Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, November 10, 2016

US Presidential Election: What Happened and Quick Predictions

So what happened in the election? Short answer: Middle America, the so-called flyover states, decided that the US (and probably the rest of world too) needed a swift kick in the butt. Calvin and Hobbes sum it up well, I think.

Yes, Hillary is probably the worst candidate that the Democrats could have nominated this election year. But that ignores the question of why Middle America is angry. As JD Vance noted in his book, Hillbilly Elegy, these folks are in a lot of pain. And worse, they are ignored, by a liberal political elite who fixates on identity politics and culture wars and belittles their concerns

Trump, in essence, is their outlet, their way to give the liberal elite a big middle finger. Do they really believe that Trump is going to build the wall and deport all immigrants? No, most of them don't. In Peter Thiel's words:

I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. ... I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, 'Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?' or, you know, 'How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?' What they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

In short, Americans voted for a hyperbolic showman in order to shift the conversation to things that really matter to their lives. Whether they will achieve their goals is a huge question mark. Trump will have to face his biggest test: governing.

So what's next for the world?

I would argue that, Trump being Trump, he doesn't really care much about the American ideals of spreading democracy, improving human rights conditions in foreign nations, etc. In fact, I predict he will be both isolationist, in the sense that he won't attempt to expand American power abroad to protect human rights, and businesslike, in that he will solely focus on making deals. I know that this is cliche, but I think he will be Putin-like: he will be quite coldblooded in his foreign policy dealings, probably not dissimilar to pre-Carter US foreign policy.

While this may be outrageous to many people hoping to have the United States to maintain its ideals, Trump might actually drive a stronger and more effective foreign policy. But the key question is whether Trump has the discipline to do so. Plus, he needs to deal with skeptical leaders from all over the world, who wonder whether Trump is a showman who can actually deliver or just another snake-oil seller.

Many people, in the US and around the world, believe that he is unsuited to govern. Obama even declared that Trump is unfit to be the president of the United States. So in the end, it could very well be somewhat easy for him to prove his critics wrong because he has such a low bar to cross. Strange as it may sound, seeming only slightly sensible on governing issues is probably a big win for him politically.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Meaning and Fallout of Trump's Win

Photo: Dina Litovsky for TIME

Okay, I'm definitely not crazy about Trump being the next US president, but I'm also not creating an underground bunker or making plans to head to Canada. Mostly, I'm fascinated by it all. Here are few things that caught my attention. For now, I’m focusing my eye on the domestic political battles and fallout of yesterday’s vote. In future posts, I will discuss the foreign policy implications of a Trump presidency. 

1. I’m fascinated that the polls, pollsters, and forecasters got it so wrong. This is the latest in a string of faulty polls this year. Brexit, the Columbian-FARC referendum and now Trump’s election defied the polls, and all were major upsets on the magnitude of the Cubs winning the World Series and Leicester City winning last season’s Premier League. In fact, 2016 seems to be the year of the upset, of the unlikely actually happening.

2. The US elected its second consecutive political unknown. Barack Obama was so inexperienced and so unfamiliar to many Americans when he started his campaign in 2007, yet he climbed Mount Clinton and McCain to the White House. Trump has followed in these footsteps. It might sound strange, perhaps, to say that Trump is an unknown figure. After all, Trump, as a personality, is well-known, and he's said crazy, highly-publicized things, but he’s a political neophyte, much more so than Obama. Plus, what does he really think and believe? He's taken many sides on a number of issues; plus, he was a liberal Democrat as of just a few years ago. So what are his political beliefs? I’m really not sure, and I suspect many Trump supporters, if they answered honestly, would say the same. For instance, this is one comment I hear repeatedly from Trump folks: All the crazy stuff Trump says? He doesn’t mean it. It’s just for entertainment purposes. Perhaps, but that’s pure speculation.

3. Additionally, there's a "kiss the ring" aspect now to GOP politics. Trump won, and he's now in a position to exact revenge on those Republicans and Conservatives--elected officials, party leaders, donors, conservative thinkers and writers—who distanced themselves from or came out against him, unless they pledge fealty to Trump. How will Trump the Godfather play his hand?

4. There’s also the huge shift in the dominant narrative of the Democratic Party. In a matter of hours, the predicted huge, lightning win for the Clinton juggernaut has quickly morphed into elegies about a Democratic party in tatters. That’s too alarmist for my taste. Still, the question about the impact of Trump’s rise on the Democratic Party is an interesting one that will unfold over the next few years. Furthermore, Democrats will have to think long and hard about how to shore up their weak areas of support: white folks, especially white men, members of the military, citizens without a college degree, the 40 and over crowd, and Christians, among others. 

5. And then we have the drama about the Trump-Clinton legal battle that has yet to be settled. Will he indeed set up an investigation into all of Clinton’s dealings and correspondence, as he publicly suggested in one of the debates? Or will he scuttle that idea, content with the fact he won the presidency. Congressional Republicans, in general, do not want Clinton investigations, for fear of political overreach. But at the same time, many of Trump’s base of support want her political blood. They’ve feared her for 30 years and see her as the enemy, no different than al-Qaeda or ISIS or North Korea. Thus far, throughout the campaign season, Trump has eschewed political convention and catered to his base. Will he continue that modus operandi as president?

