Top prize for forecasting Donald Trump’s astounding victory in the US presidential election which wrong-footed the pollsters, both parties, the media and an army of political analysts goes to Michael Moore, provocative left-wing (and anti-Trump) filmmaker. As the campaign entered the home stretch, he argued in a piece titled Five reasons why Trump will win that the election would be determined by “Midwest math”, declaring, “What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here.”
Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall” of defence in the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania would crumble, he predicted, in the face of fury from voters who had lost their jobs as factories had shut down. “From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this is the middle of England [pursuing the Brexit analogy] – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we used to call the middle class.”
He was right. The states that produced the most surprising upheavals and proved decisive in making Trump the 45th President of the United States were those four in the Midwest, which Hillary Clinton’s campaign had all but taken for granted as being on her side.
Trump’s victory poses immediate questions about the direction of US government now. That is partly because of his unpredictability – his hypersensitivity to every slight was laid bare by this bitter, furious campaign – but also because much of what he has said appears to challenge the legitimacy of US institutions and of the rule-based international order that the US has created and upheld.
But beyond that, it raises bigger questions about how to govern a deeply divided country, and whether modern democracies can solve their own problems.
What the results showed
The results revealed a country deeply divided by income, race, age, gender, region and by the rift between metropolitan areas and rural ones. Although every president for the last 24 years has explicitly claimed to set out to address America’s divisions, those divisions are starker than ever.
The results also showed that, as in the UK’s EU referendum, voters’ concerns no longer fit well within the frame of traditional political parties. In this election, Democrats comprehensively lost their traditional base among white working-class men and in rural areas. For Clinton’s supporters, the agonising experience of the night, repeated in state after state, was that the rural vote came in early and was overwhelmingly Republican. The densely populated cities, reporting later, contained far more Democrats – but not enough to swing the result. In hindsight, it is particularly revealing that eight months ago, Clinton lost the Michigan Democratic primary to Bernie Sanders, critic of trade deals and of the “millionaire and billionaire class”, adored by those who felt their jobs and wages had suffered from free trade deals, and by students with burdens of debt and little prospect of buying their own homes.
That change represents a cry of rage from many who are in work but struggling or have lost their jobs that even if the country overall is prospering, they are not. They feel that Washington and government are acting for themselves and big business.
Even if the scale of that anger has taken the world by surprise, its roots lie clearly in the past two decades. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that did not go to plan chipped away at trust in political leadership. They also contributed up to a third (according to the higher end of academic estimates) of the US’s current national debt of almost $19 trillion. The 2008 financial crisis did even more damage – even though the rapid action by the George W Bush and Obama administrations in bailing out banks and key industries enormously mitigated the impact.
The simplest explanation, though, for the rage that many voters feel about the “elites” and governing classes lies in the bald figures of what has happened – or failed to happen – to wages. Real median household income (that is, a measure of average income, after adjusting for inflation) may have grown by more than 5 per cent between 2014 and 2015, but it is still below the levels before 2008 – or even 2000. As Martin Wolf has noted in the Financial Times, it has actually fallen relative to real GDP per head since the mid-1970s. People feel they have not been prospering – and they are right.
It’s another matter whether they – and Trump – attribute that to the right causes, of course. Trump has promised voters, in effect, that he would turn back the clock to an ideal time before globalisation, big trade deals, and the digital revolution. His famous “big, beautiful wall” that he has promised to build along the Mexican border may never be built – it’s hard to see how it could be, and the US has no way to make Mexico pay for it, as he has so often chanted he would do – but it is a symbol of his promise to shut out competition from the world.
No matter that economists line up to argue that trade deals bring prosperity; that is not what individual voters appear to believe. No matter that, as columnist Thomas Friedman put it last week in the New York Times, “Your jobs have gone to a microchip, not to Mexico” – that is, lost to the unstoppable (and desirable) forces of technological advance. Trump’s supporters believe he can shield them from the forces that have done them harm.
Threat to democracy?
Given Trump’s love of improvisation, it is hard to know how much weight to put on what he said on the campaign trail. However, those fearful about his presidency point to statements which appear to reject the premises on which US democracy is based, and also the notion of a rule-based international order.
These include the way he rejected legitimacy of the campaign by “Crooked Hillary”, stirring crowds into a chant of “lock her up” and vowing to investigate her if he won; an apparent graciousness in his victory speech cannot entirely allay those fears. They include his casual treatment of the rights of minorities, the independence of judges, his threats to sue women accusing him of sexual harassment, his description of the media as “bad, bad people” and threatening to circumscribe media freedoms.
He will also be able to shape the Supreme Court, the upholder of the Constitution. The court has been stalled at eight members, as the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to pass President Barack Obama’s nomination for the vacant ninth chair. With the Senate still firmly Republican as well as the House of Representatives, Trump can steer that appointment immediately, and, given the ages of the justices, is likely to have other opportunities within his term of office. That will give him enormous room for manoeuvre; those who point to the checks and balances of the US Constitution as a constraint on him have to consider need to consider nonetheless that when the White House, both houses of Congress, and a majority of the Supreme Court, are members of one party or appointed by it, those constraints are hardly at their strongest.
