Donald J. Trump was right in predicting ‘Brexit plus plus plus’. Comparing the maps of the two votes – the British referendum on 23 June, and the American presidential election on 8 November – one notes a clear contrast between constituencies that have gained from globalisation (London and the major cities; New York, the north-eastern United States and the West Coast) and those that lost out from international competition (post-industrial England, and the “rust belt”, rural England and the American Midwest). Many Labour voters espoused the same position as anti-European Conservatives, and workers in Ohio who generally leaned towards the Democratic Party cast their ballots for the Republican candidate. There has been an economic upturn on both sides of the Atlantic, but the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis is still very present in the minds of half of both electorates. The United Kingdom is preparing to leave a European Union it played no small part in shaping (neo-liberal economics, continued enlargement, no European defence force and no political union), while Trump voters want the United States to turn its back on a post-war world order built entirely by Washington (expansion of democracy and the market economy; last-resort security guarantor for its European and Asian allies; international institutions headquartered in New York and Washington; repeated military interventions to promote “Wilsonianism in boots”). On the face of it, this constitutes a radical change of path for the two countries and for the world as a whole.
In fact, during his term as the 45th President of the world’s superpower, Trump will speed up the implementation of adjustments and reorientations already evident under Obama, who had embarked on a structural transformation of U.S. relations with the rest of the world. This involved nation-building at home rather than in Afghanistan; an end to disastrous military expeditions overseas and a renewed focus on the U.S. national interest (which explains why there was inertia on Syria, yet vigorous anti-terrorist operations); demands for increased defence spending by America’s strategic allies; a ‘reset’ with Russia, which is preparing for this; and an unwavering goal of containing China. This approach will no longer be underpinned by Obama’s sophisticated analysis, but the world’s sheriff has already decided to hand in his star. Isolationism? No, more like ‘Americanism’.
Trump will be pragmatic, because his voters – if he respects them – are expecting the federal authorities to concentrate on looking after them rather than world peace, a task that is beyond a country so deep in debt ($22 trillion by 2020). He is a protectionist, and the various free trade agreements – both existing (NAFTA) and in negotiation (TTIP, TPP) – will be reassessed. Like Theresa May, he will have to manage immigration (a Republican Party priority), and therefore relations with Latin America. The United States will be merely ‘first among equals’ in a globalised yet fragmented world.
Trump’s domestic policies are contradictory, for it is hard to see how a drastic tax reductions, and privatisation and competition in the health insurance market will check the growing inequalities denounced by those who voted for him out of a sense of declining social status. ‘Make America Great Again’ is not a geopolitical slogan, but a reminder that for many the American dream of upward social mobility is no more than a mirage.
In short, to understand what happened in America on 8 November 2016, it is more useful to analyse the winds that are buffeting a diverse and divided society rather than to focus entirely on the unlikely and controversial figure of a victor who came to prominence on reality television and has now torn up the political rulebook. Reagan came from the world of B-movies, and with the help of Margaret Thatcher he drove a period of radical deregulation that gave rise to the neoliberal world order from which Trump’s and May’s voters now seem to want to disengage.
Europe must make urgent preparations for a world that will become increasingly multipolar, which means that it will have to take on greater responsibility. The chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee sees this American election, with its attendant risk of disengagement from world affairs, as a serious wake-up call. It is possible that upcoming elections in several key European states may make 2017 a ‘lost year’.