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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 48 New Delhi November 19, 2016

US Elections 2016: The Spectacular Triumph of Donald Trump

Monday 21 November 2016

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

The United States and the world have witnessed a ‘revolution’—the spectacular electoral victory of Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, over his Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton, in the race to the White House. Trump pulled off a triumph which almost nobody was able to forecast—the US and the world media, the political pundits and the Washington establishment, not even his own Republican party. Much of the US and the wider world is shell-shocked and wondering what has hit them. There is no doubt that reverberations of this shock victory will continue to roll across the world for weeks, if not months.

Just how did this happen? How was it that a rank political outsider, if not a novice, without any experience of holding high office ever either in Washington or any of the 50 states of the US, has now been catapulted to arguably the most powerful job in the world? Indeed Trump would be the first US President in living memory not to come from the ranks of professional politicians or former five-star Generals. When Trump, a billionaire property tycoon, first announced his candidature for the Presidency way back in February 2015, nobody—virtually nobody, least of all the Republican Party he professedly sought to represent—took him seriously. In fact Trump, a habitual Twitter-user, had twitted in respo-nse to all the disdain and sarcasm that was thrown at him at the time: “First they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then they fight you and then you win.” Very few people thought he would actually run, climb in the polls, win the required number of delegates to secure the Party nomination and finally be a winning candidate. He achieved all these things. Looking at the election results today can anything seem more ironical?

The media—both print and electronic in the US and the wider world—are now awash with pages and hours of analysis and debates trying to fathom how Trump could pull off such a coup in the face of almost universal derision and hostility from the establishment (which includes the Washington power-brokers, the Wall Street-led corporate sector, the foreign policy and diplomatic community in the US) and much of the wider world (with the exception of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was quick to send his congratulations to the US President-elect). It is already self-evident to even a casual observer that Trump was carried to the White House on a wave of frustration and anger—primarily of the White working class and rural American voters who had been venting their rage against the ‘Washington establishment’ for being ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘marginalised’ in their own country for quite some time. Trump promised to restore their lives ‘which had been stolen from them by the corrupt and rigged Washington establishment’. To them, Trump appeared as a messiah a la a modern Moses seeking to guide them to a ‘new promised land’. To quote Professor Ashok Sanjay Guha, “little wonder that allegations of his sexual or financial antics only serve to confirm his followers in their paranoid conviction that the whole established world is at war with their candidate”. (The Telegraph, November 7, 2016)

To make things worse, his Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton, the darling of the Democratic leadership, did not appear to large segments of US voters as a paragon of virtue either. The Clinton baggage incorporating the sexual peccadillos of former President Bill Clinton, the husband of Hillary Clinton, and the financial controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation had provided incendiary ammunition to their critics for years. Added to Mrs Clinton’s woes was the revelation in March 2015 that Hillary had used a private e-mail server, based in her Chappaqua home in New York, while she was the Secretary of State in the first Barak Obama Administration during 2009-2013. She was placed under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to find out if such conduct on her part had compromised American national security. Hundreds of thousands of e-mails were subjected to scrutiny for almost one whole year while the episode provided more grist to the mill of Trump’s propaganda so much so that he started to refer to her in almost every election speech as ‘crooked Hillary’ supple-mented by chants of the Trump faithful ‘lock her up’. Throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, lasting well over a year, Hillary was under the toxic cloud surrounding this e-mail controversy. Even after two exonerations by the FBI in July 2016 and in the final week leading to the election day, it appears now that, not only the Trump faithful, but even many independent-minded voters and possibly even some Democrats continued to believe that Hillary was untrustworthy notwith-standing the fact that she had admitted that she had committed a mistake and even the FBI Director, James Comey, had passed the verdict that this omission on her part did not warrant bringing any criminal charges though she was guilty of negligence.

The shock and disappointment of her defeat has not only left the Clinton faithful (who had taken her victory almost for granted) without a clue, but has virtually left the community of psephologists in the US and the wider world in a state of despair. How could this army of election pundits get it so wrong? While they look for an answer, social scientists have an explanation. It might be worthwhile to quote from a recent analysis of a distinguished Indian economist. “For decades now the US economy has stagnated; rates of growth have sunk to levels unprecedented since the Great Depression; once prosperous manufacturing cities have become ghost towns as their factories have closed; jobs have evaporated and the real wage has, over decades, either fallen or remained static. .... Successive Presidents, Republican and Democratic, legislatures domi-nated in turn by both parties have experimented with a variety of curative policies and converged on a common bi-partisan conclusion—total failure.” (Ashok Sanjay Guha, The Telegraph, November 7, 2016)

