Populist Revolution The Unpredictable Presidency of Donald Trump
Donald Trump's election as the 45th president of the United States was not the product of his strength, but of Hillary Clinton's weakness. His victory has plunged the US into a deep crisis -- and nobody knows how he might govern, perhaps not even Trump himself.
In the moment of his triumph, when Donald Trump began making his way to the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan in the early morning hours of Wednesday, the chanting started -- aggressive and loud, bellowed out by a group of frenzied men. It spread through the crowd and was aimed at Trump's erstwhile opponent, Hillary Clinton. "Lock her up! Lock her up!"
Trump, after all, had promised to do just that -- to throw his political adversary in prison as soon as he had taken the oath of office on January 20, not unlike the way Vladimir Putin deals with his enemies in Moscow or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. And thus, the zero hour of the new American era began just as the campaign had ended: with a threat that contained little in the way of reconciliation and was reminiscent of distant dictatorships -- even as Trump later sought to rein in the chants by speaking of "binding the wounds of division" and of coming "together as one united people."
His followers saw his victory as a signal, as the beginning and not as the end. They bared their teeth and cheered as the Empire State Building radiated red in the night sky with a gigantic image of their leader projected onto the facade.
On that evening, America experienced a revolution. The successful postwar Western model, rooted in mobility, enlightenment and inclusion has been convulsed by this angry protest vote. It was a vote of no-confidence in globalized capitalism, an expression of America's partition into liberal cities and backward rural areas. With this election, the country's white majority has sought to affirm and protect its identity.
The political system has experienced a delegitimization of democracy that makes it impossible to simply carry on as before. It is a delegitimization aimed primarily at the elite, Hillary Clinton first and foremost -- a woman who represents this system more than any other politician.
This election was about more than simply a change in government. It completed an epochal shift. The Trumpian revolution is an overthrow of the neoliberal conservatism of the Republicans, of the faith in free trade and of the advantages of a multicultural society. On Tuesday evening, aggressive nationalism returned to the White House.
The President of the Defeated
Trump is the president of the defeated: the white middle- and working classes who are among the economic losers of globalization -- and among the cultural losers of the demographic change that is making the US more diverse. Many of these "forgotten men and women," as Trump described his supporters on election night, are from the lower middle classes and are driven by fears of losing their jobs and their places in society. They rose up with the anger of desperation to take back their country, which they believe Obama and the country's minorities had sought to take away from them.
In Trump, they have found a charismatic and callous leader. He was unable to win the popular vote, but he won the electoral vote, which is enough. The voices of his voters have united in a cry for change.
And it is true: Many in America have the feeling that the system no longer serves the citizens of the country, instead promoting the interests of a clique that controls power and prosperity. That is true of politics and even more so of the economy. Those who have visited the ghost towns of the Rust Belt in the northeast -- where the death of American industry can be observed, where Trump's core voters live -- can hardly be surprised that the people there would ultimately rise up.
What is surprising, however, is how and when it happened. And that it was a person like Trump who was able to profit from their deep disappointment -- a vulgar billionaire who plays people off against each other. Still, the search for reasons as to why voters backed Trump should not gloss over the fact that around 60 million Americans elected a racist and a chauvinist to the White House. He is a man who unabashedly courts neo-fascist elements. After three brutal TV debates and Trump's announcement he would prevent Muslims from traveling to the US, nobody can say they didn't know the kind of person they chose to be the 45th president of the United States.
Even Trump himself seemed in disbelief on Thursday as he sat down next to Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Slightly slumped, he sat next to the president, his arms resting in his lap as Obama spoke. When it was Trump's turn, he was no longer full of bravado, indeed, he sounded almost submissive. "I have great respect" for the president, he said, adding about the meeting: "As far as I'm concerned, it could have gone on for a lot longer." Obama had called Trump at around 3:30 in the morning on election night to invite him to the White House.
Now, a man is set to take on the country's highest office who directed his entire campaign against the establishment and who presented himself as an outsider until the very end. "Drain the swamp" was one of his maxims, a reference to Washington, DC. How much of this populist campaign will he attempt to transform into reality in the coming months. What will his presidency look like?
"Presidencies are like a gas tank," says Jeffrey Lord. "You start full, but then it lowers. Trump has to start implementing his plans immediately, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1981."
Lord served as associate political director in the Reagan White House and is among Trump's earliest supporters. At a recent appearance in Pennsylvania, Trump even called his friend Lord up on stage and they chatted extensively once the event had ended. Lord believes that Trump could ultimately end up on Reagan's level, a man who was initially an outsider and vociferously reviled but who today is counted by many as among the best presidents in recent US history.
The greatest challenge facing Trump is that of shifting from campaign-style attack mode to the day-to-day business of running the government, says Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois. McAdams specializes in analyzing presidents and in the spring, he spent three months taking a close look at Trump's psyche. He believes Trump is highly unstable and considers him to be a neurotic narcissist. "It's the hunt that I believe I love," Trump once said. And that is how he ran his campaign -- politics as a hunting expedition, chasing down adversaries like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and, later, Hillary Clinton. And Trump got them all. The question is whether someone like him can suddenly stop hunting and start governing.
A Political Counter-Revolution
Lord believes that Trump has changed. "He has become more mature and has learned. He has understood that he is leading a movement of millions of people who support him passionately. He won't disappoint them." But that could be easier said than done. The expectations of his followers are immense. The eight liberal years under President Obama have changed the country and Trump supporters want more than simply a change in direction. They are seeking a political counter-revolution.
Mike Pence, Trump's designated vice president who hails from the party's evangelical wing, has already said he wants to see a tightening of abortion regulations. Arch-conservatives see the more than 40-year-old right to abortion as a betrayal of Creation, and Trump promised to abolish that right along with one of the central achievements of the Obama presidency: that of making healthcare available to all.
But what kind of a president will Donald Trump really be? In the past, he has also voiced approval of more liberal abortion laws and he once demanded health insurance for all Americans himself. Over the years, he has held all manner of contradictory opinions on many different political issues, sometimes at the same time.
Those who think they know what Donald Trump will do as president are likely overestimating their own intelligence. Trump will be the most unpredictable president that America has ever had. That holds true of his thin-skinned personality just as it does for his political positions. Anything, really anything, is possible. And that is the most disturbing thing.
The American Hugo Chávez?
It is possible that Trump will turn out to be the US version of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- that he will appease and divert Americans while at the same time dramatically eroding the country's institutions and politicizing the judiciary, the CIA and the FBI. And that he, as he indicated he would, will allow for the return of torture. And that he will build the promised wall on the border to Mexico, impede people from Muslim countries from coming to the US, turn up the volume on bigotry and use the presidency to personally enrich himself. It could mean the end of NATO -- but it could also be that his bromance with Putin will cool and turn hostile.
It is equally possible, though, that Trump will turn over the governing of the country to experienced Republican politicians and will preside over proceedings as a kind of CEO. It is possible that he will build his wall as a sop to his supporters but will quickly realize that his announced intention to deport 11 million illegal immigrants makes no economic sense. It is possible that he will service the yearnings for a resurgent white identity primarily with rhetoric, that he will seek to stimulate the economy with billions in investments and that his foreign policy will simply be a continuation of the American withdrawal that began under Obama.
We simply don't know.
The only thing we know -- from his statements, his campaign and his personality -- is that he will be a president unlike any that has come before.