Sign In

Don’t panic

 This is the kind of hangover no amount of mescal can explain. Days on, and it is still thrumming in the background of every adult conversation. On November 8, the world to America’s east went to bed expecting the serene calm of Hillary Clinton, and woke up to the overheated waxwork nightmare that is Donald Trump.

November 9 felt like the day when all the things progressives thought possible had died; a stunning and ugly rebuke to the Obama era of gradual, but fundamental progress on inclusivity. No more free healthcare, no more hope of gun control, no more movement on LGBTI rights, no more climate action or international goodwill. Donald Trump is the USA’s president-elect.

Western democracy, and American democracy in particular, has always been vulnerable to mugging by special interest groups capable of shaping a wider narrative around half-truths. This was more than that: first a hijacking, then an insurrection based on outright distortions and lies, and it has changed the face of politics worldwide. This election is a vindication of both Trump’s tactics and his message.

The former – that by repeating lies in the face of fact can overload the news cycle, and that enough dog-whistles put together can sub-divide the electorate into enough tiny fragments that you can ride the averages to victory – has echoes in and ramifications for all democracies. The so-called “post-truth politics” is not just a media-made turn of phrase, but a reality.

The latter – the message – is darker still. The time-honoured American rightwing invocation of the constitution as a sacred, inviolable document, while outright rejecting its more inconvenient parts, has always had the whiff of extremism. Under Trump it has metastasised into a half-formed yell for nativist, might-and-white-is-right authoritarianism that demonises and vilifies not just ‘the other’ but the institutions that are there to protect the individual from the tyranny of the majority.

Worldwide implications

The comparisons with the UK’s Brexit vote in June are not trivial; witness the pantomime roar of the rightwing tabloids, enraged by the temerity of the country’s high court, who passed the responsibility for triggering the exit process onto democratically-elected officials.

It is easy, within the context of an election fuelled by leaning Trump Towers of bullshit, to dismiss the campaign’s nastier edges as bluster that will not form part of a real manifesto. These are just things a candidate can say, not things a president can do.

Experts have said that before. Just six months ago, diplomats and analysts were briefing that another demagogue, the new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, was all populist bluster and his comments were not to be taken seriously. Now, thousands of people have been executed in a vigilante war on drugs, and the rule of law is in tatters. The Philippines, a former American colony that internalised a lot of its inheritance, shows that it is not what is allowed within the laws, or what laws are changed, but what the message and the example of a potent leader gives licence to.

Internationally, his promises are alarming in the extreme, representing as they do a hostility to a global order that is deeply flawed and often paralysed by realpolitik, but which gradually moves forward on consensus and compromise. Trump has consistently talked a zero sum game throughout his campaign and in his convention pledges; yes, smacking tariffs on China may help a few rust belt workers, but what might China’s retaliation mean for the cost of American technology?

Domestic situation

Domestically and internationally, Trump has shown an aversion to nuance and detail, which may be his downfall. To tear down the system that he purports to despise, he first has to learn the limits of the levers of power, and to do so in the spotlight of a press he slandered and attacked, and an invigorated, technologically-enabled activist community that has spun out of Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. Having burned down respect for the office that he will now occupy, he now has to rebuild it, faced down by more than half the electorate – in absolute terms, more people voted for Clinton than Trump.

As the stilted call for unity in his acceptance speech hinted, he cannot achieve anything in America without building a consensus. Yes, he has two Republican houses behind him; but these are Republicans who in many cases opposed his candidacy every step of the way.

He might have won on a Republican ticket, but on the foundation of a coalition cobbled together from Tea Party libertarians who think government should butt out of the private sector and rust-belt blue collar workers in need of a government bailout; agricultural communities who are suffering from neglect and urban elites looking for tax breaks; a whole host of fringe groups, too easily characterised as survivalists and white supremacists, many of whom hate each other; Florida Cubans and angry anti-immigration activists; family values Christians and men and women apparently unfazed by his boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy”.

He has promised all things to all constituencies with the patter, style and sincerity of an itinerant salesman pitching cure-alls from the back of a jalopy. Now he’s parked the car on the White House lawn, and can’t get away before the crowd realises he’s a fraud.

That means he has to do all of these complex, often contradictory things from within the Washington machine, while still riding the antiestablishment anger that he unlocked and exploited. Once he is the establishment, can President Trump be Trump enough to win another term?