The question arises—does Donald Trump have it in him to understand and deal with the fundamental problems of the US economy enume-rated above? So far one has heard from him only simplistic/demagogic solutions like preventing more immigration, cancellation of unfavourable (as defined by him) trade deals like NAFTA, giving tax breaks to the wealthy hoping for an increase in consumption leading to creation of more jobs, stoppage of outsourcing in an effort to bring jobs back to the US which had fled to countries with cheap labour and so on. Some economists have even predicted that the economic agenda (such as the one that Trump has) will lead to a massive escalation in US debt (already about $ 20 trillion). There should be a sincere effort to understand that any attempt to revive the old-style manufacturing which had made the US a hub of the steel and auto industries, located in the so-called rust belt of Ohio and Michigan, is no longer cost-competitive with the lower wage economies of Asia. So a Trump Administration has to look for more innovative ways of tapping into the enormous talent available in the US in the frontier areas of science and technology to create jobs which are not labour-intensive and therefore cost-competitive. How all this can be achieved is going to be a grave challenge to the new Administration. It is one thing to exploit the deep antipathy of the voter to the total ineffectiveness of government policy in dealing with the fundamental economic crisis during elections and something quite different to come up with viable solutions once the candidate wins office.

While the American voters find out whether Trump can deliver on his tall (some would say simplistic) promises, what can the world expect from a Trump Administration? In the first place it has been universally acknowledged by the international community (including the American diplomatic and foreign policy experts) that Trump has no understanding (or at best a simplistic one) of international relations. The election-winning catch phrase of ‘Make America Great Again’ carries no meaning to the wider world. Even with careful scrutiny what one can decipher in the Trump foreign policy agenda leads one to a picture of an inward-looking America. While some may welcome a less interventionist America, one cannot just wish away the fact that the US continues to be the largest economy as well as the largest trader (country-wise) in the world. It is also still the largest military power with claims (justified or otherwise) of vital national interests in all parts of the world. The American diplomatic/security/military-industrial community will stand in the way of any President from looking inward.

In any case Trump, in his own words, is committed to waging a war against what he perceives as ‘Islamic extremism’ and especially destroying the ISIS. He is committed to a more limited role for NATO and wants more burden-sharing by allies. He is quite rash on the commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and wants Germany, Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear deterrent so that they are no longer dependent on the US in this regard. Iran is apprehensive about his threat to review the nuclear deal agreed between Tehran and the West (including the US) in July 2015.

The Paris climate change deal is under some cloud as Trump thinks that the whole issue of climate change is a huge hoax and therefore his commitment to this agreement is at best unpredictable. So cost-cutting is the name of the game for a Trump foreign policy.

So far as India is concerned, some analysts are cautiously optimistic that there will be continuity in the robust bilateral relations begun under the Bush-Manmohan era and sustained under the Obama Administration. Some are even hoping that Trump might be more sympathetic to India vis-à-vis Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism against this country as well as on the issue of Kashmir. One feels that the optimism on these issues is a little premature as there is no indication, as of now, that Trump has ever been seized of the India-Pakistan-Kashmir narrative. A few expressions of goodwill towards India or his strong stand against terrorism in general during a highly charged and divisive election campaign where every vote counts is not a reliable indicator of the actual policies that will emerge when the incumbent finally takes charge in the White House.

Foreign policy is usually a bipartisan issue and one expects even a highly erratic Trump to fall in line with established policies, including the one towards South Asia, once the compulsions of winning the election are out of the way. It is pertinent to recall here a highly prophetic assertion of a British foreign policy scholar, Prof F.S. Northedge: “The view of the road changes when one takes the driver’s seat.” Let us hope that that will be the case with the new occupant of the Oval Office irrespective of his election rhetoric.

Finally a word about the quirks of the American electoral system where a candidate can win the popular vote and yet not the White House as his/her opponent has secured 270 or more votes in the 538-member electoral college. That is precisely what happened with Hillary Clinton who got more popular votes than Donald Trump but lost the electoral college. This is the second time this has happened this century, the first time being in 2000 when Democrat Albert Gore polled more popular votes than the eventual winner, George Bush, but lost in the count at the electoral college. The debate about what is the fairest electoral system is a long one and this is not the place to get into it right now. The world now waits with baited breath what the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency would be like.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a retired Professor of International Relations and a former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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