Sat | Aug 19, 2017

John Rapley | The American earthquake

Published:Friday | November 11, 2016 | 11:00 AM

Let's start with the obvious. We have no idea what to expect, because nothing remotely like this has ever happened. There are no precedents for a Trump presidency: Andrew Jackson was a populist who upended the political establishment, but he'd held public office. Nobody has entered the White House from so far outside the establishment.

It's equally hard to predict what President-elect Trump will do once in office. He revealed little of his plans beyond outlandish claims and hyperbolic promises. We don't yet know who will make up his transition team, and the pickings for his cabinet look slim at the moment.

We also can't say if America's institutional and constitutional framework will prove sufficiently resilient to withstand the arbitrary and dictatorial tendencies Mr Trump evinced on the campaign trail. The system is designed with checks and balances and has proven itself up to the task of reining in overly abusive politicians in the past. But then, if Mr Trump tried to implement half the things he said he'd do, it would still make all previous abuses of office pale in comparison. Either the country will face a constitutional crisis at some point in the next four years, or Trump will scrap campaign promises, angering many of his supporters. Either way, things could get ugly.

 

HARD TO BE HOPEFUL

 

Are there any silver linings to this grey cloud? It's hard to feel hopeful, but it's worth looking at some of the deeper trends. To judge both from the campaign and exit polls, this may not have been so much a vote for Trump as it was a vote against the status quo. Anger at America's neo-liberal drift has been building for two decades and picked up intensity amid the Great Recession. But at every turn, both Republican and Democratic establishments shored up their neo-liberal credentials and more or less told the millions of Americans unhappy about this state of affairs to suck it up.

The Trump insurgency blew the doors off the Republican establishment. Bernie Sanders nearly did the same to the Democrats. It bears noting now that back during the primaries, head-to-head polls consistently said that Hillary Clinton would struggle against Donald Trump, whereas Sanders would blow him away. We shouldn't have ignored them.

Clinton, who campaigned on her experience, connections and ability to secure realistic and incremental change, seemed to be the living embodiment of the establishment. But as much as pundits have focused on her failings as a candidate, it seems highly unlikely that anyone from the Clinton camp would have fared better. For all the nostalgia about Bill Clinton among liberal journalists, on the campaign trail, he repeatedly revealed himself to be out of touch with contemporary America, especially younger voters.

The Clinton machine that Sanders railed against, and which has a stranglehold on the leadership of the Democratic Party, will probably now collapse. That will free the Left to organise around new leadership, like that of Elizabeth Warren. That may herald a brighter future for progressive politics in America.

But, in the short term, as has happened in Britain since the Brexit vote, the racists, misogynists and homophobes on the American Right will probably feel legitimised and emboldened by a Trump presidency. Even if he were now to dial back his rhetoric, as his victory speech suggested he might do; and even if a majority of his supporters took him seriously but not literally - as the wisdom now has it - but prove more conciliatory now that they have power, Trump may still have opened a Pandora's Box that even he can't close.

It's going to be a difficult time in the United States. For the rest of the world, the future looks uncertain. A Trump presidency will probably turn against trade, withdraw from international cooperation and unsettle the Western alliance. In global terms, this might not be as alarming as it would have been a generation or two ago. With the rise of new global powers, particularly in Asia, globalisation will continue, even as the tide turns against it in the West. But for countries like Jamaica, closely tied to the US, we now enter uncharted waters and will have to navigate by instinct.

The US Left will organise, and may even be re-energised now that it shakes off the weight of the Clinton machine. But let's not kid ourselves, the coming years will be challenging as we watch the America we thought we knew morph into something we thought we had long ago left behind.

- John Rapley is a writer and academic based in London, and author of 'The Money Cult' (Simon and Schuster, 2016). A long-time Gleaner correspondent, you can follow him on Twitter @jarapley and at https://brixtonsubversity.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.