“I didn’t predict Trump’s victory, but now let now me explain to you exactly why it happened.” Political pundits are like mediaeval physicians – or, for that matter, like modern economists. Their forecasts are rarely right, yet their Olympian self-confidence remains undented.
In fairness to pundits, this truly was the oddest election in American history. There have been bizarre contests before: in 1872, for example, the Democrats declined to field a candidate, instead throwing their weight behind a breakaway “Liberal Republican” who died during the process. But this is off the scale. Donald Trump is the first successful candidate neither to have held elected office nor won a war. The main plank of his campaign was that he would jail his opponent. No wonder few commentators saw it coming.
I was as wrong as anyone. Almost a year ago, I wrote on this site that Donald Trump would win the GOP primary, and thereby hand victory to Hillary Clinton. He was, I confidently averred, the only Republican whom even Hillary could beat. Given that record, I’m not going now to insult you with some thesis about why President Trump was inevitable all along, like of one of those Remain-voting columnists who suddenly became overnight experts on why Britain voted Leave. The truth is, I’m flummoxed.
Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership, David Cameron winning the General Election, Trump winning the presidency – and, for that matter, Leicester City and the Chicago Cubs winning their respective championships. Few foresaw how recent events were going to work out. As Nassim Taleb keeps telling us, human beings are good at pressing past events into some theory or other, but rotten at predicting future ones.
All I’ll say is this: if Trump can defy the pundits in the United States, then so can, say, Marine Le Pen in France. No established European politician is safe. Many of these politicians have spent the past 24 hours describing the Donald’s win as a “wake-up call”, but they then usually go on to claim that it vindicates whatever they were arguing before. Here, for example, is the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt: “Wake up call for Europe to further unite.” He might as well have jutted his chin provocatively at the electorate and said: “Go on, take a swing if you think you’re hard enough”.
The parallels between Brexit and Trumpery have been absurdly overdone. Yes, both drew on a certain anger against political elites, but Britain’s Leave campaign was not nativist or protectionist. Whereas Donald Trump railed against the idea of a trade deal with China, British Eurosceptics argued that we should leave the EU so as to sign one.
What will the Trump Presidency mean for Britain? One obvious difference between the 44th president and the 45th is that, whereas Obama threatened to put Britain at the back of a queue for a trade deal, Trump says we’ll be at the front. This is encouraging, of course; but we should also want the United States to trade freely with other nations, including our European allies. Prosperous neighbours make good customers.
We should likewise want America to be prosperous, and here the prognosis is mixed. Behind all his rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump offered surprisingly conventional conservative economic policies, based around lowering, flattening and simplifying taxes. America would certainly benefit from his anti-corporatism. On the other hand, if he means what he says about tariff barriers, the gains from his domestic reforms could be wiped out.
Then again – this point can’t be stressed too strongly – Congress leads on budgetary questions. The Republicans are firmly in control of both chambers, and Paul Ryan, the Speaker, has a serious plan to revive the economy, a plan that he is now in a position to implement.
The President of the United States does not have the powers of the Presidents of Ukraine or Uganda. He is constrained by the legislative and judicial arms of government, and has limited competence vis-à-vis the 50 states. Although the House and Senate are under Republican control, plenty of Republican legislators make no secret of their dislike of the Donald. There is, as it were, an anti-Trump Congressional majority.
The new president evidently grasps this. His victory speech was conciliatory, not only toward Hillary, whom he thanked effusively for her service, but also toward Republican leaders. He warmly name-checked Paul Ryan, and passed the microphone to only one other person: Reince Priebus, who chairs the Republican National Committee. He is, in other words, reaching out to his new party as well as to his old one.
Most Republicans have reciprocated. Fewer Democrats have. Trump’s newfound moderation has been answered by a torrent of abuse. The editor of the New Yorker, not untypically, told his readers that this was how fascism began. In this regard, at least, there is a parallel with the Brexit vote: the vitriol poured out by people who, lacking self-awareness, thought of themselves as fair-minded liberals, served only to boost the other side.
This really shouldn’t need saying, but analogies with fascism are idiotic. The United States has just carried out a free election, in which power was smoothly transferred without anyone being exiled or shot. President Trump will be constrained in office, not least by the possibility of impeachment if he goes too far. His Vice-President, Mike Pence, is a good and humble man, in politics for all the right reasons.
Only in foreign policy will President Trump have considerable (though still limited) powers. Here, the anti-Trumpsters have reason to be concerned. In a Putinesque play, Bashar Assad launched a new offensive in Aleppo on the night of the election. What if Putin were, say, to attempt in Latvia what he did in Ukraine – that is, to sponsor separatist militia? Would Donald Trump consider that to be an attack on a NATO ally? If he didn’t, would NATO survive?
These are alarming questions; and they suggest that Britain, a country which Donald Trump says he loves, may have a more important task than ever in working with the United States on the world stage. Still, as Willie Whitelaw used to observe, nothing in politics is as good or as bad as it first seems. America is the world’s greatest republic. That will be just as true four years from now.