Donald Trump rides the end of the American Dream
It’s the Year of the Joker. Boris Johnson as British foreign secretary. Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines. And now Donald Trump as president of the United States.
At least “Duterte Harry” was more predictable. The British referendum result and the Trump victory blindsided the establishments in both countries: party leaders, financial markets and opinion pollsters didn’t know what the voters were thinking. They saved it for the ballot box.
As Gérard Araud, the French ambassador in Washington, tweeted: “After Brexit and this election, anything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes. Un vertige.” Dizziness. Indeed. At this rate, next year Araud could be serving under President Marine Le Pen.
In both the British and American cases, the result is a backlash by the white, native-born middle and lower classes against globalisation and neoliberal economics. It’s tempting to say the Democrats should have chosen Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren instead of Hillary Clinton. But they, like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, would not have gone down the xenophobic road to win either.
This is anti-Thatcherism, anti-Reaganism, except for the bits where they beat up on Argentinians and Panamanians. Retro-conservatives such as Eric Abetz may gloat at the commentariat failing to read the signals – until someone like Jacqui Lambie sweeps aside his 1800-member Tasmanian party branch.
White Christians feel a threatened species in the US. Their percentage of the population has declined from 54 per cent in 2008 to about 43 per cent now. The mortality rate for white non-Hispanic Americans was falling about 2 per cent every year before 1998; since then it’s been rising by about half a per cent a year, as suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses outweighed medical advances. Life expectancy started falling for whites in 2014.
There’s despair out there for some, anger for the rest in the rust belts and declining small towns. Members of the growing number of armed militias such as the Oath Keepers and the III% Security Force talk of insurrection. But it was Mom and Pop coming out to vote that did it, overcoming their doubts about Trump’s fraudulent business record, abusive sexual behaviour, and dubious Christianity because he was the one talking about jobs going to other countries and alien people coming in.
They saw no sincerity in Hillary Clinton’s references to these issues or her boasts of a lifetime of public service. Instead they were open to criticism about her use of a private email server while secretary of state, her reticence about highly paid speeches to Wall Street investment banks, and the indications of influence-peddling through the Clinton Foundation. She was part of the mistrusted elite.
This may have been the last hurrah of the white Americans, but before their electoral dominance dwindles further, they want to take down the establishment that dashed their American dream.
The thing about jokers is they can become any card in the pack. So trying to analyse what will happen under Trump’s presidency on the basis of his campaign platform comes with the caveat he might not mean anything he says.
He stopped talking some time back about his promise to round up and deport six million undocumented immigrants, not only because of the impossible logistics but because it would devastate large swaths of agriculture and other industries. But he plans to proceed with deportations of those with criminal records, without yet detailing how serious the convictions have to be. That could run to a couple of million people. Work on “the wall” along the Mexican border won’t start on his first day, but he still promises it, and that Mexico will somehow be made to pay. Immigration from “terror-prone” regions will be suspended. Obama’s health insurance scheme will be cancelled but replaced with “something better”. Supreme Court vacancies will be filled with judges known for their conservative views on abortion and gun ownership. Police will treat black-populated cities as war zones, even more than they do now.
Day one will include an announced intention to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade and investment pact with 11 other countries, including Australia, that was launched by the Republicans under George Bush and taken up by Barack Obama.
Instead, he wants to apply retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods, and to force both China and Japan to revalue their currencies. A crash in world trade, a slump in China and falling commodity prices would result. “We are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight,” commented Nobel economic laureate Paul Krugman. HSBC economists think Trump’s promised tax cuts might give an early boost, before trade and migration restrictions put the US economy into recession in one or two years.
In foreign policy, Trump comes across as an isolationist, despite wanting to add tens of billions more to defence spending and “bomb the hell” out of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and resume torture of terrorism suspects.
He’s an admirer of strong leaders, and implicitly spheres of interest. Sanctions will be dropped against Russia over Crimea, and Bashar al-Assad allowed to regain control over Syria. Allies in Europe and East Asia will somehow have to pay more for the US nuclear and conventional umbrella. Vladimir Putin said he welcomed the election result and hoped it would pull relations out of “crisis”.
In Japan, where your editor is at the moment, Trump’s victory has been a shattering surprise. Shinzō Abe was in the process of forcing through Diet ratification of the TPP, in the hope it would act as the “third arrow” of his so-called Abenomics to stimulate the lacklustre economy, and perhaps give cover to his aim of remilitarising Japan.
Japanese visitors say that even before the election China was suddenly being nice, in the hope of driving a wedge between Japan and a paralysed US. They may even hope South Korea will turn to China as its guarantor against nuclear bullying by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator.
Alternatively, Japan and possibly South Korea might decide they need nuclear weapons too. They could both develop them quickly. At one point in the campaign, Trump suggested this as a good idea. Combine that with a trade war that would bring down the Chinese economy and complicate his continuing power grab, China’s Xi Jinping might see mixed benefits in the Trump shock.
Climate change, meantime, is another Chinese plot. Coal-fired power generation will resume, natural gas fracking will be encouraged, and the Keystone pipeline bringing heavy oil from Canadian tar sands will be unblocked. The billions of dollars Obama promised to the United Nations climate change fund will be cancelled.
Ahead of this potential apocalypse, Obama has a few weeks until Trump’s inauguration to make some gestures. He’ll try to get the senate to ratify the TPP, but his liberal nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy might as well abandon hopes of senate approval.
Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has an uneasy few weeks before he can relax under a Trump policy that will end pressure for a two-state solution with the Palestinians any time soon and maybe shift the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It’s widely expected Obama will now pay him back, perhaps in a UN vote, for eight years of token co-operation in the Palestinian peace talks and active opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement. Bibi has cautioned West Bank settlers against “unwise conduct” in the sensitive time before January 20 that could “endanger the entire settlement enterprise”.
Then the nightmare, or maybe an era of great comedy, will start. Julie Bishop and Marise Payne have pumped out ANZUS-as-usual statements about their readiness to work with the American people’s choice. They’ll be wondering whom among Trump’s tarnished circle of advisers and cronies he’ll appoint as secretaries of state and defence, and whom he’ll send out as ambassador. They’ll know that America has suddenly set a low bar among world leaders, and its Asian pivot looks shot to pieces. The Doonesbury chronicles of Ronald Reagan’s mental decline in office will be nothing compared with the lampooning of President Trump.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Trump rides the end of the American Dream". Subscribe here.