There have been few political moments quite like the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America. Confounding both pundits and pollsters, the New York businessman has redrawn the electoral map of the United States and is now President-Elect with his inauguration scheduled for January.
For a political novice who seemed to break every cardinal rule of American politics, the rise of Trump and his eventual victory is clearly remarkable. It will also have profound implications both in the United States and around the world. While in the aftermath of an election which was clearly such a surprise to so many observers (this writer included) one should probably err on the side of caution in making predictions, it is nonetheless possible to make some assessments of what the rise of Trump will mean for the UK and wider world.
1. Our politicians are entering uncharted waters
The one area where it is probably most difficult to pin Trump down on is policy. While that might seem like a remarkable thing to say about a politician, Trump’s success has never been based on specific policy solutions or ideas for solving governmental problems.
His appeal to particular segments of the American electorate (overwhelmingly white, middle to high income, rural and small-town voters) has always been about his bravado and his willingness to appeal to socially suspect (if not outright unacceptable) points of view.
2. We may encounter problems when it comes to trading with the US
Despite the distinct lack of detail, Trump has set out some policies in the realm of foreign affairs. The signature issue of his campaign was international trade, as he went against prevailing orthodoxy in his own party and among centrist Democrats to advocate the imposition of tariffs and the variance of trade deals.
These ideas were articulated in seemingly contradictory ways, in that the President-Elect suggested he was pro-free trade but wanted to "take back our jobs" lost as a result of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed in the 1990s. It therefore seems likely that Trump will pursue an anti-trade policy that will prioritise maintaining what is left of American industry and manufacturing. This is likely to be resisted strongly by congressional leaders who remain overwhelmingly in favour of free trade and it remains to be seen how far Trump will go to try and impose protectionist tariffs to benefit American industry. In a globalised economy where the priority of most has been deeper economic integration he will face a strong head-wind and his success is hard to predict.
From a British perspective this is a particularly worrying development in light of Brexit and the desire of the UK government to conclude a trade deal with the US. During the campaign Trump did suggest the UK would be close to the front of the queue in negotiating any deal, but this seemed more aimed at differentiating himself from Obama that an expression of conviction.
3. Increasied uncertainty when it comes to global security
The President-Elect repeatedly said that he would “smash the hell out of ISIS” and appears to favour siding with Syrian President Assad and the Russian intervention in the Middle East in order to achieve this goal. A Trump presidency is therefore likely to emphasise human rights and the avoidance of atrocities considerably less than other recent presidents, and it has become increasingly clear that Trump sees Putin more as a partner than an adversary.
When it comes to the Middle East, once again Trump policy appears to be a contradiction. He claims he will destroy ISIS while concurrently shying away from American involvement in the region. He makes at times bizarre claims about the need to “take the oil” or execute the families of terrorists as if either policy is either feasible or legal. Much will depend on what advisors Trump appoints on this issue as it appears to be one of the many areas of public policy where he has very little knowledge of the relevant issues.
He claims he will destroy ISIS while concurrently shying away from American involvement in the region
Trump has expressed considerable antipathy towards both Muslims and refugees in general and it is likely that he will use executive authority to considerably reduce or eliminate the current resettlement efforts being undertaken by the US government.
Overall the President-Elect’s policy is one of isolationism rather than intervention and corporation. While the pendulum of American foreign policy has swung in each direction over the last 70 years, the vast majority of foreign policy experts consider an engaged US presence abroad as fundamental to global security. Such a belief underpins British foreign policy and the UK is likely to lose influence if Trump does not align his policy with what has preceded him.
4. The status quo is being shaken
The other equally significant impact that Trump will have internationally including in the UK is the culture clash his election, behaviour and views represents. Trump has aligned himself with forces that resent the ethnic, religious and cultural changes that have taken place in the United States over the last 50 years.
Such movements exist across the Western World including UKIP in the UK and the Front Nationale in France. By legitimising this insidious counter-culture centred around grievance, bigotry and nationalism in the largest developed democracy, Trump’s true effect is likely to be that of a domino. His election and his stated goals risk shaking the foundations of global and national institutions in the democratic world, and even destroying them.
Few elections have ever been so consequential, or so frightening.
Philip Gardner has worked in public affairs, politics and think tanks on both sides for the Atlantic. He is now becoming a lawyer and will practice in international law, transnational crime and commercial litigation. The son of a Greek Orthodox mother and a C of E father, Philip found his home in the Methodist Church.