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January 10, 2017

This is a guest post by William Crotty.  He is Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. Chair in Public Life and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University.  Professor Crotty is author and editor Winning the Presidency 2016 (Routledge, 2017)

The election of 2016 has no precedent in modern American history. The meaning of an election for a restrained conception of democratic leadership, one equal to the task of leading the world’s greatest power, constitutes the essence of a presidential race. Was the criteria met? It was a long and contentious campaign. The issues in the election ranged from domestic anger, alienation and political deadlock to international crises, fundamental concerns that will take insightful and experienced leadership.

The election and more specifically the manner in which it was conducted raises a number of questions. Among these, and among the more fundamental, is whether it is a blip, an aberration and exception in the long life of national elections, the manner in which they have been conducted, and the underlying dynamics that have come to explain the past contests. Or, alternatively, 2016 could be an introduction to future such races, with political parties lacking influence of any magnitude and voter discontent turning to the more radical and unrestrained of candidate alternatives with consequences yet to be seen for the operation of a democratic state.

One thing is clear and that is considerable voter anger in both parties over the manner in which elected officials have largely ignored their real needs, and in particular those associated with the economic well-being of major segments of the population. The discrepancy between the promises and agendas of the candidates and parties over the last half century and the operations and priorities in office of those who would emerge as the winners in elections has much to do with the level of current discontent. The candidate races in both parties in a strikingly different manner serve to illustrate the point.

The outcome of the election was unexpected. It ranks as one of the major upsets in American history. Its full importance will not be known for years but it could have radical, even seismic, consequences for the future of the United States.

Donald Trump won the most divisive and most extraordinary presidential election in the modern history of the United States. His campaign broke all the rules to the extent they existed; was the subject of endless controversies, any one of which would have derailed his predecessors; threatened to put his opponent in jail if he won; and refused to agree to accept the results of the election – unless he won. He built a campaign on personal insults, accusations (true or not), wild charges and threats. And it worked! He beat an established, well-informed, prepared and committed opponent in Hillary Clinton.

Trump is a world-class salesman, he can sell almost anything, as the campaign showed. His behavior, actions and targets were unpredictable. They did make for good television and he dominated the coverage. And, little reported, while running presumably full-time for president, he continued to manage his international business operations in the middle of campaigning, even opening a new golf course and a landmark hotel not far from the White House. I take this to be a clear statement as to his priorities. He did not appear to take the presidential campaign overly seriously, refused to prepare for the debates and relied in both the prenomination and general election phases of the campaign on his instincts and judgments as to his opponents and their weaknesses as he saw them, approaching situations much as he did in his business dealings.

What kind of president then can be expected? I think we know the answer. Donald Trump has no concern for tradition, previous history, institutionalized decision-making (he depends on himself), international agreements and commitments, or much of anything else that has come to define the sphere of concerns an American president must deal with. He will act as President much as he has in the campaign. He will do things his way. He will depend on what he thinks important or what interests him at the moment, will continue to be unpredictable in how he approaches given situations, will see international relations in terms of trade opportunities, will conduct negotiations on a one-on-one basis and will nurture his financial empire.

Clearly there are problems in all of this, in relation to NATO, national security (he distrusts these agencies), terrorism, the Middle East, Russia (he respects Putin), China, Western Europe, Mexico and so on. It will be an unsettled and likely difficult period that could invite disastrous consequences, large or small.

Domestically his early nominees for office – Wall Street insiders for the top economic posts; military generals for national security/defense positions and opponents of climate change, environmental regulations, public education and so on to lead the agencies that deal with such concerns – have shown that he will make good on his campaign promises. He has committed to investing heavily in the military and in nuclear weaponry, not a good sign for a man, unrestrained in practice, who takes a hostile view of those he considers opponents. As he has said, he will prioritize an “America First” approach to the world. He has pledged to end immigration, return undocumented immigrants (11 million in number) to their home countries, set tariffs and end free trade agreements. Confrontations are likely.

He has promised a neoliberal deregulated economy and a tax restructuring even more favorable to the accumulation of wealth by Corporate America and the handful of billionaires (like himself) at the top of the income hierarchy. He has vowed to abort Obamacare and Medicare and will do his best – he has Republican majorities in both houses of the Congress and on the state level in governors and state legislatures – to make good on his promise. The theatrics of the election campaign managed to hide a world view exactly the opposite of what so painfully has been built over the generations. It promises to be an extremely difficult four (or eight), or more years.

Political analyst David Remnick (One Bridge: The Life and Times of Barack Obama, 2011) sees Trump’s election as “a constitutional crisis” and “a tragedy for America.”

He writes:

There are, inevitably, miseries to come: an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court; an emboldened right-wing Congress; a President whose disdain for women and minorities, civil liberties and scientific fact, to say nothing of simple decency, has been repeatedly demonstrated. Trump is vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader who will not only set markets tumbling but will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted. The African-American Other. The Hispanic Other. The female Other. The Jewish and Muslim Other. The most hopeful way to look at this grievous event – and it’s a stretch – is that this election and the years to follow will be a test of the strength, or the fragility, of American institutions. It will be a test of our seriousness and resolve (Remnick 2016).

A harsh assessment of contemporary American politics perhaps, but one that would find echoes in the 2016 election. Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, writing shortly before the vote projected as to what a Trump of Clinton presidency might look like. He characterized the broad outlines of the election race, as seen from the perspective of the Clinton campaign, as a choice of extremes:

A vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, the Clinton campaign has suggested in broad ways and subtle tones, isn’t just a vote for a Democrat over a Republican: It’s a vote for safety over risk, steady competence over boastful recklessness, psychological stability in the White House over ungovernable passions.

In regards to each of the campaigns, should Trump win:

The perils of a Trump presidency are as distinctive as the candidate himself, and a vote for Trump makes a long list of worst cases – the Western alliance system’s unraveling, a cycle of domestic radicalization, an accidental economic meltdown, a civilian-military crisis – more likely than with any normal administration.

Indeed, Trump and his supporters almost admit as much. ‘We’ve tried sane, now let’s try crazy,’ is basically his campaign’s working motto. The promise to be a bull in a china shop is part of his demagogue’s appeal. Some of his more eloquent supporters have analogized a vote for Trump to storming the cockpit of a hijacked place, with the likelihood of a plane crash entirely factored in.

And for a Clinton victory, the outlook was bleak also:

The dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency are more familiar than Trump’s authoritarian unknowns, because we live with them in our politics already. They’re the dangers of elite groupthink, of Beltway power worship, of a cult of presidential action in the service of dubious ideals. They’re the dangers of a recklessness and radicalism that doesn’t recognize itself as either, because it’s convinced that if an idea is mainstream and commonplace among the great and good then it cannot possibly be folly.

Almost every crisis that has come upon the West in the last 15 years has its roots in this establishmentarian type of folly. (Douthat 2016).

In this account, Clinton, then projected to win the election, represented the continuation of a politics, unaware of its faults and failures, condemning the nation to more of the same. Whether Douthat captured the essence of the concerns with a projected Clinton presidency as felt by Trump supporters can only be speculated on. Still, the Washington consensus, group-think mentality and the status-quo continuation of economic imbalances, military misadventures and terrorist threats and corresponding rise of a national security state may well have provided the foundations of the essential distrust encountered by the Clinton candidacy and the appeal of a Donald Trump and his message of change.

Most Americans are not optimistic as the full dimensions of the election and the potential consequences for the nation, present and future, become apparent. It was an election built largely on the anger of the economically bypassed, an indictment of both political parties and their priorities over the last half century. Should Donald Trump succeed in his design of a new national and international order, the United States and the rest of the world could well enter a period of one-man rule in a weakened democratic state. It is an outcome no one should welcome.

Notes

1. David Remnick, “An American Tragedy,” The New Yorker, November 9, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/an-american-tragedy-2

inauguration, Donald Trump, Presidency

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