Donald Trump is not a normal politician. That, at least, both his detractors and supporters agree on. To the former, it’s a sign of his dangerous unpredictability and callow inexperience; to the latter, a token of his status as one unaffected by the rot of the Washington bubble. But if that’s what he’s not, the question remains of what he is.
To answer that, we must journey back in time long before a Trump presidency was ever anything other than a punchline to a particularly bad joke. For before Trump the politician, there was Trump the businessman; the blond-haired bruiser from New York’s Midtown, clad in a sharp suit, beautiful supermodel in tow, butting heads with rivals across boardrooms. Times may have changed, the tawdry glitz of Trump Tower may have been exchanged for the grandeur of the White House, but at heart Donald J. Trump is best understood as a businessman.
Seeing him as this rather than a politician helps explain much that is bewildering about him. Trump is not bound by the conventions that politicians are normally constrained by; the expectations to speak truthfully, to fulfil promises, to act in a measured way. Businessmen have no truck with any of this. A Manhattan real estate investor, sitting across a table from his competitors, doesn’t act like a politician; he curses at them and cajoles them, he slams the table, he insults them, and eventually he wins.
All the bombast of Trump – all the gratuitous offensiveness, the rude tweets, the childish appellations he attaches to his rivals (of which ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lying Ted’ are the highlights) should be seen through this lens – as a posture Trump adopts in order to help him win. He doesn’t even seem to believe much of it; witness how fast the vitriol directed at Ben Carson, for instance, was replaced by the warm embrace of an offer of a job on his campaign. We’ve all been taken in by the act of a showman.
But this act extends to far more than Trump’s pugnacious demeanour. Far too many people – on both sides of the political spectrum – were taken in by Trump’s grandiose statements of policy during the campaign. Perhaps reasonably, they viewed them as they viewed policy announcements by prior politicians – that is to stay, statements of intent that, if elected, he would follow through on.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, their true nature becomes clear. They were not statements but opening gambits in negotiations. Take Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban.’ Trump made his ‘offer’ to the American people, so to speak, with his call for ‘a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ The reaction was mostly shock and disgust – but the initial bid had been made.
Upon Trump’s election as President, opposing ‘offers’ were made in the form of vociferous opposition both Congressional and judicial. What took place next – the wrangling between Trump and various judges – might be termed the ‘negotiations’, much as an aggressive property developer might argue with a tenant over a disputed term in a contract. What eventually emerged was a travel ban that is, by all sane accounts, very reasonable – common-sense, time-limited restrictions on emigration from a handful of notoriously dangerous countries.
This isn’t how politicians operate; it’s precisely how businessmen do. No self-respecting businessman worth his salt will walk into negotiations and state the price he wants, knowing that the cut and thrust of negotiations will drive it down. Instead he names a figure twice as high as he wants, knowing the response will be half as much as he wants. Through slow back-and-forth argumentation, eventually the two parties arrive at a price both consider ‘fair.’ It’s an almost dialectical style of governing, one which has never really been tried before.
The same applies with Trump’s flagship policy – fighting illegal immigration. When Trump started talking about building ‘a big beautiful wall with Mexico’ and repealing DACA, he almost certainly never wanted to do anything of the sort. Instead, he was seeking to do two things; firstly to make illegal immigration (by all accounts a genuine issue) part of the national debate, and also to make an extreme initial demand, knowing that he’ll never get it but that negotiations are now open.
Upon his election, Trump immediately faced pushback from liberal voices in Congress. What most failed to realise was that Trump intended for this to happen. Trump is not a moron; he employs many undocumented workers himself, and recognises that a blanket deportation would be economically damaging to the country. But by demanding a huge amount initially, he was able to pull negotiations in his favour and eventually conclude an agreement with Democratic leadership which meant that key provisions of DACA would be kept in place, with funding for a wall highly unlikely.
One of the few people who understood all this about him was the Democrat who worked alongside him on hammering out this deal, Chuck Schumer. Schumer, like Trump, is a New Yorker, and like all New Yorkers he’s steeped in the commerciality of that city. He recognises Trump for what he is; a negotiator willing to brawl a bit to get the deal he wants. Though politically he seems the antithesis of Trump, Schumer is more similar to the man than many realise. Neither are beyond a bit of chest-thumping and posturing, but fundamentally both are nothing more than negotiators. By all accounts the two have a good personal rapport – an indication that Trump’s aggressively partisan demeanour is an artfully-constructed artifice.
‘We are not wholly bad or good,’ Dylan Thomas reminds us. The same might be said to hold true for Donald Trump. It’s beyond dispute that he’s a thin-skinned sexist who will do or say pretty much anything to attain wealth and power. It’s also true that politically he’s proving to be far more nuanced than anyone had assumed. He has at least three more years left (and, who knows, perhaps even seven) and the world would be advised to prepare themselves for more surprises.
Though the tortuous process of appeals, recounts and formalities will no doubt continue for several days more, the result now seems certain; Donald J. Trump is to become the next President of the United States. When he announced his candidacy in June 2015, the reaction was one of mild amusement. By the time he won the Republican nomination in May of 2016, the amusement had turned to panic. But even at that juncture, few imagined that Trump would eventually succeed in his quixotic quest for the presidency. And yet.
This result is all the more surprising in the wake of weeks of polling suggesting that Hillary Clinton had a small but consistent lead in most swing states, something which led most analysts to predict a fairly comfortable victory. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did Trump win in heavily contested states such as Florida or North Carolina, he also carried states such as Wisconsin and Michigan – both states considered ‘safe’ by the Clinton campaign. A 300+ total of electoral votes seems entirely plausible.
