On 20 January 2017, America will inaugurate its 45th president and it is not going to be an opportunity to witness the first African-American president hand over to the first female president. That would have been truly momentous in the history of the American republic.
Instead a property tycoon and television celebrity, Donald J Trump, will occupy that position and the inauguration ceremony might end up being somewhat awkward. For liberal Americans, the presidential electoral result has already invited a jeremiad for the United States.
I cannot honestly claim to be surprised by the result. Trump’s victory by the margin of 278-218 electoral college votes while losing the popular vote is not unprecedented. George Bush’s victory over Al Gore in the 2000 election, while coming down to a deeply contentious vote in Florida, also elicited a great deal of surprise, even shock, at the time from liberal Democratic commentators. At least the 2016 election has not pivoted around the spectre of hanging chads.
What has punctuated the 2016 presidential campaign is mendacity and meanness. This has been an ugly spectacle to watch. The triumphant candidate and his campaign team has been industrial in the scale of its attacks on minorities, its promotion of misogyny and racism, and rampant in the championing of xenophobia, nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism and victimhood. And by the end of it, there were many senior figures in the Republican Party disassociating themselves from his candidacy.
“Clinton was in the eyes and ears of many merely a ‘technocrat’ but one whom also had to bear a longer legacy of being a ‘Clinton’”
The Democratic Party presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, struggled to mobilise traditional voters such as women and ethnic minority communities and was rocked by scandal including a lingering saga over emails and private servers. Accused of being ‘unlikeable’ (a charge often hurled at female candidates standing for public office) and condemned for being too close to the financial sector of the United States (which can often conjure up a crude anti-Semitism when linked to New York and Goldman Sachs). Clinton was in the eyes and ears of many merely a ‘technocrat’ but one whom also had to bear a longer legacy of being a ‘Clinton’.
When thinking about why Trump triumphed, I would caution about simply assuming that poor white American men account for his stunning victory. This demographic mattered but it won’t do to claim that it explains all. Under the hashtag #MakeAmericagreatagain Trump conjured up a geopolitical imagination strongly informed by what I would term ‘paranoid knowing’.
‘Paranoid knowing’ puts a premium on feelings and sensations. Expert knowledge is distrusted and centres of authority treated with scepticism. It also places great import on revelation and exposure. Trump’s pitch was to say to supporters that they are right, that the ‘system’ is rigged in favour of political and financial elites. They are right to feel that their country is ‘under siege’ from external forces and that it is reasonable to sense that there are genuine grievances, injustice and impropriety.
In many paranoid thrillers, it is often the investigative journalist or low-level employee who stumbles across the conspiracy and eventually tries to expose it to the wider world. Remarkably, a billionaire has staked his claim to that role but this time exposing the conspiracy of neo-liberal globalisation and progressive liberalism for either marginalising blue-collar Americans or embellishing the power of Washingtonian elites.
Trump’s genius – if that is the right word – was to campaign around both registers: you make America great again by snatching power from those Washington elites while shoring up America’s sense of itself by mobilising actual and symbolic walls and barriers. The intersection of baseball cap, the expensive suit and the turn of phrase ‘drain the swamp’ proved effective and affective – many Americans believed that his business credentials, exemplified by claims of ‘plain speaking’, gave him license to diagnose the problems facing America. By way of contrast, Clinton’s professional experience as a former US Senator and Secretary of State was dismissed as indicative of her ‘insider’ status.
In Trump’s victory speech, he promised to be ‘president for all Americans’, which will prove a tall order given earlier comments about minorities, migrants, women and others who make up the 65 million who did not vote for him. But some minorities and some women did vote for Trump so unity and division is not straightforward especially when levels of education and class are factored in. America is deeply divided. Electorally, the Democratic Party heartland is increasingly the eastern and western seaboards with a few pockets of support in the heartland of the country. Both Congress and Senate are now Republican and the country still seems caught up in a series of ‘culture wars’ that bedevilled it in the 1990s. President Obama’s two-term administration has not put to bed historic and contemporary expressions of racism and marginalisation.
Further afield, a Trump presidency could carry important implications for friends and foes. There may be many Eastern European NATO states who worry about whether America would support them in the event of further Russian destabilisation. President Putin would probably rather work with Trump than Clinton, while Angela Merkel’s statement to Trump emphasised Germany’s commitment to liberal and democratic values. American support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria might well soften in a Trump presidency. Will the Paris Agreement on climate change attract support from a Trump presidency? He has expressed repeated scepticism and suspicion about UN climate change initiatives.
“The country still seems caught up in a series of ‘culture wars’ that bedevilled it in the 1990s. President Obama’s two-term administration has not put to bed historic and contemporary expressions of racism and marginalisation”
‘Make America great again’ worked as a slogan but discerning what follows will be a challenge many of us will be following in earnest come January 2017. For now, we have a two-month interregnum to witness, one in which Trump’s staff and possible new Cabinet appointments receive their briefings from Obama’s staff. We have the possibility of conflict ahead, however. The nomination of Merrick Garland as a future Supreme Court justice must now be in jeopardy given it was initiated by President Obama in March 2016.
The election of Donald J Trump is a milestone in American political history. I thought the election of President Obama was pretty special but the American public have achieved another first. They have decided to elect someone to the highest political office who had no prior background in government and they have turned down another candidate who had decades of experience with government. Observers on both side of the Atlantic will be pondering the significance of this for quite some time.