Populist movements purporting to represent the interests of the ‘honest’, hard-working (normally ethnically and culturally homogeneous) ‘people’ against a distant and corrupt elite or ‘establishment’ have been a recurrent feature of US political history. While earlier movements all ultimately failed, Trump has won, his success favoured by a uniquely favourable constellation of socio-economic, cultural and political conditions.
Now someone who can reasonably be labelled a misogynist, racist, a religious bigot and a narcissist occupies the most powerful political office in the world. Where will he try to take the United States – and the world? Judging by his inauguration speech we should assume that that he will try to put in place the policies he pledged in his election campaign and since then. What might they mean?
Protectionism’s sombre record
To impose unilateral tariffs on imports into the US will provoke trade wars, at least with those countries, such as China, large enough to stand up to the United States. Trade wars will hurt trade and are likely to damage all protagonists.
Such measures would likely be illegal under international law and thus destroy the authority of the (already ailing) WTO, undermining the principal international institution underpinning relatively free international trade. Generalized economic protectionism would provoke a world economic crisis, radicalize domestic and international politics and heighten the risk of wars – see the 1930s.
To act as though NATO is ‘obsolete’ would be to encourage Putin’s military adventurism – already evident in Ukraine and the Crimea – elsewhere in Eastern Europe and increase the risk of military confrontation between NATO and Russia. To align the US with Russia or equate it with NATO members, such as Germany, as some of his remarks have suggested, would be to undermine the alliance itself. Absent closer European defence cooperation than currently exists, this might provoke security competition and tensions even among existing NATO members.
Ideology over science
To disengage from international efforts and agreements to combat climate change would increase the risk of global warming, with all its prospective deleterious consequences, becoming irreversible. If the US, historically the biggest generator of CO2 emissions, is not trying to combat climate change, what incentive will other countries have to make the adjustments and sacrifices required to do so?
If he withdraws the US from the Iranian nuclear accord, Iran would resume its nuclear weapons programme, deepening the cleavage and exacerbating already existing conflicts between Shiite and Sunni blocs in the Middle East and Gulf region as well as heightening the risk of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel.
If, supported by the several ex–Wall Street executives whom he has recruited to his administration, he dismantles the Dodd-Frank Act that strengthened financial regulation in response to the GFC, new financial crises will become more likely.
It is conceivable that on these issues wiser and more cautious minds will prevail over Trump’s. In Senate hearings, some members of his new administration diverged from a number of his stances. But the occupants of the main posts do not have their own power bases in the Republican Party and can therefore be easily replaced by Trump if they fall out with him.
Governing by Twitter
In any case, those more cautious than Trump will not prevent him from tweeting. In politics, rhetoric, language and words – and not only deeds – are facts that can have very concrete effects. It will not always be easy to divine what are the administration’s actual policies. This uncertainty will have its own destabilizing impact – especially on US foreign relations, as, compared with domestic actors, foreign governments will find it harder to identify which path the administration will actually follow.
Until 2018 at the earliest, Trump will also benefit from Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. He does not belong to the party establishment and is not ‘one of them’. Indeed many Congressional Republicans despise him. Mindful of their re-election prospects, however, they will not fall out of line if and as long as he appears to be a vote-winner on whose coattails they can ride back into the Congress in 2018. Moreover, on some issues, especially domestic ones such as health care and financial regulation, they are in any case more likely to be a radicalizing than a restraining force on Trump.
Public opinion – American public opinion, less on the liberal coasts than in the more conservative interior that put him into office – will be the principal determinant of Trump’s latitude of action. We cannot be certain, though, that this factor will pre-empt the potentially major economic, political, military and environmental disasters which, unrestrained, he may precipitate.
A perilous journey
With Trump in the White House, the US and world are thus embarking on a very perilous journey very probably involving heightened levels of instability, conflict and violence. To draw parallels with the 1930s is not unfounded. Already we have high or mass unemployment in many countries, especially among the young. Reminiscent of the ill-fated balanced-budget policy of the German Chancellor Brüning in the early 1930s, fiscal austerity is being externally and relentlessly imposed in parts of the Eurozone. Populist and nationalist movements are growing rapidly also in other parts of the West. The international influence of authoritarian states (Russia and China) is rising. Liberal democracy is giving way increasingly to illiberal democracy (Hungary and Poland) or outright authoritarianism (Turkey). International organizations are weakening (Brexit) and international crises plentiful (Syria, Ukraine, maritime Southeast Asia, etc.).
Trump’s arrival in the White House is bound to exacerbate this precarious international economic and political conjuncture. True, he has no overt Fascist ideology or project to overturn American democracy nor a paramilitary movement to intimidate and suppress political opposition. Moreover, the separation of powers enshrined in the US constitution guards against the worst potential abuses of executive power. To this extent, other than in Sinclair Lewis’s novel from America in the 1930s, it probably ‘can’t happen here’.
But the new president arguably does possess numerous traits – intolerance of opponents, the cultivation of ‘enemies’ (the liberal media), fear of diversity (Islam/Muslims), the rejection of (for example, climate) science, contempt for ‘losers’ or the weak, the exultation of a glorious past to be restored (‘Make America great again!’) – that have typified Fascist leaders in history. These will be on abundant display during the next years and their cumulative impact will be to polarize and poison American and international political life.
A lot will change in the next four – or eight – years of Trump. But, for those in the United States and elsewhere who cherish the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, nothing, one must fear, will change for the better.
Read the previous article, ‘Trump: How We Got Here’.