Contrary to all forecasts, Donald Trump was declared the winner of the US presidential elections in the early hours of November 9, 2016. This marks a turning point for the United States, for open liberal societies and democracies in general. What happened, and what happens next?
The ‘Hope & Change’ Candidate of the Right
If there was one defining, overarching leitmotif for both sides in this campaign, it was a yearning for radical change. Bernie Sanders represented progressive change on the left, and Clinton ultimately failed to credibly communicate that she could reconcile decades of political experience and routine with the dawn of a new political era on the progressive side. In stark contrast, Trump was able to mobilize the anti-elitist and reactionary potential, fraught with racist and populist undertones, which he and large parts of the Republican Party had been nurturing and expanding as a backlash to Obama’s presidency for years. In surveys conducted last year, most Americans felt Trump, as a radical outsider, was more likely to bring change than Clinton. At the same time, a clear majority deemed Trump to be riskier and more erratic. Apparently, large parts of the population were so dismayed with the status quo and the “corrupt and incompetent” political establishment, that they were willing to take a risk on Trump. This game of Russian Roulette, based on nothing but hope, shows the extent of the anger and frustration that pundits in Washington underestimated until the very end. What also helped Trump was his image, fostered for years on reality television (as opposed to in reality): The image of a hugely successful businessman who openly states what many are thinking, but dare not say.
The Downsides of Digitalization
For the first time, the full impact of the downsides of digital communication came to bear in a US election. At least three elements played a role here: Firstly, more than ever before, digitalization brought crises and conflicts into every American home unfiltered. This further intensified fears, of ISIS and of domestic and foreign insecurity in general. And surveys showed that Trump was considered more competent on this issue than Clinton. Secondly, we saw the extent to which digital communication and particularly social media fed two separate worlds of perception where the line between reality and fiction became blurred. Particularly on the Right, many no longer receive their information from mainstream journalistic outlets, but rather from fake-news pages in closed spheres of communication. This post-factual age, as well as a lack of channels to communicate with dissenting minds, pose a serious threat to our democracies. Thirdly, this election was an election of information leaks. From Russian cyber-attacks on Democratic emails or Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta to Donald Trump’s sexist audio tape, information leaks will continue to pose challenges to confidentiality in the future, when every conversation and every email can potentially be used against politicians. Given all these developments, one of the central challenges facing our democratic societies is how politics and societies will deal with the governance of the digital transformation.
The End of the Obama Coalition
In 2008 and 2012, Obama successfully garnered a majority to the left of the political center by mobilizing a diverse coalition of ethnic minorities, highly educated women and progressive elites. Clinton’s attempt to rally the same coalition failed, despite having an opponent whose policies pose a great threat to the interests of this coalition. The fact that the Democratic Party spent years ignoring or even looking down on white, rural, and less educated parts of the electorate is now coming back to haunt them. While this is in some ways an economic issue, there is more to it: the white working class population that carried Donald Trump to victory is largely from the economic middle class. It is mainly a cultural question, for culturally speaking, this part of the electorate has been considered an underclass for quite some time. In the future, it will no longer suffice for Democrats to rely solely on a coalition of minorities and elites of modern transformation. They must also find a way to include larger parts of the white working class, persuade them that Democratic policies will bring a better future for them personally, and ultimately regain their support.
The Slow End of the Pax Americana
Obama initiated the gradual retreat of the USA as the sole guarantor of world security policy and economic world order. With Donald Trump’s election, the end of the Pax Americana is now potentially imminent. This will have significant repercussions for the globalized economy and for US-allies in terms of security policy. Pressure will mount on Europe to contribute more funds to the defense of NATO. It seems obvious that Europe will need to develop more capacities to protect and defend stability in its eastern and southern neighborhoods. Germany will have to play a key role here, and Germany’s political representatives must face up to this responsibility. A Trump presidency will also bring an end to decades of economic globalization, driven by the US and the West for decades, which has greatly benefited Germany’s export-oriented economy, in particular. Last but not least, his election is also a signal against open-border policies as well as globally-minded immigration and refugee policies, and by extension, against diverse and open societies. Given parallel developments in Europe, this is a challenge we all face, and which the champions of an open society and stable world order on both sides of the Atlantic should take on together.
