Like the 102 Pilgrim Fathers who sailed into Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, the millions of Americans who elected Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States are heading into uncharted territory.
Not only did Trump defy the pollsters and humiliate his Democrat opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he rewarded the Republican Party that backed him—albeit with a certain reluctance. He delivered his party control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving him power only dreamt of by other US presidents. Not only that, but he will be able to replace three retiring judges of the Supreme Court with appointees more sympathetic to the Trump cause.
No one really knows what the billionaire property developer will do when he moves into the White House in January. But the people who control the world’s money—in Wall Street, London, and Shanghai—showed their deep concerns. The US S&P 500 index futures market fell by almost 5 per cent once it became clear Trump would win. It was the biggest loss since 9/11.
However, the mood changed when the victor took a conciliatory line in his acceptance speech. When aides indicated the economic priority would be fiscal measures to stimulate economic growth, there was a heavy correction to the positive side, with the S & P 500 ending 9 November surging above its average price for the previous 100 days.
Still, The New York Times noted that Trump had delivered the biggest political shock to the US political system in modern times. It is indeed; it is a change that may allow Trump to upend the policies and practices that have been at the cornerstone of the Washington establishment for a generation. It was known that white middle and working class Americans were disgruntled and angry; what was not expected was that they would make their voice heard in sufficiently large numbers to make it count.
The voters ignored the polls that predicted a Clinton victory two days after the FBI had decided—for the second time—that they had no case against her leaked emails. They also ignored the final pleadings of President Barack Obama saying Trump was temperamentally unfit to move into the Oval Office.
At a big rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just hours before the polls opened, Obama scoffed: “Over the weekend, his campaign team took away his Twitter account,” referring to a detailed report in the New York Times. “Now, if your closest advisers don’t trust you to tweet, then how can we trust him with the nuclear codes?”
But those who voted for Trump appear to have little concern about nuclear conflict. Nor do they appear to have been unduly bothered by Trump’s sexual history; in fact, it appears that women did not turn to Clinton en masse, as pollsters predicted.
The message for the Democrats from this election is that they have ignored their traditional support among white working class families for far too long. The faces of campaigners inside the Democrat gathering in a New York hotel grew longer by the hour as Clinton first of all lost the swing state of North Carolina, and then Florida. Then came Trump’s triumph in the rust belt states of Ohio and Michigan, where tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in recent decades as manufacturers have shifted operations to Mexico and elsewhere.
Trump promised them that he would repeal NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and other trade pacts that he claims have disadvantaged American workers, and confront China over alleged currency manipulation.
Another Trump line that resonated with voters was his pledge to “drain the [Washington] swamps” by reforming a government system that is deeply unpopular.
Yet this is not just about domestic politics. The result could be particularly worrying for Australia, as Trump has pledged to reverse the internationalism that has been practised by both parties since World War II. Whether or not he will do so is another matter, but his campaign rhetoric showed scant regard for alliances that have underpinned world order across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for more than 70 years, including NATO, and military pacts with Japan, South Korea and ANZUS.
The pivot to Asia may well be history, as Trump has made it clear he sees himself as having a business to business relationship with the strong men of China and Russia, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. It is hard to see where this will lead, but the path may not be as cordial—or as successful—as that trodden by Ronald Reagan.
His stunning victory will allow Trump to reshape America, but it creates a headache for Canberra. It brings back into sharp focus once again Professor Hugh White’s much quoted thesis that Australia may have to choose between its most important trading partner, China, and its security partner, the US. Depending on what Trump does next year, both Australia’s security partnership and trading patterns may well be less certain. Bogged down as it is with domestic considerations and social policies, is our parliament equipped to deal with such a seismic change?
Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is also the immediate past president of the AIIA in NSW.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.