Donald Trump predicted that his election would be ‘Brexit times ten’ — which, as far as the stockmarket reaction was concerned, had some merit. The dollar plunged, and the Dow Jones along with it. Once again, the pollsters have been confounded. Once again, political analysts have been left asking whether they know their country at all. And once again we can see the same group of voters at the forefront: the older, poorer ones who are concerned about demographic change and angry about being ignored for too long. In Britain, and now in America, they are the new revolutionary class.
This is where the analogies with Brexit end. Vote Leave, the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, was led by people who were liberal, globally minded and optimistic. There certainly was anger at a failed status quo among many of those who voted for Brexit, but the prospectus put in front of people was about a global Britain rather than a Little England. It was an argument about encouraging more trade, lowering tariffs, restoring sovereignty, reducing net immigration — all ideas which voters proved very capable of understanding.
Donald Trump has no similar agenda. He offers emotion, but not much beyond that. He dislikes trade, and global capitalism in general. His immigration policy has amounted to a bizarre threat to ban Muslims from entering the country and build a wall between the United States and Mexico. At any other time, these policies would have disqualified him from the office — but this year Americans were not looking for solutions. Trumpism was about stopping Hillary Clinton from becoming president and sticking two fingers up to the machine. And beyond that, it is not about very much.
It’s not that Americans look up to Trump. Two thirds of them say that he lacks the temperament and character to be president, but they elected him anyway. He is there to dismantle rather than oil the Washington machine: an unpleasant man sent to upset, rather than engage, people in the seat of American government. In Britain, the vote for Brexit represented politicians giving the public a chance to fix the system, if that is what they felt needed to be done. It was followed by Theresa May becoming Prime Minister and enjoying levels of popularity that neither Mr Trump nor Mrs Clinton could dream of. We have a system that works: hence Brexit. America’s politics is broken: hence Trump.
His election is not a triumph for American conservatism. Instead, the Republican party has fallen to a hostile takeover from a man who has a mercantilist view about commerce and talks about starting trade wars with China. This agenda wooed many former Democratic voters, especially in the rust-belt states — where older white men in rural areas started to think and vote like a minority.
For the Democrats to field Hillary Clinton was an act of political suicide. She embodies the gilded political establishment that was in the dock. She carried all the baggage of someone who has been in public life for the last quarter-century: the very opposite of a ‘change’ candidate. Without doubt, she was Trump’s greatest electoral asset. She played straight into his hands, treating white working-class voters with contempt and referring to those who backed him as ‘deplorables’.
The challenge that his election presents to the West are significant. It plunges Nato into crisis: the new commander–in-chief has said he regards it less as a defence alliance and more as a form of military welfare, a means for European countries to skimp on defence spending because they can rely on Uncle Sam’s protection. His analysis has force because it is quite correct. He has said he will charge Nato members for membership; we will now see if he was serious. But Europe must now imagine a world without Pax Americana, and it’s one where Britain might be rather glad that it has an independent nuclear deterrent. And where much of Europe will be glad to have Britain as an ally.
The last eight years have shown how dangerous the world becomes without clear American leadership. The election of this isolationist to the White House will lead to a temptation for an antagonist — perhaps Moscow — to test this new world order and watch the reaction.
And how will Trump respond? It will depend on who he appoints to advise him, and who he recruits to his cabinet. Here, again, there is little ground for optimism. Some of the names being touted are even more extraordinary than his own.
Americans have voted for change, and seemingly didn’t mind very much what form it took. The success of a candidate as grotesque as Donald Trump speaks to the depth of the despair felt in the country. Voters, faced with what most regarded as the worst political choice of their lifetime, have returned the worst candidate in a very long time. There is not much reason to be optimistic of this ending well for Mr Trump or for the Republicans.
The retreat of American leadership will mean that smaller nations — such as Britain — will have to play a larger role. This is not an outcome that Theresa May wanted, but it has happened nonetheless. The days when we could rely on America to resolve the world’s disputes have just ended.