In divided America, a United States no more
Manjit Bhatia considers what Donald Trump’s stunning victory, amid a polarising wave of anti-establishment sentiment, means for the country’s hallowed institutions
America is in trouble. Terrible trouble. It’s been in a headspin for the past eight years. Now, with the election outcome many in the world were dreading, it has spun out, tail dragging the head down into the dark pits of despair and who knows what else.
There’s an America – still, if only in name. But there does not seem to be a United States. Not after the 2016 presidential election. This has been the dirtiest, most vulgar and, to borrow what has become an awful cliché, the most divisive campaign in living memory, or at least in the last 50 years of US elections.
From that dark pit, it’s hard to know and even see how Donald Trump would now continue to claim, much less build, an America that can be great again. Can the Phoenix rise from the ashes?
Looking at the map of that country on The New York Times website, I saw a sea of red. So red, so angry, yet so bewildering that American voters chewed up the blue of the Democratic Party and spat it out to the far corners of who knows where.
Until the polling booths opened on November 8, most of us decent folk thought that Trump – with a mouth and head as filthy as the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s – was a goner; that he had no chance of becoming president. Just hours after the booths closed and counting began, it was becoming clear Hillary Clinton would be trumped.
So much, then, for Trump saying the entire election was rigged in the establishmentarian Clinton’s favour.
But where to from here for America, especially as the United States is more disunited than united as a result of this election? It’s anyone’s guess, this early in the aftermath. But it’s the aftermath that is the most worrying. American institutions have never been as battered by a presidential candidate as they were by Trump throughout the campaign.
On the day of the poll, Trump even launched a court challenge of the election. He had continued to suggest he would not accept the election result if Clinton were to win, that he would take on the spoiler’s roll and disrupt the entire democratic process despite it being transparent.
Trump would have promoted the FBI chief James Comey for his incompetence over the second round of Clinton’s email scandal. As cynical as this sounds, Comey boosted Trump’s stocks just two weeks out from polling day. Unless Barack Obama sacks Comey, and on good grounds, too, perhaps Trump will save his goose.
The danger, going forward, is what Trump will do with the sitting members of the Supreme Court. He could fire them for being unsympathetic towards him, for being part of the Democratic establishment. He could replace them with judges who would be sympathetic to him and his cause.
If he does, then every democratic principle that America has stood for will fall to one man who would behave like a corrupt Third World dictator or another despicable thug like Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has shown this form in his business, his ill-treatment of his business associates, his vile bigotry towards ethnic minorities and his contemptuous malevolence towards women. Responsible and accountable American government will be consigned to history’s dustbin.
With both the House of Representatives and the Senate captured by Republicans, the next four years of a Trump presidency will probably see more disruptions to lawmaking and policymaking than at any time before. Not that anybody is the wiser on what Trump’s policies will be at home and abroad. Freezing free trade deals is no humdinger of a revelation. Nor is free trade all that it has been cracked up to be. With multilateralism effectively on death row, states are scrambling towards bilateralism. Bilateral deals don’t necessarily mean they will work on ideas of free trade or free market economics but on versions of neo-mercantilism favoured by Asia, Europe and Trump.
But the one big question that needs to be tackled is whether Trump can be tamed once he is in the White House or if he will lord it over the manor. One thing is certain, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on election day: America is broken, and in more ways than one. American institutions have not only been severely bruised by this presidential election campaign, they have been battered beyond recognition. They are almost faceless and, more dangerously, without potency.
If potency comes to be translated as political vacuum and Trump and his merry men capture these institutions like drunken sailors, there’s more chance of an increasingly disunited America, a more acrimonious America that turns on itself, an isolationist America, and so a much more dangerous world in which the likes of Russia and China will play to grasp the geopolitical upper hand. Whether we will return to the old cold war days remains to be seen. And it doesn’t even begin to say anything about the coming shape of the world economy.
Manjit Bhatia is an Australian research scholar who specialises in the economics and politics of Asia and international political economy. He is also research director of AsiaRisk, an economic and political risk consultancy