President Elect Trump: What to Expect

Buenos Aires Herald. 11 de noviembre de 2016.

Around the world pundits are scrambling to explain the US election of 2016 and predict its consequences. Although many sources had placed higher odds on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump´s victory was not completely unanticipated. Trump won because he carried several battleground states by low margins. As Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote, Trump´s speculation during the campaign that the system is “rigged” now feels like a tremendous irony.

Inconsistency between the popular vote and the election result is not unheard of in US elections. Nor is it surprising that the Republican Party would sweep the results after eight years of Democratic administrations. What makes this election, and the soon-to-be presidency, different is the rhetoric and personality of Trump himself. The electoral outcome reflects the strength of non-university-educated and largely (but not exclusively) white Americans in rural and suburban areas. Trump was able to harness their anger and resentment at traditional and progressive elites. His supporters felt they have been disdained them at every turn, forsaken in favor of foreigners, immigrants, and racial minorities. Trump captured their anger with a message of empowerment, interlaced with racism and other ugly nationalist impulses that promise to “make American great again.” A fair assessment requires acknowledging that this nostalgic desire to bring back the past is rooted not only in base tribalism but also reflects the common human value of continuity of culture and community.

The longing for the good old days is linked to the changing role of the US in the world. Even as it remains the largest economy and the most powerful country, the days when the US constituted half of global GDP and was the undisputed superpower are gone. Trump’s campaign argued that US problems in navigating a multipolar world, ranging from the development of ISIS to competition from China, are entirely due to bad faith and/or poor negotiating skills. The campaign further argued that only a tough businessman like him can restore things back the way they should be.

Under President Trump the US will express a more nationalist identity and a more narrow view of its self-interest. But what can we expect in terms of particular areas of domestic and international policy? Will the US employ an unashamedly mercantilist and authoritarian style that will spread these dangerous isms across the globe? The second question is more important than the first, and the answer is that these dangers are very real but not inevitable. There are always choices.

Regarding the concrete policies, we can piece together some of his priorities from the campaign. Most presidents try to keep their promises. Trump may care less about doing so than most, but his supporters expect a big push to deport undocumented immigrants and repeal Obamacare. The judicial system and other constraints will limit but perhaps not completely halt these efforts. Trump voters also expect an economic plan geared toward them. This will likely involve big spending on infrastructure as well as protectionist tariffs.

Internationally, relations with China will be highly strained. Perhaps, improved relations with Russia could help clarify the limits of where that country will assert its influence. However, the probable result of a President Trump’s attempt to win “better deals” for the US internationally will be fewer deals. He will likely undo more agreements than he makes, starting with the recent ones on climate and no-proliferation in Iran. The NAFTA will be harder to get rid of, and Mexico will refuse to pay for Trump’s wall. Trump also has said he will reverse the policy of cooperation with Cuba unless that country implements democratizing political reforms. However, this seems especially difficult to pull off given the authoritarian tendencies of Mr. Trump himself, the contradictions with his proclamations against moral stands in foreign policy, and the opposition of business interests.

None of these policies is especially likely to restore past glory, and some would shake up the existing world order in unpredictable ways. The era of US-led liberal internationalism may well be over, but what will replace it is not clear.