How did this happen? Throughout the campaign, various theories have been offered for Trump’s appeal – some economic, some sociological, some cultural. All are true to a certain extent, but Trump’s victory cannot be reduced to any of them. Perhaps the only explanation for it is that it is non-explainable. In the words of David Axelrod, a certain class of voters have uttered a ‘primal scream’ at the ballot box – a cri de coeur of rage and embitterment, channelled through the person of Donald Trump. To these voters, Trump is a symbol of resistance to everything which they oppose, and as such is worthy of the vote no matter what.
Their rage is directed at a multitude of things; feminism, immigration, sexual tolerance, intellectualism, ‘the elite.’ All of this can be summed up in a word; modernity. Donald Trump is a radical reactionary, insofar as his attitude and policies reflect a desire to take America back to a putative ‘golden age.’ Of course, this ‘golden age’ was far from golden for many – the African Americans living under Jim Crow, the women expected to abandon all aspirations and raise families, the labourers working under atrocious conditions without union rights. But – and this is the fact that won Trump the election – for a significant number of people this was a golden age. For white lower-middle class men in particular, this was a fairly blissful period, and moreover considerably preferable to modernity.
They voted to attempt to reconstruct this idealised 1950s America, and they did so in 2016 because the vestiges of it are being lost. It is no coincidence that the most fervent Trump supporters come from what might be termed ‘transition areas’ – ones which were formerly all-white, but which are slowly experiencing inward migration of African-Americans and Hispanics. Though the civil rights movement and the social changes of the 1970s/80s altered America’s landscape, there were enough enclaves of traditionalism left that voters could simply ignore the ‘winds of change.’ But when these last areas appear to be slipping away to multiculturalism and liberalism, panic sets in – the result is Donald Trump.
As such, this should inform how we – the rest of the world – react to Mr Trump’s victory. Trump has won through harnessing the rage of small-town bigots and reactionaries. He has done so by offering a vision of America inimical to modern values, and by intentionally pandering to these reactionaries. This is evidenced in his policies – from his grotesque plan to ‘ban Muslims’ from entering America, to his misinformed and economically naïve views on free trade. America has elected an emissary of parochial bigotry and suburban prejudice.
It is imperative, therefore, that we do not attempt to normalise this election. This is emphatically not ‘just another vote’, and a reality which we will have to attune ourselves to sooner rather than later. This is a fundamental alteration of America’s political climate, and a token of the ascendency of a very dangerous ideology.
The legitimacy of the vote cannot be challenged. Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America, and will remain so for the next four years at least. Attempts to contest the results, or declare them ‘rigged’, are foolhardy and childish. Furthermore, governments around the world should not attempt to shun President Trump, but must tirelessly work with him to ensure that they can influence his policy – domestically and abroad – as much as is possible. The criticism of Theresa May’s message of congratulations to Mr Trump is misplaced, albeit understandable – she has a duty to get the best deal for her citizens, and unnecessarily antagonising Trump will not get such a deal.
Areas in which foreign states can positively influence Trump include trade, defence and security. With regards the latter, Europe can (and almost certainly will) make it clear that the only loser from a breakdown of the free trade system will be the USA – if America withdraws from NAFTA, Mexican industries will just start taking orders from Germany and France. Similarly, foreign influence can be leveraged to encourage Trump to avoid provoking Iran, or attempting to ‘take the oil’ in Syria – Trump will soon come up against the limits of unilateralism, and the guiding hand of other NATO states can prevent him from taking rash steps. In all these areas, we have an obligation to work constructively with Trump’s America; if we do not, then we risk allowing a hard-right regime to run riot without any checks or balances.
But equally, the forces of enlightened liberalism must not let the people of America – and indeed the world – forget that this is an unnatural state of affairs. They must not allow Trump’s presidency to be normalised. This entails countering his divisive rhetoric vigorously and effectively. Not only must Trump’s ideology be disproven; it must be discredited and defeated conclusively. He is not right, nor is his worldview ‘just another way of viewing things.’ This fashionable relativism has no place in as serious a situation as this; we must not be afraid to decry his views as wrong, no matter how many people believe in it. Popular acclamation does not have any impact upon moral truth.
And what of 2020? Certain commentators are already attempting to mount a revisionist critique of the Hillary campaign, offering inanities about ‘appealing to the disillusioned.’ This is patently false. The white lower-middle classes didn’t vote for Trump because of specific policies; they voted because they despised modernity in general. No amount of tinkering with platforms will convince them. Fortunately, that looks unlikely to be necessary. Two demographic changes will have taken place by 2020. Firstly, America (and particularly states such as Arizona, Florida, Texas and Georgia) will have become much more diverse – this is ascribable to immigration from Latin America, as well as from Asia and the Middle East. This demographic change should put many of these states in play, just as the white middle-class population begins to plateau or decline. Secondly, millions of the ‘millennial’ generation will have grown to voting age. This generation is fundamentally inclined towards liberalism and modernity.The only risk here lies in the possibility of an ascendant right developing a ‘youth’ following; this appears unlikely, but the growth of the ‘alt-right’ over the last few years demonstrates a risk. As such, a stridently liberal voice must exist amongst the youth, one unafraid to confront alt-right and neofascist forces attempting to garner votes amongst millennials.
Work with Trump to negate his worst policies; oppose Trump whenever possible. This is the only way forward. Where it is possible to wrench a compromise from him and the GOP, do so – but do not give in to normalisation and acquiescence. Trump is presiding over a movement of people with a fundamentally wrong view of the world, and if he is greeted with silence then we will all be guilty of allowing that wrong view to become entrenched.
This is a dark moment for America and the world; the election of a racist, sexist, wilfully offensive oaf as Commander-in-Chief. But it doesn’t need to be the beginning of an apocalypse, and if Trump is opposed vocally enough then it won’t. As Shakespeare put it, “the worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” As long as we keep speaking out, this is not an end, but a beginning of sorts.