What mobilised small town and rural America to vault Donald Trump into the White House? In short, the sense of being effectively told by the Democratic Party, in that most Darwinian of American phrases – “you’re history”.
The leading Clintonite pollster and strategist, Stan Greenberg – author of the fashionable work, America Ascendant – exemplified this approach in the Guardian just a year ago: “The US is now beyond the tipping point, driven by a new progressive majority in the electorate: racial minorities (black and Hispanic) plus single women, millennials and secular voters together formed 51% of the electorate in 2012; and will reach a politically critical 63% next year. And each of these groups is giving Clinton, or whoever emerges as the Democratic candidate for the 2016 White House race, at least a two-to-one advantage over a Republican party whose brand has been deeply tarnished”.
That tipping point is obviously not yet as complete as Greenberg would like. Trump has just empowered provincial America every bit as much as Barack Obama energised black America to turn out in record numbers. Both men indulged forms of dog whistle politics: the major difference is that Trump’s dog whistle was a great stonking bullhorn which could be heard across the globe. In consequence, the countrymen in check shirts with their hunting rifles – who normally sit out Election Day on wild turkey shoots – turned up at the polling stations.
Many Democrats will now be consoling themselves with the thought this was small town rural America’s “last hurrah”. They might also console themselves, if they are historically minded, that at one level, Trump’s success is nothing new. After all, American conservatism has benefitted from/mobilised many populist uprisings in the last five decades – starting in 1969, when Richard Nixon invoked a “the Great Silent Majority” of “unyoung, unblack and unpoor” against what many in Middle America saw as the draft dodgers, longhairs and race rioters of the times.
What is different now is that Trump’s populist appeal is at least as much economic as cultural – and, as such, may well be less “conservative” in the classical free market, small state sense than any recent GOP nominee for President. At the purely rhetorical level, even George McGovern, the ultra liberal Democrat nominee who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972, would have shied away from employing terminology such as “today is our independence day. Today the American working class is going to strike back, finally”. For that sort of language, you need to go back to Socialist Party candidates such as Eugene V Debs and Norman Thomas, in the pre-World War II era.
In foreign affairs, too, the admiration of a GOP President-elect for an anti-American foreign authoritarian – Vladimir Putin – seems to be unprecedented. Certainly, authoritarian leaders across the world have been indulged by Republican Administrations in the past: but that was in the context of anti Soviet struggle in the Cold War, and those authoritarians such as the Shah of Iran frequently helped US interests. Let us see if Commander in Chief Trump takes so benign a view of Russian incursions in the “near abroad” once in office: the mutual admiration of “hard men” can easily turn to active hostility.
The other novelty is that Trump owes less to his own party than any other incoming President of recent times. This could make for a tense relationship with the majority of the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate – especially at the leadership level, which still reflects the post war internationalist consensus of Bretton Woods and North Atlantic Treaty, as well as the WTO and other trading arrangements.
The sense of being an insurgent inside his own party will also affect appointments to the new Trump Administration. Many of the obvious candidates for senior policy slots – who have sat out the last eight years in exile at conservative think tanks, universities or in the commercial private sector – have denounced the President-elect during the course of the campaign season. In consequence, Trump may be forced to reach beyond conventional GOP circles or even to Democrats willing to work with him on certain issues.
For example, would there be any talented black or Hispanic mayors willing to work with Trump on his noteworthy pledge to repair the infrastructure of America’s decaying great cities – scarcely bastions of GOP support? Might an Administration “of all the talents” take up some of Lawrence Summers’s policy framework for how to spend such funds?
Trump’s combination of economic populism and unilateralism in security matters will not commend him to many of America’s current foreign allies; but although it is hard to see him and Theresa May as natural soul mates, there are nonetheless real opportunities here for the new UK Government.
The first obvious point is that Trump endorsed Brexit this summer, to the great irritation of many members of the US political and official classes – thus once again confirming, in their view, his unsuitability for high office. Perhaps the point should be made the other way around: if Hillary Clinton had won, she might not have told the UK Government to go to the back of the queue for the purposes of negotiating new trade arrangements, after the fashion of Obama during the Brexit campaign; but she would certainly have operated far more comfortably in the continuum of US post war leadership that enthusiastically facilitated the process of European integration, both during the Cold War and thereafter.
Trump, by contrast, is far likelier to “let May be May” — letting her do her own thing on Brexit at her own pace, not “running interference”. He is a unilateralist, impatient and even scornful of traditional multilateral post war institutions; but he has the potential to become a serious bilateralist. He will need a close relationship with America’s most venerable allies for his own reasons; one of the few successful lines of attack on Obama’s foreign policy over the past eight years has been that he neglects US allies. (NB: Will Trump appoint Nigel Farage as an advisor – and how would the British Government react?)
Second, although this is of little direct policy relevance, the two foremost democracies in the Anglosphere will now be run by non left wing leaders who appeal to what James Frayne termed in his 2015 paper for Policy Exchange the “just about managing classes”. Neither are libertarians, nor do they seek to offer any inside track to big banks or corporations. Politics has seen unlikelier bedfellows; could “blue collar conservatism” become part of a new transatlantic Zeitgeist? And what would the Stan Greenberg classes make of that unlikely outcome?
Finally, it is perfectly correct to say that Trump’s lifestyle is nothing like that of a Middle American. But that is to miss the point: Trump grew up as part of a local and national elite, not an international elite. The struggle between national and international elites is only just beginning: perhaps it will be the defining clash of our times.