There are big areas of policy where – even if they do not amount to a fundamental change to the US constitutional arrangements – the changes he has suggested making would be immensely divisive. Those include his apparent distaste for abortion rights (although as the Washington Post noted, he took five positions within three days), and his vowed determination to rip up Obamacare, the healthcare and insurance scheme that is one of Obama’s main achievements. Obama’s legacy is likely to be dramatically weakened by his victory.
The threat he might pose to existing international order – judging simply by his campaign remarks – begins with his apparent hostility to many existing trade deals, including Nafta (the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico). He has it within his executive power to suspend that, many analysts have argued, although he might well have Congress’s support as well. It may extend to reviewing the US’s financial support for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; it certainly does to the US’s financial contribution to NATO (75% of the total bill), which Trump has repeatedly questioned. The country most delighted at Trump’s victory is Russia; among the most worried were the Baltic states, fearful of Russian incursion and placing great weight on their membership of NATO to be a deterrent. It remains to be seen whether he will try to lift international sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Crimea and whether he will support its role in eastern Ukraine.
He has also seemed to question the US’s support for two recent successes of international diplomacy: the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Paris climate change accord. If he does unpick the US’s international commitments in the way he has suggested, it would reverse decades of cooperation in advancing free trade and in acting together to combat security risks. That is why some analysts have pronounced it a milestone in what they see as the decline of American leadership and of the west.
How to govern a divided country
Aside from those immediate calculations, Trump’s victory also raises more profound questions – as does the Brexit vote in the UK continues to do. One is how to govern a divided country, one of the central challenges for politicians now. “For me, speaking as a politician until recently, this is one of the hardest questions,” said one former UK minister.
One answer might be that politicians have to address much more directly than they have done so far the protests of voters who feel “left behind”. In the EU referendum, the Government and the Remain camp campaigned almost entirely on the economy, all but dismissing voters’ anger about immigration, even though that regularly topped the polls. Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England, has astutely written about the particular difficulty for politicians of making an economic case. They may well feel that they can demonstrate that some policy – immigration, say, or free trade, or nuclear power – is good for the country overall. But voters locally may well retort “maybe – but it’s not good for me”. Economics argues for the aggregate effect, but politics often turns on the local and individual.
Politicians may be tempted, then, to offer different remedies to different constituencies (and Scotland and London have asked in different ways if they can have special treatment within a Brexit deal). But if, as in Brexit, politicians are trying to forge a single deal for the entire nation, they may find that voters feel let down by what is offered. There may be a majority for electing Trump, or for leaving the EU – but not for the policies that follow.
And voters may indeed not want to engage deeply with these arguments at all. The dangerous prospect raised by the nature of the US presidential campaign is that people hear only the answers they want, and are not much minded to test their “truthfulness” or indeed to take in facts or arguments that do not fit their world view. This is the bleak vision of an era of “post-truth politics”.
It is striking that traditional media and Clinton’s campaign advertising appear to have had very little discernible effect in changing voters’ views.
Can democracies solve their own problems?
That leads in turn to the question of whether modern democracies are capable of solving the problems that now confront them. Those problems are many-sided. They include ageing populations and the strain this puts on public services and national finances, stalling productivity growth and wages, anger over the way the proceeds of growth are shared between classes, generations and regions, creaking infrastructure and patchy and rigid education systems.
The fear is that the remedies are so politically toxic that any politician proposing them will not be reelected – and so politicians propose only what key constituencies want to hear. When those constituencies are disappointed, as promises prove undeliverable, trust in government and politics declines further.
The answers aren’t simple – but they do exist, and both the Trump presidency and the process of forming a Brexit deal will be a test of whether governments can manage to craft them. They include addressing much more directly than politicians have tended to do the prime concerns of voters, whether immigration or the consequences of free trade. And making a better case for the benefits of free trade in bringing prosperity to the world, and why that benefits people within mature democracies as well as those in emerging economies.
Answers also lie in reminding people of some of the most optimistic features of modern democracies – not least, that we are living through an astonishing revolution in science and technology and that is a product of the innovation of those societies. The benefits of the digital revolution in medicine, transport and energy are only just beginning to be seen.
In the run-up to Tuesday night’s electoral showdown, an advertising campaign teasingly invited viewers to tune in for “America: the finale. After 240 years, see how it all ends!” There have always been times when it has been tempting to pronounce the American system as testing itself to destruction. There was a fashion for that in the 1980s. It is worth remembering, though, that American entrepreneurs and companies then invented the internet, and changed daily life for almost everyone on the planet forever. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, there is plenty of reason for fear about the future shape of US government, but it is too early to pronounce apocalypse now.