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Michael White on the ascendancy of Donald Trump – and the decline of America

Donald Trump - Credit: Archant

Trump’s victory will bring the end of Anglo domination and hand global leadership to China, says Michael White

Back in 1989, when the Conservative Japanese-American writer, Francis Fukuyama, first published his famously complacent essay, The End of History, he can’t have spared much time wondering if his triumphalist vision of liberal democracy – free markets and free elections – might one day be threatened by a flashy New York property developer called Donald Trump. When you’re slugging it out with philosophical heavy hitters like Marx and Hegel why should a lofty academic be distracted by the rough trade?

At the time Trump had recently published the ghosted business guide, The Art of the Deal, which helped launch his subsequent career in reality television. But he was struggling in his costly and mistimed foray into Atlantic City casinos, then a declared remedy for the once fashionable New Jersey resort’s decay, its glitzy new Boardwalk hotels a façade for urban rot. Thirty years on Atlantic City remains as bleak a place as Blackpool (also once threatened with the ‘casino cure’) or those decaying Ohio steel towns whose voters helped swing the presidency for Trump on Tuesday. It is a sobering reality check.

But Brand Trump has moved on, as it always does, leaving a trail of bad debts, broken promises and untruths behind it. When the president elect addressed his beaten rival as ‘Hillary’ in his notably conciliatory acceptance speech early on Wednesday (he declared ‘ a major debt of gratitude’ for her decades of public service) those viewers not overcome with joy or despair may have noticed the pattern already repeating itself. Didn’t Trump promise countless times on the campaign trail to ‘lock her up’? Where were the handcuffs? Isn’t this a reality TV show? Fantasy talk Trump’s unity plea may have been (Clinton’s would have been just as silly), but at least his switch of tone was more gracious than his acolyte, Nigel Farage, managed on Brexit’s victory dawn.

As for the coverage, the stamina and intelligence of BBC1’s overnight election team, anchored by Andrew Neil and Katty Kay, was admirable. But they are still behind the truthifier’s curve. So the baffled looks and tone of many of their correspondents, expensively stationed at key locations across the republic, became less impressive as the night wore on and Clinton’s defeat became impossible to ignore. Could respectable women and evangelists vote for a misogynistic, self-confessed groper, they asked? Apparently, they could (‘we’re all sinners’). Could mainstream Republicans who hate and fear The Donald? Ditto; they hate Clinton more. Was mainstream US TV wiser about the power of Trump’s economic populism and white cultural backlash against multicultural liberalism? I don’t think so. They were too busy coining in advertising revenues, their highest ratings since the last reality disaster at 9/11.

We should all know by now that any election which the media consensus calls ‘neck-and-neck’ usually translates as meaning that the unfancied candidate is doing better out there than the pollsters’ radar is picking up, or the punditry wants to know. We saw the phenomenon in Britain’s 2015 election, and more vividly in the Brexit campaign, the result of which also came as a shock both to ‘metropolitan elites’ (pause for hisses and cries of ‘lock them up too’) and to arrogant Wall Street and the City. In both elections, people who wouldn’t normally know a polling booth from a phone box were determined to seize the opportunity to reject a status quo which left them angry or insecure while others got indecently rich. They knew what the pundits didn’t.

But for what alternative have they rejected unhappy continuity? Like the Brexiteers (many of whom resent the unavoidable comparison) both votes have been more against things than in favour of anything more specific than (copyright Michael Gove) ‘taking back control.’ Five months after Britain’s virtual dead heat (52% to 48% with 28% abstaining, 47.5% to 47.7% for the White House, with Clinton just nudging the popular vote) over EU membership, no one in London, Brussels or Berlin yet has a serious plan on which to proceed. Ahead lie more destablising elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands, all before serious work can begin on the Brexit process.

Article 50, meanwhile, has its own legal and political hurdles to surmount at home, in the Supreme Court and parliament – both of which are under siege, as ‘Enemies of the People’, from the populist surge.

By British standards (the removal van outside No 10 by breakfast time) the traditional White House transition seems long. Not long enough this time. The ultimate insurgent, Trump has barely two months to put together a team capable of running what is still the most important country in the world. Its economy remains the biggest and most creative. Its armed forces remain dominant, though far from invincible in the multi-polar, asymmetrical, nationalistic world slowly emerging from the rubble of the bi-polar balance of power era known as the Cold War.

