Does the success of Donald Trump’s campaign mark a tectonic shift in what the world expects of its elected leaders?
When US President Barack Obama took President-elect Donald Trump on a tour of the east wing of the White House, who knows what he was thinking? The public handshake and welcoming words took place regardless. In his acceptance speech Trump vowed to “bind the wounds of division”. He claimed that it was time to unite “all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation”.
What is clear is that a significant section of the world wants something, or someone, different. The developed world has certainly seen a major shift in mood since the great recession of 2008, and the election of Trump is just the latest sign of that shift.
What should we expect from a Trump Presidency?
You’re likely to be disappointed if you expect Trump to crumple the walls holding Washington up – or “drain the swamp” as he describes it. There is only so much power vested in the President, as Obama discovered, and there are counterbalancing forces that will stand in his way. For example, the Senate is closely balanced and the system is designed to resist change.
If you’re expecting Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and post-truth style to alienate every not white and working class in America, rest assured, every leadership role comes with very clear role constraints. As we have seen over and over, candidates make promises they can’t keep on the campaign trail.
While Trump has certainly ripped up much of the old playbook, there will still be rules. Consider, for example, the apology he was forced to make after the ‘locker room talk’ video came to light. It signals a new style outside of the recent historical norms of political discourse, but not an entirely rule-free interaction.
Who should be worried?
Let’s start with anyone whose livelihood depends on free trade and global movement of people and goods. Trump has repeatedly said that he opposes most of the free-trade deals the US has in place.
We saw this when global financial markets shook and the Mexico peso hit a record low on the day the election results were announced. My colleague Linda Yueh said: “We saw a change of mood reflected in the markets.
“Trade is the one area that the President has the authority to change without congressional approval. Approval is needed to pass trade agreements, but not to pull out or renegotiate them.”
I would expect Trump to try and re-negotiate these deals, and if he is successful in bringing them to the bargaining table I would not expect it to end well for advocates of genuinely free trade. To quote Trump: “We are the strongest country in the world, which means we are going to dictate to the world.”
Trump’s ‘America first’ approach is also likely to export the disquiet being felt in much of middle America to many other parts of the world, particularly in destabilising countries that rely on the US power engine. People in many NATO countries that rely on those agreements will likely feel like the USA may not come to their aid if Russia attacks and are now more likely to elect strong nationalist leaders like Trump. And citizens in Asian countries worried about China’s global ambitions will also feel less reassured by their partnership with the US and want to become more self-reliant. Globalisation should expect some significant setbacks in the years to come.
The paradoxical American dream
Ironically for a man who says he wants to put America first, I would expect most of the impact to be felt outside of US borders. In the end, while the US is likely to come away from a Trump Presidency being less open, less outward focused, but largely intact, we should expect to see more nationalism and international tensions than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Trump has said that he thinks Vladimir Putin’s “done really a great job of outsmarting our country”. While much of the free world may not agree, we certainly all have to hope that Trump can put his more recent observation to work: “I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
No matter what policies Trump and his authoritarian leadership style try to push through, he will have the world to answer to. Indeed, the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has already sent a warning. She said: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.
“I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”
So do we all.