In the most stunning election in modern memory, Donald Trump has been chosen to be the next president of the United States. In retrospect, one can see the contributors to this outcome: fear and dissatisfaction among a large segment of the American population, the failure of Hillary Clinton to address these concerns in any meaningful way, and Trump’s own superb understanding of how to exploit the situation.
Trump remains what he has always been: supremely narcissistic, and a “soft” misogynist and racist. He also relies on instincts that tend to concentrate power, favour loyalists and produce reactive behaviour. None of this bodes well for America or the world. What specifically is likely to happen?
On the domestic economic front, Trump rode to power on the pain of the white working class that has suffered most from globalisation and technological change, and their concentration in the American Midwest, which had been an industrial heartland as well as a bulwark of the Democratic party. But Trump has no real solution to offer here. Impeding trade will raise costs for consumers and businesses, and it will bring back very few jobs. Interestingly, some of the Midwest’s pain was a gain for the South, which saw new automobile manufacturing arise as both American and foreign companies sought lower costs without going too far from their biggest market. Impeding trade will hurt American industry across the board.
What should have accompanied opening of trade was an overhaul of America’s education system, which provides very poor quality at relatively high cost to large segments of the population, especially up to the high school level. Republicans have refused to recognise the need to fund public education adequately, all the way up to the level of college degrees, instead pushing the burden on to students and parents. Reskilling adult workers has also barely received the policy attention it deserves. If Trump University is the direction that the new administration takes the country, then God help America. It is interesting that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was actually meant to increase the US’s ability to sell services abroad, while protecting its intellectual property. In that context, the opposition to the TPP that Trump fuelled will also hurt the US.
On the domestic job creation front, if Trump’s trade policies will hurt consumers while doing little for his core voting base, what about other policies? Again, without addressing the education system and its affordability, there is little good that will happen. The classic Republican argument is for tax cuts for business people (which means the relatively well-off in practice) and deregulation. Here, unlike trade, Trump is very much in line with his party’s standard positions. If he enacts even a fraction of his tax cut and deregulation proposals, the result will be some stimulus, but at a cost of worsening inequality, lasting environmental damage, and little benefit to his core base. Of course, those traditional better-off Republican voters who supported him will benefit, but the working class will not.
There is much more to Trump’s world view that raises alarms. Many of his positions are aligned with core Republican beliefs. George HW Bush, who finds Trump distasteful, had no hesitation in stoking racial fears to win election in 1988. Trump has just been more honest in his bigotry than many in the party establishment. Racial and ethnic minorities have a lot to fear from this new Republican dominance, as do women and gays. On the international front, Trump claims he will deal better than the Democrats with Russia and China’s strongmen, but the greater likelihood is that his vanity and arrogance will lead to them running rings around him in the complex game of geopolitics. And, of course, extremists in the Islamic world will use Trump as a rallying point and recruiting tool—he is a blessing to them. To the extent that Trump’s economic policies damage the world economy, that will also aid them, in addition to his bigotry.
One counter-argument is that Trump used extreme language to mobilise voters and get elected, but is more moderate and inclusive in his true persona. But his consistent record of abusing and exploiting women, workers, and government rules and regulations does not offer much hope of a kinder, gentler Trump. He has no record of true concern and empathy for the working class or the disadvantaged of any kind. The collection of people he surrounded himself with, or who gravitated to him over the course of the election, includes many with unsavoury personalities and track records themselves. Much of the Republican establishment, while they were uncomfortable with his language and his style, have pursued similarly destructive policies over the last two presidential administrations. They will be the wind in Trump’s sails.
Perhaps the only positive in all this is that the demographic changes that led to Barack Obama’s election are continuing, and in four years, there will be another chance for the country’s majority to build a better nation and society. Meanwhile, though, my prediction is that there will be new pain and new messes for a future president to deal with.
The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz