The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections, however unexpected, underlines the American and global policy elite’s long ignorance of the downsides of economic and cultural globalisation. Dismissing the result as a racial backlash would be the typical elite response and wouldn’t explain why Americans voted in large number for a president castigated widely for being crass, vulgar, inward-looking and temperamentally unsound to lead the most powerful country in the world.
As November 8 drew closer and opinion polls aired by television channels begun reflecting a tighter race, analysis across the media refused to give up on Hillary Clinton. While expressing surprise over the growing support for Trump, most discussions and experts maintained ‘good sense’ would ensure his defeat. As battleground states begun showing wider splits between choices, analysts kept dismissing them as ‘statistical’ blips and non-indicative of the majority voter sentiment. Interactions with voters aired on channels were mostly limited to those supporting Hillary Clinton. As is now evident, mainstream media had assumed that notwithstanding the unmistakable popular support, choice of Donald Trump would be Armageddon—an outcome that US voters would never permit.
The Trump victory is a setback for many major constituencies, including strategic and political experts, academics, corporates and the media. These constituencies are afraid of the conversation that would dominate the political and social narrative in a US ruled by Donald Trump. With conversation likely to shift from the US’s views and roles in global public policy issues such as climate change and international trade to narrower and sensitive domestic matters like immigration, race and healthcare, elites focused on globalisation and global issues are apprehensive of becoming irrelevant in the Trump era. A US focusing more on its own affairs than those of the rest of the world is inconceivable for many who have prospered from such an approach.
Along with the fear of irrelevance, the possibility of Trump descending hard on the corrupt and not shying away from persecution is also a prospect needling many. Trump’s victory is attributable to his campaign’s ability to bring together constituencies that have suffered from technological changes in labour markets and those uncomfortable with cultural globalisation. American manufacturing workers in the country’s vast ‘rust belt’ have been aggrieved for several years over loss of jobs. They and their families would hardly be receptive to an America becoming conspicuously multi-cultural by adding more job and social security-seeking immigrants. The anger of these workers and their families have been greatly enhanced by the fact that the entire elite conversation on globalisation has ignored their plight and emphasised immigration for national economic and social benefits.
The aggrieved has also been noticing how rent-seeking and greed has gone unpunished. The financial catastrophe of 2008 brought on by unchecked adventurism of banks and funds depleted ordinary household savings and assets and made the already poor even poorer. One of the biggest expectations from the Obama administration was that it would bring to book guilty fund managers and investment bankers. The hopes never materialised, as the powerful in the Wall Street stayed untroubled and unpunished while average households were left clueless on how to make ends meet.
The vote for Trump reflects the deep anger and frustration building up among many for months and years. Such frustration cannot be made to see the benefits of globalisation in the absence of adequate public policy responses for addressing the injured. Globalisation for the affected is a process for preserving and patronising the elite at the expense of the non-elite. The Trump campaign, much like the Brexit campaign, was able to capitalise on this deep-rooted anger by using language of the street and pointing fingers at all sections of the establishment. While elites coloured Trump as the worst that the world could have seen in modern times, Trump portrayed elites evil and Hillary Clinton as their representative. In the end, Trump turned out to be a more effective accuser as ‘shy’ Trump voters unwilling to reveal their preferences socially for fear of being ostracised, turned up in large numbers for venting their anger in the ballot boxes. The writing was on the wall in some of the opinions gathered on head-to-head comparisons of both candidates, which, while placing Hillary Clinton way ahead of Trump in temperamental suitability for the Oval Office, rated Trump less corrupt and more capable of creating new jobs. This surprised many who thought Trump’s non-disclosure on income tax returns would convince the electorate about his corrupt intentions. But the anti-establishment wrath of the Trump voters ensured him success notwithstanding such blemishes.
High office has its own ways of ‘mellowing’ individuals. Donald Trump, in his presidential avatar, might turn out different from the image he portrayed as a campaigner. He might well be far from the answer that the anti-establishment mandate is searching. But his victory indicates that judgement day for globalisation has arrived.
The author is senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economic policy) in the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. E-mail: [email protected] [email protected]
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