6. Lastly, keep in mind that Trumpism is real and can’t be wished or hoped away. And it’s not just a set of thoughts and beliefs of a “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton stated. So what is it? What is Trumpism?

It’s a 21st century American form of populism. It includes a fear of change, of immigrants and Americans of color transforming the US into looking and feeling differently and troubled. It believes that ordinary citizens are getting ripped off by elites, in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere. It perceives that leaders in Washington don’t listen to or care about ordinary citizens, at all—that there’s way too much neglect about lost factory and manufacturing jobs, too little focus on job retraining, not enough attention to drugs and violence in cities, among other things. And there’s widespread worry that folks can’t move up in the world, that the doors to a better life are locked and they can’t get in. And these doors are locked by the greedy, nepotistic, and corrupt—all of whom are hoarding economic and political power for their selfish professional and personal gain. Viewed though this prism, Trump voters see themselves living in a purportedly free society, yet it feels, in very tangible ways, like elite-imposed imprisonment.

7. Will Trump get eaten by his own monster, his own creation? What happens when Trump, as is inevitably the case, disappoints his base? Do they stick with them? And are they just as enthusiastic about him in a year or two down the road? Or do they abandon him? Specifically, what happens to Trump’s political fortunes if dismantling Obamacare and building his proposed wall prove to be much tougher than he promised? This is something to consider, as 2018 and another round of elections isn’t that far away. Put simply, Trump’s rise could very well lead to a Trump backlash, paving the way for the Democrats to retake Congress in 2018. 

A quick look back at Obama’s first term is instructive here. The hope and joy on the left for Obama’s ascent quickly gave way to apathy and disappointment by 2010. Obama's planned domestic upgrades either weren't happening or weren't happening fast enough, for Republicans and Conservatives, certainly, but also, for his political base on the left as well: wages weren't rising, jobs weren't coming back, Obamacare wasn't a panacea, the financial stimulus was increasingly unpopular, the debt kept rising, and so on. And in the 2010 elections, with an unmotivated liberal base failing to turn out in the same numbers as in 2008, Republicans gained six Senate seats and 63 House seats, one of the worst showings for an incumbent party in 60 plus years. 

Even though he's not yet in office, Trump is already on the clock. How he handles himself publicly, how he deals with both parties, who he puts in his cabinet, and the fleshed-out contents of his policies will shape and influence his political standing and power going forward, from this moment on. It’s up to him to wisely spend or waste his political power.

8. What I am most concerned about is that, throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has catered and cozied up to the white nationalist crowd. And this crowd sees Trump as one of them. Combined, we now have an environment in America in which KKK-types feel emboldened to do and say reprehensible things. Already, since Wednesday morning, when the the election results became clear, there have been a number of racist, hateful acts committed by Trump-inspired thugs and goons, who have targeted women, blacks, Latinos(as), Muslims, and so on. The activist and social media maven Shaun King has done a good job documenting the growing number of hate crimes and acts.

Trump needs to get on top of this wave of hate, and fast. He must not only distance himself and his incoming administration from the racists and xenophobes, he must condemn them and their words and deeds. If he really wants to govern for all Americans, as he has said, then this is something he has to do.

9. I would like to end on a positive note. At this point, I'm not overly alarmed about Trump the policymaker. Sure, he's proposed some kooky and at times offensive domestic and foreign policies. And, yes, his administration will likely employ some goofs and no-nothings. Names like Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, Corey Lewandowski and John Bolton--rumored candidates for spots in a Trump government--hardly inspire confidence. In fact, on Sunday, Trump announced that Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart and conspiracy theory propagandist, will serve as his Chief Strategist and the constantly befuddled RNC Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff. That doesn't sound good, certainly, but there is a silver lining.

The US possesses strong and durable domestic political institutions as well as a host of highly motivated oppositional actors, and these forces will look to circumscribe Trump's power and block any and all of Trump's most harmful policies. In fact, the protesters in the streets in several cities already have put Trump on notice of this very fact. Together, by Constitutional design, they can work to channel Trump away from his worst instincts and into a more productive direction. If anything, rather than impending fascism and strongman rule--which are concerns of leftists and "Never Trumpers" on the right--I see continued, and perhaps even heightened, political and policy gridlock and paralysis.

So, to those who lament a Trump presidency and the demise of American democracy, all is not lost; work hard and keep up the fight for what you believe in. To the Trump supporters, be happy. Your preferred candidate won. I hope Trump goes to bat for you and your interests and makes your lives better, more enriched. And to all Americans, after such a tough, vitriolic campaign season, I hope we all can remain calm and reasonable, more willing to listen and understand the beliefs and attitudes of those across the political aisle, and better able to find common ground on important issues of the day. And just remember, like President Obama said Thursday, if Trump succeeds as president, America also succeeds. Those are good words to keep in mind.