The end begins now

Trump’s presidency is year zero in a new world order where rules may be disappearing

Written by Patrick French | Updated: November 11, 2016 5:17 am
trump-759 (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

On Wednesday, the world changed. An idea of itself that the West believed in and promoted in the wake of two devastating world wars came to an end. Liberal values always work best when you are in the ascendant, and most Americans no longer feel in the ascendant. This is the start of the next stage of history, a triumph of the outsider. For Americans, the election result represents a victory for white nationalism, and for the idea that the majority can apply the values of identity politics to itself. Donald Trump’s attack on elites and institutions was secondary to this fact. His campaign made the majority feel as if they were a put-upon minority, and as in other countries, this won the vote. As a candidate, he was not a thinker but a reflector, a mirror. “I am your voice,” he told a delighted crowd when he won the Republican nomination.

Trump was able to articulate the fears of an American white majority that knows it will be a minority by the middle of this century. Barack Obama is the last black president for a long while. As Samuel P. Huntington predicted in 2004, ethnic intolerance was likely to resurface as a political force in America. “Historical and contemporary experience suggests,” he wrote, “that this is a highly probable reaction from a once dominant ethnic-racial group that feels threatened by the rise of other groups.”

This was a campaign ruled by confirmation bias, with a media that disliked what Trump was offering and so convinced themselves he would lose. His astonishing victory leaves his opponents wondering: Was it about Hillary Clinton’s weakness as a candidate, was it about misogyny, was it about the economically left-behind? I am not convinced it was any of these things. Trump won because he was an insurgent candidate, a disruptive antidote to both main parties and to politics-as-usual. Most voters who earn less than $50,000 a year voted not for Trump but for Clinton; and 52 per cent of white women voted for Trump. You can blame globalisation, neoliberalism, outsourcing, the establishment — but above all, this was a reaction to the way the world has changed. Certainties about status have evaporated. What do investors do in a crisis? They flee to the safety of gold. What do voters do? They flee to the gold of ethnic solidarity and traditional social ideas, they flee to the cultural solidity of an imagined past. In this respect, the US is far from unique: We saw it in the UK over Brexit, and we see it with alarming force in the rise of Europe’s hard-right, nativist political parties, who were the first to congratulate President-elect Trump and climb on his bandwagon.

Trump may not be an isolationist president, but he will surely be an autarchic one. He sees alliances in transactional terms, as a businessman of questionable talent who is always focused on the deal and the short-term advantage. If he is not getting a financial return from the Baltic states, he may decide they are expendable. I’ll talk to President Putin. It’s gonna be beautiful. NATO, tomato. We’ll make a new alliance when we need it. As the US acts unilaterally, so other large powers will do the same. There is every reason for them to act in advance of the fact, and to create their own reality at a time of global insecurity.

If China wants to crack down on Hong Kong or extend its remit over the South China Sea and create a wider, Sino-centric sphere of regional influence, or Russia wants to annex some neighbouring territory, what better moment to do it than around the time of inauguration day? We do not know what President Trump’s foreign and security policy will be, because his statements during the campaign were strikingly incoherent. In a presidential campaign, the US media plays a game to see how much an aspiring candidate knows about the rest of the world. Remember how George W. Bush was caught out, unable to name General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan? The exception was Hillary Clinton, who with her experience as secretary of state could analyse global problems with acuity — and look how far it got her. If you read Trump’s answers on, for instance, the problem of Syria, Iraq and IS, all you see is an ignorant, randomly-generated word-soup of distracted remarks. We cannot go back and parse his speeches, his writings or his track record, because he has no experience in government. Trump is a zero, and his presidency is year zero in a new world order where rules may be disappearing.

He says he intends to challenge NAFTA, the TPP, the WTO and the IMF, introduce protectionist tariffs on goods from China, and unsettle the global security balance centred around NATO that has underpinned post-World War II international security. Allies like South Korea and Japan may be left in the lurch, with US troops withdrawn: Both countries may be tempted to develop their own nuclear weapons, as Trump has suggested they should. Other countries in Asia, and India in particular, will be obliged to rethink their larger strategic position and how far they can depend on past diplomatic alliances in a new post-American order, where an approximately rules-based system could no longer exist.

Trump is erratic, narcissistic and ignorant of how American institutions work and its laws are passed. He is a man who has said he wants to legalise torture, and who boasts of sexually assaulting women. He wants to make deals with strongmen in West Asia, even while curtailing Muslim immigration to the US and putting American Muslims under threat. Within the constraints of their system of government, there will be many things he is unable to do as president. When that happens, as it certainly will, his wrecking capacity will be spectacular. An institution is not submitting to the will of the people? Like Mao Zedong, he may call on the people to bombard the headquarters. For the next four years and beyond, we face great uncertainty.

At some level, we still believed in the American dream, that the US could be “a city upon a hill” watched by the world as an example. For sure, we raged against its hypocrisies, foreign wars and domestic and international boorishness. But we never looked to China, to Russia or for that matter to Europe for our vision of the future. We looked to America, and we hoped its people might make a more perfect nation, a greater experiment in human living. Today, that dream is over. We are all riding the Trump train, and it may be taking us to disasters yet unknown.

The writer is a historian and biographer, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University