As political earthquakes go, they don’t get much more seismic or unexpected. All of the pointy-heads who have been assuring us for weeks that Trump couldn’t possibly win have been proved spectacularly wrong once again – just as they were with Brexit.
That’s the problem with democracies: the punters don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. We may have to live with the consequences of this decision for the next four years – always supposing President Trump doesn’t start World War 3 or suspend the “corrupt” democratic process in the United States in the interest of stability and national security, of course.
That’s an attempt at gallows humour – I think. The reality is though, that nothing can actually be ruled out from a man who is entirely unpredictable, and a long way from the sort of “rational actor” we like to think make the decisions that shape international politics.
This might be a problem in any country. We have become accustomed to Western political pundits making condescending remarks about the rise of populist strong men leaders in places like Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and – most consequentially – China. But when the most powerful country in the world elects a racist, misogynist, bully with little understanding of or interest in complex domestic or foreign policies, we’re all affected.
Part of the complacency about Trump flows from the fact that so many believe that “we” are far too sophisticated and steeped in democratic traditions for a Putinesque demagogue to emerge in the heartlands of liberal democracy. But the tough guys are back with a vengeance, and America – and the world – may have to deal with their very own proto-fascist.
Interestingly, I’ve just done an informal poll of Russian students in Vladivostok, where I’m currently teaching, and the majority welcome a Trump win. They don’t trust Clinton and tend to judge outcomes from a narrowly instrumental nationalist perspective. Such attitudes may become increasingly prevalent.
Indeed, the idea that the United States will any longer provide the bedrock of a stable, rules based international order of a sort that policymakers in this country endlessly invoke is no longer feasible. On the contrary, Trump is likely – by intent or neglect - to unleash a diplomatic wrecking ball that could plunge us back into the sort of brutal great power politics that characterised earlier periods of history.
Critics of early incarnations of US foreign policy may have to eat their words, too, as we find out what a world without a comparatively benign form of American hegemony actually looks like. For all its undoubted problems, mistakes and self interest, the US has often been a force for stability – the nightmares of Iraq and the Middle East notwithstanding.
We may also be about to find out what a less cerebral, cautious American president than the much-criticised Barack Obama looks like. The promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS gives a clue. Acting in tandem with Putin – a figure he admires and clearly emulates – they might reduce the rest of Syria and much else to rubble.
Alarmist nonsense? I certainly hope so. But who is going to stand up for human rights, democracy, or international cooperation in pursuit of some progressive goal? In the sort of world we may be about to enter, the simple reality is that there is no country with either the military capability or – more importantly – the political will to constrain the unprincipled, reckless use of force on America’s part.
All of this only touches the surface of the horrors a Trump presidency could unleash. It is not only Mexicans, Muslims, and minorities of one sort or another that will be anxious. The perennially skittish financial markets will no doubt have a collective seizure, revealing problems that a relatively orderly approach to economic management in the US have managed to conceal, if not correct, since the global financial crisis.
Let’s not forget that the global financial crisis was made in America, and Obama did a pretty good job of staving off the next Great Depression. Not only would Trump blame foreigners generally and China in particular for American problems, but he would also probably unleash an old-fashioned 1930s style self destructive trade war in the process.
Speaking of the 1930s, that generation of strong men didn’t work out too well either, if I recall. At least the American president of the time didn’t actually contribute to the literal and metaphorical carnage. Trump is no FDR. On the contrary, his rise, rhetoric and rationale look more reminiscent of Europe’s interwar fascists.
Admirers of the US, among whose number I count myself, may hope that political institutions and culture will have an ameliorative impact on President Trump. Perhaps they would on a normal politician, even in these highly partisan, politically poisonous times. But not Trump, I fear.
He is clearly impervious to criticism and – more worryingly – incapable of accepting advice. We know little about his advisers except that they are little known. Perhaps the Republican establishment will rein him in. But given that they, too, have also been rejected by millions of Americans and actually allowed Trump to emerge in the first place, don’t hold you breath.
What does all this mean for Australia? Nothing good, I suspect. At the very least we need to have a long overdue debate about our relationship with our most important security partner. But don’t hold your breath about that either.
Whatever happens over the next four years it won’t be boring. Let’s just hope we get through it in one piece.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia