The Trump era

His victory threatens old certainties about America and its role in the world. What will take their place?

THE fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9th 1989, was when history was said to have ended. The fight between communism and capitalism was over. After a titanic ideological struggle encompassing the decades after the second world war, open markets and Western liberal democracy reigned supreme. In the early morning of November 9th 2016, when Donald Trump crossed the threshold of 270 electoral-college votes to become America’s president-elect, that illusion was shattered. History is back—with a vengeance.

The fact of Mr Trump’s victory and the way it came about are hammer blows both to the norms that underpin politics in the United States and also to America’s role as the world’s pre-eminent power. At home, an apparently amateurish and chaotic campaign has humiliated an industry of consultants, pundits and pollsters. If, as he has threatened, President Trump goes on to test the institutions that regulate political life, nobody can be sure how they will bear up. Abroad, he has taken aim at the belief, embraced by every post-war president, that America gains from the often thankless task of being the global hegemon. If Mr Trump now disengages from the world, who knows what will storm through the breach?

The sense that old certainties are crumbling has rocked America’s allies. The fear that globalisation has fallen flat has whipsawed markets. Although post-Brexit Britons know what that feels like, the referendum in Britain will be eclipsed by consequences of this election. Mr Trump’s victory has demolished a consensus. The question now is what takes its place.

Trump towers

Start with the observation that America has voted not for a change of party so much as a change of regime. Mr Trump was carried to office on a tide of popular rage (see article). This is powered partly by the fact that ordinary Americans have not shared in their country’s prosperity. In real terms median male earnings are still lower than they were in the 1970s. In the past 50 years, barring the expansion of the 1990s, middle-ranking households have taken longer to claw back lost income with each recession. Social mobility is too low to hold out the promise of something better. The resulting loss of self-respect is not neutralised by a few quarters of rising wages.

Anger has sown hatred in America. Feeling themselves victims of an unfair economic system, ordinary Americans blame the elites in Washington for being too spineless and too stupid to stand up to foreigners and big business; or, worse, they believe that the elites themselves are part of the conspiracy. They repudiate the media—including this newspaper—for being patronising, partisan and as out of touch and elitist as the politicians. Many working-class white voters feel threatened by economic and demographic decline. Some of them think racial minorities are bought off by the Democratic machine. Rural Americans detest the socially liberal values that urban compatriots foist upon them by supposedly manipulating the machinery in Washington (see article). Republicans have behaved as if working with Democrats is treachery.

Mr Trump harnessed this popular anger brilliantly. Those who could not bring themselves to vote for him may wonder how half of their compatriots were willing to overlook his treatment of women, his pandering to xenophobes and his rank disregard for the facts. There is no reason to conclude that all Trump voters approve of his behaviour. For some of them, his flaws are insignificant next to the One Big Truth: that America needs fixing. For others the willingness to break taboos was proof that he is an outsider. As commentators have put it, his voters took Mr Trump seriously but not literally, even as his critics took him literally but not seriously. The hapless Hillary Clinton might have won the popular vote, but she stood for everything angry voters despise.

The hope is that this election will prove cathartic. Perhaps, in office, Mr Trump will be pragmatic and magnanimous—as he was in his acceptance speech. Perhaps he will be King Donald, a figurehead and tweeter-in-chief who presides over an executive vice-president and a cabinet of competent, reasonable people. When he decides against building a wall against Mexico after all or concludes that a trade war with China is not a wise idea, his voters may not mind too much—because they only expected him to make them feel proud and to put conservative justices in the Supreme Court. Indeed, you can just about imagine a future in which extra infrastructure spending, combined with deregulation, tax cuts, a stronger dollar and the repatriation of corporate profits, boosts the American economy for long enough to pacify the anger. This more emollient Trump might even model himself on Ronald Reagan, a conservative hero who was mocked and underestimated, too.

Nothing would make us happier than to see Mr Trump succeed in this way. But whereas Reagan was an optimist, Mr Trump rails against the loss of an imagined past. We are deeply sceptical that he will make a good president—because of his policies, his temperament and the demands of political office.

Gravity wins in the end

Take his policies first. After the sugar rush, populist policies eventually collapse under their own contradictions. Mr Trump has pledged to scrap the hated Obamacare. But that threatens to deprive over 20m hard-up Americans of health insurance. His tax cuts would chiefly benefit the rich and they would be financed by deficits that would increase debt-to-GDP by 25 percentage points by 2026. Even if he does not actually deport illegal immigrants, he will foment the divisive politics of race. Mr Trump has demanded trade concessions from China, Mexico and Canada on threat of tariffs and the scrapping of the North American Free Trade Agreement. His protectionism would further impoverish poor Americans, who gain more as consumers from cheap imports than they would as producers from suppressed competition. If he caused a trade war, the fragile global economy could tip into a recession. With interest rates near zero, policymakers would struggle to respond.

Abroad Mr Trump says he hates the deal freezing Iran’s nuclear programme. If it fails, he would have to choose between attacking Iran’s nuclear sites and seeing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East (see article). He wants to reverse the Paris agreement on climate change; apart from harming the planet, that would undermine America as a negotiating partner. Above all, he would erode America’s alliances—its greatest strength. Mr Trump has demanded that other countries pay more towards their security or he will walk away. His bargaining would weaken NATO, leaving front-line eastern European states vulnerable to Russia. It would encourage Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Japan and South Korea may be tempted to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.

The second reason to be wary is temperament. During the campaign Mr Trump was narcissistic, thin-skinned and ill-disciplined. Yet the job of the most powerful man in the world constantly entails daily humiliations at home and abroad. When congressmen mock him, insult him and twist his words, his effectiveness will depend on his willingness to turn the other cheek and work for a deal. When a judge hears a case for fraud against Trump University in the coming weeks, or rules against his administration’s policies when he is in office, he must stand back (self-restraint that proved beyond him when he was a candidate). When journalists ridiculed him in the campaign he threatened to open up libel laws. In office he must ignore them or try to talk them round. When sovereign governments snub him he must calculate his response according to America’s interests, not his own wounded pride. If Mr Trump fails to master his resentments, his presidency will soon become bogged down in a morass of petty conflicts.

The third reason to be wary is the demands of office. No problem comes to the president unless it is fiendishly complicated. Yet Mr Trump has shown no evidence that he has the mastery of detail or sustained concentration that the Oval Office demands. He could delegate (as Reagan famously did), but his campaign team depended to an unusual degree on his family and on political misfits. He has thrived on the idea that his experience in business will make him a master negotiator in politics. Yet if a deal falls apart there is always another skyscraper to buy or another golf course to build; by contrast, a failure to agree with Vladimir Putin about Russia’s actions leaves nobody to turn to. Nowhere will judgment and experience be more exposed than over the control of America’s nuclear arsenal—which, in a crisis, falls to him and him alone.

The pendulum swings out

The genius of America’s constitution is to limit the harm one president can do. We hope Mr Trump proves our doubts groundless or that, if he fails, a better president will be along in four years. The danger with popular anger, though, is that disillusion with Mr Trump will only add to the discontent that put him there in the first place. If so, his failure would pave the way for someone even more bent on breaking the system.

The election of Mr Trump is a rebuff to all liberals, including this newspaper. The open markets and classically liberal democracy that we defend, and which had seemed to be affirmed in 1989, have been rejected by the electorate first in Britain and now in America. France, Italy and other European countries may well follow. It is clear that popular support for the Western order depended more on rapid growth and the galvanising effect of the Soviet threat than on intellectual conviction. Recently Western democracies have done too little to spread the benefits of prosperity. Politicians and pundits took the acquiescence of the disillusioned for granted. As Mr Trump prepares to enter the White House, the long, hard job of winning the argument for liberal internationalism begins anew.