In the aftermath of disaster, it is always easy – and perhaps even psychologically necessary – to suppose matters cannot be as bad as they seem. Surely President Trump can’t be as bad as candidate Trump suggested he would be?
Perhaps not. And yet, really, why can’t he be? If you thought Trump deplorable on Tuesday morning he is not made more attractive simply because he has won an appalling victory.
In any case, the things a candidate says on the election trail remain the surest predictor of what the candidate will do if he wins the election and it does Donald Trump a disservice to suppose he’s any different in that regard. Those people who think he must have been joking (for no serious person could think like that, could they?) should themselves think again. The Presidency is not a game or a joke, far less the arena for a piece of performance art. It is vastly more likely that Donald Trump will try and do just what he said he would try and do.
Granted, there are limits on even Presidential power. Significant parts of the American governmental apparatus are likely to try and frustrate the Trump agenda, albeit quietly and obliquely. The defence establishment, for instance. will spend the next ten weeks doing its best to reassure allies that the United States’ guarantees remain worth something. In like fashion, there will be a great effort to embed and preserve the status quo, limiting the new President’s room for manoeuvre. But what can be made by executive order, can be unmade by executive order.
Those Britons comforting themselves with the thought Trump offers an upside to post-Brexit Britain are also, I suspect, liable to be disappointed. Trump will say some of the right things, I suppose, and I bet we can look forward to cheerful stories about the Churchill bust being restored to its ‘rightful’ place in the Oval Office but, beyond such ephemera, Trump’s actions will be more telling than his rhetoric. What, in the end, does Britain matter to an America First president?
Which is why people who think Britain will now be ‘at the front of the queue’ for a trade deal may be disappointed. If the shop is shut and not likely to reopen it doesn’t much matter where you are in the queue. In any case, nothing in Trump’s career suggests he believes in the concept of a win-win bargain. If you like a deal, he concludes he must be being screwed. His entire record is based upon the urgent necessity of screwing you. That’s his style; that’s how he judges success.
Besides, the objections to candidate Trump rested less on policy than on character and temperament. These, not the minutiae of policy, are what really define a Presidency. The decisions that reach the Oval Office are the decisions that can’t be made lower down the chain of command. They are the difficult choices that invariably demand an acute awareness that everything is a trade-off. Again, nothing in Trump’s record suggests he is equipped for the job he now faces and even if a concerted effort is made to free the Oval Office from the burden of decision-making too many decisions will still have to be made at the very highest level of all.
So, yes, this remains a disaster, a grievous act of American self-harm, and the gravest democratic debacle of my lifetime. It is hard to suppress the thought that HL Mencken’s prophecy has at last been made good: ‘On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.’ (Mencken, the old brute, would have been simultaneously thrilled and appalled by this entire election and this particular result.)
There are 101 reasons why Clinton lost (failure has many mothers) and an equal number of things she could have done differently. Clinton was an orthodox liberal peddling an orthodox liberal analysis that has for a long time struggled to win in middle America. The Clinton campaign, it seemed to me, assumed that Trump’s ghastliness was so obvious even Americans with no track record of liking Hillary Clinton would be compelled to swallow her candidacy. Doubtless millions did, even if reluctantly. But Clinton didn’t make it easy for them and many more voted for Trump, a third party candidate, or stayed at home.
For instance, when asked about gun control in the final presidential debate Clinton could have talked in a manner that did not leave many Americans thinking this is a woman who is going to take our guns away. Hillary’s ‘common-sense’ gun proposals sounded like a threat to many voters. Nor were they entirely wrong to think that if she could, she would take their guns away. In comparable fashion, she might have talked about abortion in a manner that made it seem something less than an ennobling rite of passage.
That’s far from the only reason Clinton lost but, in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, it surely played a part. Even so, 100,000 votes made all the difference. If 50,000 Americans – from a population of 300 million – had chosen differently, the story of this election would be very different. In other words, America is what we thought it was: a country evenly divided. Those divisions are delineated by geography, by education, by class, by gender, by race. They would have still existed even if those 50,000 votes had gone the other way.
Still, remarkably, the United States now has a Republican president who is neither a Republican nor a Conservative. Instead, the American people have elected a demagogue who believes in nothing except himself. Those left-behind voters who see Trump as a saviour are likely to be disappointed when they discover that, for instance, his tax plans are largely based on the proposition the wealthiest Americans should be wealthier still. Equally, Trump’s cavalier approach to the future sustainability of the federal budget is, in the long-term, likely to rebound against the very people whose prospects he purports to defend.
Worse still, however, is his approach to international affairs. The United States, still the indispensable nation when it comes to alleviating intractable international problems, is now led by a man whose ignorance is matched only by his indifference. That should be seen as a chilling prospect and one that will most probably make a dangerous world still more dangerous. If America leaves, we may not like what replaces it.
It is hardly encouraging when a candidate has to spend his acceptance speech reassuring the world that, actually, this isn’t going to be a disaster. Equally, Trump’s assertion that ‘You will be so proud of your President. You will be so proud‘ simultaneously smacked of typical Trumpian braggadocio and a nervousness that protests too much. He’s not up to the job and, deep down, you wonder if there’s a small part of Donald Trump with sufficient self-awareness to appreciate this himself. That would actually be a tiny but important sign of encouragement. I wouldn’t want to bet on even this, however.
A day of infamy, then, for which we are all likely to pay a heavy price. There is no alternative but to make the best of it; that best is likely to be something that until now had been considered the worst case scenario.
The American people have voted for Donald Trump, so what next for the US and the rest of the world? Join panellists including Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG, former British ambassador to the US, for a discussion chaired by Andrew Neil on 30 November at RIBA, London. Tickets include a drinks reception. In association with Seven Investment Management. Book now.