Phnom Penh, November 14, 2016 (Alochonaa): In the early hours of Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, the mainstream media networks announced that Donald J. Trump – businessman, reality TV star and political novice – had surpassed the required 270 electoral votes necessary to be officially declared President-elect of the United States America. At every turn of this unbelievably bizarre election season, which was underpinned by mudslinging and skulduggery of the highest order on both sides, pundits continuously dismissed Mr. Trump’s chances against Democrat heavyweight Hillary Clinton. They mocked Trump’s raw and unpolished stump speeches, his ignorance of myriad issues of significance in the world of geopolitics, and his inflammatory rhetoric directed towards Muslim and Mexican immigrants. But it is Mr. Trump, however, who gets to have the last laugh now. His prescient ability to measure and understand the contemporary American zeitgeist was ultimately a masterclass and it has earned the respect of this author, previously a Trump sceptic.
Trump’s victory is a torpedo to the “Establishment Class” of the US political system. Despite all of his baggage, including a video of Mr. Trump bragging about committing sexual assault and a litany of upcoming lawsuits accusing him of such, half of the voting public (which itself was only half of all eligible voters) still preferred him to Ms. Clinton and this deserves some space in the post-mortem discourse of this election. Hillary Clinton had served her country as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, and her political credentials are impressive. However, spending decades in politics, she naturally accrued baggage of her own. There are three salient issues where Hillary Clinton unequivocally failed to win over voters, the fact that she actually won the popular vote notwithstanding.
The first issue is trade. Mr. Trump’s path to victory in the Electoral College included winning states in America’s so-called “rust belt,” the part of the country known in the past for manufacturing industries. In the globalization era, thousands of jobs in these industries have been lost to developing countries which can provide the cheap labour necessary for multi-national corporations to profit substantially from reduced costs. Hillary Clinton’s previous support of free trade agreements like NAFTA was undoubtedly held against her by the American working class in the rust belt where cities like Detroit have been left depressed and reduced to decrepit shells of their former selves. Ms. Clinton tried to walk back her previous support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal late in the campaign, but her flip flopping was correctly disregarded as political opportunism. To simplify, Ms. Clinton has shown herself to be a supporter of globalism, empowering multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the expense of America’s democracy. The body politic has rejected this subversion of the U.S. Constitution and it is very suspicious of global governance. Mr. Trump’s nationalist campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again,” on the other hand, proved to resonate deeply with voters.
The second issue is immigration. Media pundits were quick to pounce on Mr. Trump during his announcement that he was seeking the nomination when he categorized many Mexicans as “rapists” and called for the construction of a border wall, one that would be paid for by Mexico. Whether that will actually happen considering the costs – both financial and political – remains to be seen but it demonstrated to the American public that Mr. Trump would get tough on illegal immigration. Meanwhile, Ms. Clinton parroted the long-standing Democrat Party line of the need for immigration reform and offered little in the way of tangible solutions to the problem presented by the 13 million undocumented people living in the United States. She completely misjudged the nation’s desire to rectify this issue and she often conflated immigration with illegal immigration. Clinton supporters’ constant recourse of accusing Trump and his cohort of racism grew tiresome. Just as with the global trade paradigm noted above, Mr. Trump’s popularity soared with working class voters because he became the only candidate in recent memory to question these issues on the national stage. Both mainstream, corporate parties hitherto were pushing more or less the same agenda: the Democrats use the Hispanic demographic as a reliable voting bloc while the Republicans placate their big business interests with underpaid labour.
The third issue is foreign policy. Ms. Clinton’s voted for the hugely unpopular Iraq War when she was a Senator from New York, and she played a leading role as Secretary of State in the NATO bombing campaign of Libya. Her hawkish tendencies earned her the support of the neoconservative wing of American politics, including former Vice-President Dick Cheney but alienated many liberals fed up with American interventions in the Middle East. Moreover, the whistleblowing organization Wikileaks released documents that showed during the time that Ms. Clinton was Secretary of State, the Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars in donations from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It might be difficult for the average American to make sense of the complex web of alliances and allegiances in the Middle East, specifically in the wars raging in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen currently. However, many understand, at least in a limited way, that the Saudis tacitly fund jihadists groups like the Islamic State and may have had a role in the September 11th attacks of 2001. The Clinton Foundation’s “pay-for-play” scheme was disclosed in leaked emails, and Ms. Clinton’s connections to the Gulf countries presented a conflict of interest that many Americans had no stomach for. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, engaged in an overt courtship of Russia which may very well alter the grand chessboard and accomplish what President Barack Obama originally set out to do with his “reset” policy vis-a-vis Moscow.
In 2008, many young Americans of the millennial generation were energized to go out and vote for President Obama on a message of hope and change. They were also energized in the primaries to canvass for socialist Senator Bernie Sanders who preached a message of income inequality and corporate greed – music to the ears to the generation crushed under the weight of over $1 trillion of student loan debt. The subsequent malfeasance engaged by the Democrat National Committee turned scores of the youth vote off. The Party’s leadership first subverted, then co-opted Senator Sanders to endorse Ms. Clinton, and this sapped the energy of the millennials which manifested itself in exceedingly poor turnout numbers on election day. While voter apathy played a critical part in sinking the Clinton campaign, it was Mr. Trump’s brash personality, temerity, and crass behaviour that likely attracted more voters to his camp. His financial independence also scored big points with many citizens disgusted with corporate lobbyist money in politics.
Mr. Trump will soon find out that running for president and being president are two completely different things. Despite Republican control of all branches of government, opposition to his programme is likely to be fierce with street demonstrations already taking place in major American cities. While the country needs to remain vigilant of his administration and any efforts it makes which run counter to the vanguard idealism enshrined in its Constitution, Mr. Trump has without a doubt earned the right to attempt the herculean task to fix the United States and, who knows, maybe make it great again.
*Tim LaRocco is a Southeast Asia-based writer and teaches history at a leading international school in Cambodia. He is the author of Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain (Lambert, 2013) and previously taught political science at St. Joseph’s College in New York. He maintains his own website: http://timlarocco.net
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Categories: US politics