By Daniel Twining
Donald Trump’s unexpected win exposed a US political class that had lost touch with its electorate. Democratic and Republican elites remain in shock, but perhaps, his victory was not so surprising after all.
On the eve of the election, a majority of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track and sought a candidate who would light a fire under a listless economy. They felt that American security had diminished in a dangerous world and were uncomfortable with the radical social engineering of the Obamacare health reforms.
Led by a charismatic president who appealed to young people and minority voters, Democrats had also smugly convinced themselves that they were the party of the future, and Republicans, the party of the past. That judgment was, at a minimum, premature.
From January 2017, when newly elected officials take office, four out of every five Americans will live in states dominated or controlled by Republican governors and state legislatures. In Washington, Republicans will control the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. When a new justice is nominated and confirmed, there will be a conservative majority in the Supreme Court.
The Obama years were in fact very bad for Democrats — not named Barack Obama. They lost control of the Congress after only two years of Obama’s presidency. About 900 Democratic elected officials in state legislatures lost their seats over the course of his eight years in office.
Instead of supporting Vice President Joe Biden — who potentially could have united America’s liberal coastal elite with blue-collar workers in midwestern states in building a winning coalition — Obama threw his weight behind Hillary Clinton as his successor. She found herself unable to assemble an electoral coalition for victory and lost a number of states that Obama himself had won.
Many Democrats and independents who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. Clinton lost states like Michigan and Wisconsin that her campaign did not believe were even in play in this election. Donald Trump received fewer votes than Mitt Romney, the losing Republican candidate in 2012 — but he still won. Democratic voters were less enthusiastic about their candidate, and many stayed home.
The Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders electrified voters during this year’s Democratic primary campaign in a way Clinton did not. This points to a danger for Democrats as they seek to recover from their defeat: the risk that they veer left, towards the wing of their party led by Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who believe Clinton lost because she was too much of a centrist, free-trading, foreign policy hawk, also over friendly to Wall Street and big business.
Democrats might learn from the experience of Britain’s Labour Party, which in the wake of successive defeats by the Conservative Party is now under the leadership of a man of the left, Jeremy Corbyn. His extreme views have pushed them even farther away from exercising political power.
Democrats also went into election night with the bookmakers favouring them to retake control of the US Senate. However, they did not do that. Republicans prevailed at all levels of government. Many, like re-elected Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Rob Portman of Ohio, and John McCain of Arizona, as well Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, are free-trading Republican internationalists who take a different view of America’s role in the world than Trump did during the campaign.
The question now is whether a Republican Party suffering from its own internal ideological schisms will be able to govern effectively. Trump is a true outsider — unlike every other president-elect in American history — he has never held political office or served in the armed forces. In many ways, he is not in hock to the institutional Republican Party, many of whose leading lights did not support his candidacy, or did so only with great reluctance. That may help him cut his own populist course that appeals to voters fed up with politics-as-usual.
On the other hand, since he has no governing experience and does not bring to Washington a large band of people who possess it, he will need the Republican establishment in order to have a successful presidency. His powerful Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, was a senior committee chairman in the House of Representatives. On policy matters, Pence could work closely with the Republican Congress to enact the new president’s agenda.
The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, led by Paul Ryan, has already devised a package of sensible reforms to budgets, entitlements, and spending. Congress could empower an inexperienced Trump White House by taking the lead in pushing through legislation that would improve the everyday lives of Americans, and for which a President Trump could take credit after the gridlock of the Obama years.
But breaking through the gridlock will also require Trump and Congressional Republicans to deal with Democrats who hold a blocking minority in the Senate. Oddly enough, although he was a divisive figure on the campaign trail, Trump may be better-positioned than Obama had been to reach across the aisle because he is not as much a creature of his own political party.
President Obama himself has said that Trump is not ideological. If he is pragmatic, he may actually be able to get things done. Stock and bond markets are already anticipating stronger US economic growth if Trump enacts promises to roll back stifling business regulations and taxes while spiking investment in infrastructure and defence.
Trump rode a wave of populist anger and anxiety into power. On taking office, he will need to deliver on his promises to bring change, get government working again and grow the economy. For this, he will need to build coalitions. And indeed, it would be ironic if a man who was such a divisive presidential candidate became a president to unite a fractured nation.