What the Trump Victory Means for America and the World
Now that the unexpected has become a reality with Donald Trump’s election as the forty-fifth president of the United States, it is imperative that we learn from the experience and interpret its meaning. A lot hinges upon our ability to tame emotion and carefully analyze what just happened.
Rejection of the Status Quo
Donald Trump’s decisive victory is a clear rejection of the status quo. Contrary to what the most immediate emotion might suggest, Mr. Trump’s victory cannot be explained away by pointing to bigotry and ulterior instincts alone. In fact, these motives have likely played a contributory role at best. A brief look at the numerical results as well as the states that Mr. Trump won makes it clear that hundreds of thousands of former Obama voters have turned to the banner of Donald Trump. The results further show that the Trump campaign’s victory is largely due to its exceptional performance in the industrial states of the Midwest, also known as the Rust Belt. Mr. Trump’s victory thus cannot be portrayed as a triumph of social conservatives and southern Republicans. It is, instead, the voice of the formerly Democratic blue collar workers and disaffected independents, many of which may not have voted in the past, that put the Republican candidate over the top. Hundreds of thousands of people have rejected the rapid change, whether economic or social, that has changed their lives. Here I also mean the rapid social change of the last few years which has sometimes been ushered in not through electoral victories but through the decisions of a few unelected justices of the Supreme Court. The process as well as the rate at which change, particularly social change, happens, matters more than many realize. That being said, Mr. Trump’s election seems to be more of an expressive, rather than a constructive, rejection of the status quo. One thing is clear. Without a will to listen and learn, we might be in for more. The utter shock and disbelief that reverberates across the (social) media illustrates the degree to which many, particularly on the liberal end of the spectrum, have viewed the renegotiation of the set of values that each and every nation needs to have, as a zero-sum game and opted for a resolute rejection of seemingly outdated, rigid concepts rather than for a gradual, emphatic debate.
Only time will show whether this assessment will hold up but all seems to suggest that American politics have just experienced an important party realignment – it appears that particularly blue collar workers of the industrial Midwest have switched to the Republican party. The reason to think that this switch may not be an ephemeral phenomenon is that it is geographically and socially consistent. States that have supported the Democratic party for decades, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, are for now in the Republican camp. There was a lot of discussion about the Republican party’s potential fracturing. It now appears that it will be the Democratic party which will face considerable tension.
Heightened Polarization, Emboldened Liberal and Conservative Wings of the Two Parties
Indeed, Mr. Trump has repeatedly defied expectations and there are few in his own party who will now find the courage to stand up to him and his brand of politics. In fact, his success might inspire many to follow his example. Voices which consistently argued for free trade, liberal internationalism and greater involvement in global affairs, as well as comprehensive immigration reform will likely be marginalized. It is thus all the more important that those who believe in these principles find the courage to speak up. Importantly however, and this may not be as obvious, the Democratic party’s liberal wing will now fully seize the opportunity and vie for the party’s leadership. The disaffected voters who have supported Donald Trump at the ballot box are in many ways similar to the disaffected voters of the Sanders ilk who will stay with the Democrats. It is needless to say that further polarization will not facilitate the kind of listening, learning, and empathy that will be necessary for the United States to regain its spirit at home and leadership around the world.
Because the liberal wing of the Democratic party will likely be emboldened, the true loser of the 2016 election cycle is the center which, in W. B. Yeats’ words, cannot hold as things fall apart. Here I have in mind the centrist forces which are truly responsible for making America great over the course of its history. These are the forces that recognize the vital importance of liberal democracy, free press, free trade, free speech; forces for which the word compromise is not an epithet. Country club and moderate Republicans of the likes of John Kasich, the Bush family, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and many others may now feel as if their party has profoundly changed. But make no mistake, these center-right voices will not find home in the liberal Democratic party led by Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren. My judgment is that it is these center and center-right forces who can ultimately bring about the necessary compromises which will heal the nation’s divisions and restore its leadership around the globe. The fact that the center comes out of the 2016 election fundamentally weakened is indicative of the amount of effort and time the said healing might take.
The Liberal World Order Under Pressure
As I wrote above, the election of Donald Trump is an expressive, not a constructive rejection of the status quo. This matters greatly not only to America itself but also to the entire liberal world order which has over the last seventy years relied on the United States’ engagement in world affairs. Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested that American alliances around the world may not be a given and his willingness to trade compliments with Vladimir Putin is just as worrying. Although politicians like to speak of historic elections, the truth is that not every election has been irreversibly consequential. The careful student of American and international politics has many reasons to believe that 2016 will be different. But like all forecasts, this article likely contains predictions which will not materialize and which might even sound foolish a few years from now. The one conclusion which I am convinced will hold is the following: it will be the moderate forces capable of learning, listening, and empathy which will ensure a bright future for the United States and the world, not the immoderate wings which both parties are about to embrace.