Trump has no experience of elected public office and has alienated the vast reservoir of experience on call to an incoming president, even large swathes of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, its right wing as well as its moderates. Judging by those damaging last minute leaks about the Clinton email controversy (odds on it will now fade, its job done), the president-elect can rely on sections of the FBI. But the bureau is not famous for political skills, ethics or judgment either. Far from it. It was to explain his reluctance to sack the sinister J Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s founding director, that President Lyndon Johnson remarked that he would ‘rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in’.

On the evidence of his turbulent business career, highly secretive and still being disinterred, his tax affairs, still largely a mystery, his many reckless and contradictory threats and promises on the campaign trail, above all his narcissistic, shallow and bombastic personality, the future is frightening. It would be reasonable for defeated Democrats to assume that Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy, the red-baiting demon of the 1950s, will have their bronze busts installed in the Oval Office, perhaps between two of Trump’s own.

But at times of maximum peril it is sensible to be calm and watch what the man of the moment does rather than what he says.

This is especially so of a chameleon like Trump. One of the odder features of his success among angry white Christian voters in rural communities, smug suburbs and decayed steel towns is that – gun rights apart – he is the antithesis of what they stand for: a rich and secular New York liberal whose views on sex and marriage make Bill Clinton’s look quite staid. Abortion, a subject as central to some voters as Supreme Court appointments are to pointy heads, is something he favoured until recently. If Ronald Reagan’s presidency is any guide, Trump too will sell out the pro-lifers. And don’t invest in Mexican brick wall shares either.

Here’s why. When Arizona senator, the intellectual hawk, Barry Goldwater, became the Republican standard bearer against LBJ in 1964 and talked about ‘lobbing one into the men’s room at the Kremlin’ (smart bombs capable of doing just that had not yet been invented), someone asked then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, if it scared him. ‘The presidency of the United States is enough to sober any man,’ the soon to be deposed Mr K replied. It’s a good point. Many have insisted in recent months that the private Trump is thoughtful and effective, a born deal-maker; though his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, stricken with remorse, now says he has the attention span of a gnat. Didn’t his minders take away his mobile phone last week because he tweets mindlessly at 3am?

So a cautious response is wise, as the US’s traditional allies in Europe like Angela Merkel and Theresa May evidently thought on Wednesday, before sending bland versions of their ritual congratulations. Vladimir Putin, his tactical ally in this campaign to defeat the hawkish Clinton, got in first. That is another sobering thought: how long can two authoritarian narcissists stalk each other without coming to blows? Where do they keep the president’s nuclear football at 3am?

A pause also provides time for a backward glance. Why did Clinton lose? In my view because she was always a vulnerable candidate, lacking both the personal grace and charisma, or the compensating capacity to inspire trust, that an election winner should have. I thought so when Barack Obama had the cheek to challenge her money and network in 2008 and have never wavered. She is not the crook her detractors say she is, though she makes bad calls (as one of senior Democrat John Podesta’s leaked emails confirmed). Besides, the Clinton family has had its share of White House nights, as have the Bushes. In this ugly and undignified campaign, which has greatly damaged America’s soft power standing in the world, one healthy instinct has been the rejection of dynasty.

Would Bernie Sanders, her more authentic Democratic challenger from Vermont (where I met him as mayor of Burlington 30 years ago) have done better? I don’t think so. He won 22 primaries as a declared socialist, a remarkable achievement in such a conservative and individualistic society. His votes too were a cry of pain, albeit from a generally younger and better educated demographic group than Trump’s angry cohorts, smaller too. At the end of the day Sanders is another angry old white man (he’s 75) from New York, the Bronx transferred to rural Vermont. A more substantial figure than Jeremy Corbyn, Sanders would have suffered the same fate that awaits the Labour leader. Couldn’t America (and Britain) have found better candidates?

What of the future? Like Tony Blair with his landslide majority in 1997, Trump has a problem: he has no excuses for inaction. The Republicans have strengthened their grip on both houses of Congress and President Trump will be able to boost what he hopes (you can never be sure with lifetime tenure) will be a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. All three branches of the US system of government will be conservative-controlled, just what the Founding Fathers didn’t want in 1787.

