as well as benefited from it.
Trump himself most likely did not share his supporters’ mindset that he knew was based largely on bias and ignorance but appropriated their opinions as his own. He said what his base wanted to hear and made them believe that these were his own views thus creating an illusion he spoke for them. He said it “as it is”, people thought, and that made him look honest and authentic.
It was a very clever strategy. But Trump could not have done it without Bernie Sanders, who led an intellectual movement to highlight the crisis in the elite led American democracy, and the earlier Occupy Wall Street movementagainst the one per cent. No wonder many of the educated white, women, blacks and Latinos including some traditional Democratic Party voters also ended up supporting Trump.
Different people thus voted for Trump for different reasons but one theme was common. They were all supporting him to overthrow a system that they felt had let them down. They thought they were launching a revolution or at least a reform movement. Trump fomented their belief that politicians and politics had failed them. It enhanced his image as a nonpolitician and by extension sunk Hillary’s who was successfully demonised by his supporters as part of the elite based system. This is what the chants of “lock her up” were all about.
Yet it is a measure of how divided this country has become that rarely in American history has one seen a President elect being the object of so much adulation among his supporters and such intense dislike among his opponents. His supporters put their faith in his call to arms against an unfair system and his opponents looked at him as an affront to some of the core values of US democracy and norms of human decency.
Important thing is how is he going to deliver on his promises? His focus will be on domestic issues specially on economy on which his solutions are those favoured by the corporate and conservative America for decades. The billionaires he has chosen for his cabinet will take care of that. It is their governance philosophy he will bring to his office. And his foreign policy also may come to focus on economy as indicted by his choice of the Secretary of State whose main task perhaps may well turn out to be economic diplomacy.
That means Trump and his billionaire cabinet colleagues are not going to break any china by starting trade wars or repudiating existing trade deals. Global disorder is not good for the US economy nor is instability good for profit. And he may not after all throw out millions of Mexicans. It will cause an economic chaos in America.
He will try to deliver on his promises not necessarily by addressing the issues he spoke about in the campaign. He knows the solutions favoured by his base are not going to work. He cannot bring the manufacturing jobs back but he can perhaps create new jobs in infra structure. And that might be good enough for his supporters.
As for the foreign policy he will be tough on Iran and very pro Israel like the hardline faction of the Republican Party. And will have zero tolerance toward terrorism. He will drive a hard bargain in negotiations with other countries and give no quarter to America’s enemies like the IS. But he will be flexible on broader strategic issues making deals wherever he can to advance US national interests.
He has made sure to appoint people to the cabinet positions who share his world view. He is therefore likely to leave the institutions to handle much of the foreign policy. He will remain in charge of the rhetoric but the policy will rest with the institutions. The rhetoric and reality of the foreign policy under Trump will thus collide as he would continue to say weird things. But that is only to keep his base intact whose support he needs for reelection. It was a magic if not sorcery that he won and he does not want to break the spell. In any case, as a narcissist he has an irrepressible urge to speak and seek attention. He will thus continue to live as a candidate.
The candidate and the President Trump will thus deal with two Americas — the Trump country and the larger America. All four will live side by side as an interesting foursome. And if Trump manages to do some good for America and also keep loyalty of his base he will have largely succeeded for himself and the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 22nd, 2016.