Political Movement Trumps Political Institutions
Trump’s success does not rely on institutional support. On the contrary, it is the triumph of a grass-roots movement against all established institutions, including the Republican Party. Right-wing populists in Europe are pursuing the same strategies, organizing movements and demanding more direct democracy, with the ultimate goal of a mainly homogeneous majority dominating politics. This is alarming, not only regarding minority rights, but also regarding the importance of functioning and respected democratic institutions. Trump’s success is a logical consequence of the continuously dwindling repute of US democratic institutions, from Congress to the administration, the Supreme Court and the free media. This offers two conclusions. Firstly, political institutions must regain trust. This will only happen if they can convey that they are able to ensure economic, social and domestic security, and if they can reassert compromise as a political virtue rather than further polarization. Secondly, the progressive side has no comparable movement that transcends single issues, neither on the national, transnational nor transatlantic level. There is also no common narrative. Thus, there appears to be a need for a utopian liberal narrative to counter the dystopian world-view of the right.
It is remarkable that the historical aspect of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the first female candidate of a major political party gained so little traction. Most of the luster of this potentially historic moment was lost in the mudslinging of the campaign and after decades of gendered attacks on Clinton from all sides. Trump provided a gender-political contrast to her that could not have been more drastic. The clear majority of Americans believes that Trump lacks respect for women. This is putting it mildly, given his rhetoric and documented history of misogyny. It seems that Trump’s relationship to women is limited to disdain and subjugation. And yet, these circumstances failed to drive more women to the polling stations in favor of Clinton. This is due to two main factors: For one, while the image and self-image of women has changed greatly in the USA in the last few decades, the image and self-image of men has not evolved accordingly. This triggers cultural defense mechanisms on the part of many insecure men who look up to Donald Trump as a role model, who would like to emulate his relationship with women in their own lives, or who feel represented by Trump. Secondly, there no longer seems to be a sufficiently comprehensive and inter-generational feminist movement in the USA that could be mobilized. This, too, could be a lesson to be learned from this election.
Rollback on Climate Policy
The election of Donald Trump is a worst-case scenario in terms of climate policy. He also already announced that he would rescind the Paris Climate Agreement and significantly expand the exploitation of fossil fuels, stop supporting renewable energies, get back into coal, and roll back climate and environmental regulations introduced by the Obama administration. This would undoubtedly obstruct most of the Obama administration’s climate commitments, as well as climate progress at the city and state level. It is remarkable how small of a role climate policy played in the campaign. Not a single question on climate was asked in any of the three televised debates between Trump and Clinton during the campaign. This is dramatic for younger voters, who according to surveys, believe that climate change is a pressing challenge and voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. As with the Brexit, the older generation has irresponsibly obstructed the future of the younger generations.
A remarkable concentration of power
When Donald Trump assumes office on January 20, 2017, the democratic institutions of the USA will have to show stability, and fulfill their mandate to check and balance the executive. The outlook is not promising. For Donald Trump is not just the Conservatives’ hero in the aftermath of this election. He will also wield a remarkable wealth of power as Republicans control both the Senate and the House. In addition, he will be able to appoint a person of his liking to the empty seat in the Supreme Court, thus creating a conservative majority in the country’s highest court of law. Many Republican officials consider Trump’s election a nightmare because they don’t recognize their own party anymore. Behind closed doors, they worry about the future of the Republican Party under Trump. Time will tell whether enough of them are willing to oppose Trump politically after his victory, even at the risk of being punished by their own electorate.
For more on the US elections, visit Route16, the election blog of our US office.