Alas, it will serve only to highlight the elusive nature of power, which is always in the next room, not the one a leader is usually in. Democrats who have faced decades of destructive Republican obstruction, so damaging to Barack Obama’s hopes, may be tempted to repay Trump in the same coin. Wiser counsel will make them step back, avoid being labelled ‘enemies of the people’, and let Republicans fight among themselves. Many Republicans held their noses and backed Trump to save their own skins – ‘Banana Republicans’, in the Washington joke – but that tactical pact will not hold.

On free trade versus protectionism they are divided, as they will be on Trump’s grandiose plans for a New Deal level of infrastructure spending to fix decades of neglect on roads, bridges, inner cities and much else. Combine that with Trump’s tax cutting commitments and his ‘Make America Great Again’ power projection around the world and it starts to look like a budget crisis of Reagan-era ‘supply side doctrine’ proportions. Like Reagan, whose attitudes horrified Margaret Thatcher, Trump is not a fiscal conservative.

But remember, the US debt overhang is much higher now, and much of that debt is held overseas, most awkwardly by China whose rise to superpower status is now way beyond the US’s power to seriously check. Beijing’s view of this election as evidence of an empire in decay has been noted elsewhere. The Chinese take the long view of everything, always have done for 20 times the lifespan of the US constitution. Trump’s ambition to repeal Obamacare (so much for struggling Ohio steel workers?) may be a matter for the US alone, but his view of man-made climate change as a Chinese economic plot is not. Beijing seems to understand what drives floods, pollution and desertification better than Trump Towers, despite mid-town Manhattan being much closer to rising ocean winds and water.

As for US NATO allies in Europe, for Putin’s Russia and for the war-ravaged Middle East, it is impossible to know what is in Trump’s mind (does he?) or how he will proceed. Will he lean on the experts we are told the private Donald is keen to embrace now that he has won. Or will he be tempted to lob one into the men’s room in the Ayatollah’s Tehran or the Assad’s loo in Damascus? The task of those analysts who predict the future has become much harder than it have been would be for a Clinton presidency. Markets hate uncertainty, so do diplomats and generals. Will they be reassured by former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, 73, the disgraced and divisive Georgia populist, as secretary of state? Or Rudy Giuliani, 72, ex-New York mayor and lawyer, as Attorney General, charged with upholding the law against his gung-ho president, 71?

My own hunch is that, if Trump fails and America retreats further into itself (as it did in the isolationist years of 1920-41) after almost a century of being the world’s policeman it will signal the end of the Anglosphere’s ascendancy in world affairs, which has existed since the British won the Seven Years War in 1763. It was the British conquest of French Canada and the global reach of the Royal Navy which gave the American colonists the confidence to break with London in 1776, expand south and west under British naval protection and assume global leadership in the 20th century. Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric will give China its opportunity – for better or worse. It is far more formidable than the old USSR ever was.

Plenty of old sweats are rushing into TV studios to remind the anxious that talk of American decline is old hat and will pass if the new breed of leaders – Trump at their head – makes a better fist of it than the discredited elites now being rejected in so many countries. Thomas Jefferson’s presidential campaign in 1800 was a dirty fight, they say. The US Civil War was terrible. Didn’t Harry Truman defy the pollsters in 1948? Didn’t doomsters warned that Ronald Reagan would ruin the republic?

All true, but there is reason to fear that Trump represents a qualitative change for the worse. Some 61% of Tuesday’s voters say he is not qualified, but they elected him. Yet the record in office of businessmen, like hapless Herbert Hoover, is poor. Politics is not like business, it is not just about giving orders, so that lawyers, generals, even actors do better. Trump’s harsh divisive language has legitimized ugly attitudes on race, gender, immigration and much else that younger America hoped to have put behind it. However good a president he turns out to be, against most rational expectation, Trump’s kinder self will struggle to recork Brand Trump’s genie. If you have campaigned successfully in abuse, not in poetry, then failed to govern well, in prose, the temptation will be to look for scapegoats.

However much Professor Fukuyama may deplore the thought, it always is.

Michael White is a former Washington correspondent and ex-political editor of the Guardian

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