Here in New Zealand, the amazing results of the US elections rolled in on 9 November – in our dating shorthand 9/11. And for the American political system, and the world, they’re a repeat of that other 9/11, when the planes hit the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001. In the aftermath of those attacks, it was a media cliché to refer to it as ‘the day the world changed’. 9 November 2016 was also such a day, when America fundamentally changed its sense of itself, and its relationship with the world.
The New York Times headlined its front page ‘Trump’s Triumph’, but the triumph is just as much for the hard right of the Republican Party, which will control both houses of Congress and the White House, and for the aggrieved voters who put them there, many of whom adopted the label of ‘deplorables’ with pride. Even if Donald Trump dropped dead tomorrow and Mike Pence became President in January, or Trump went back on his campaign promises, there is clearly a large section of the American public that wants to see a Fortress America, largely disengaged from the world both economically and strategically. The essence of its disquiet was captured in Trump’s campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, implying that its best days are past, but that Trump will take it back to them.
So what does it mean for New Zealand? We’ve been the poster child for free trade and open markets for more than 30 years, and the ideology and rhetoric of both our major parties is completely out of tune with Trump and his supporters. They will expect him, and their representatives in Congress, to make good on their protectionist promises. One of the surprise election results was Trump winning the formerly solidly Democrat state of Wisconsin, which labels itself ‘America’s Dairyland’. On the other side of the country, California went for Clinton state-wide, but drill down to the county level, and its inland rural areas are almost all Republican red in ‘America’s salad bowl’. Those farmers will want higher tariffs on foreign foodstuffs, especially when their production costs go up if Trump makes good on his promise to deport the millions of undocumented aliens that American agriculture relies on for cheap labour. And the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which our government pinned so much hope on, is all but dead and buried.
Strategically we could come under pressure too. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that Trump would honour the ANZUS treaty, despite his campaign statements disparaging various other allies’ commitments to their own defence. But there is a perception in both Canberra and Washington that New Zealand does not pull its weight militarily in the areas of the treaty in which it still operates, mostly cooperation with Australia given the suspension of a direct relationship with the US thanks to our nuclear ban. Trump’s rhetoric about NATO countries, and Japan and South Korea, not bearing enough of the cost of the American defence umbrella, may find echoes across the Tasman, notwithstanding our undoubted value as an intelligence listening post through the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance.
The Trump Republican sweep completely changes America’s relationship with the rest of the world, economically and strategically, with threats of higher tariffs, scrapped trade deals, and weakened military support. Following on from Britain’s Brexit vote, it is part of a worldwide trend towards isolationism, nativism and withdrawal from multilateral relationships and structures. Both results will further legitimise and strengthen the anti-EU, anti-immigrant right in Europe, not least boosting the prospects of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s French presidential election. A win for her could spell the beginning of the end of the European Union and seriously weaken NATO, an outcome that can only benefit Vladimir Putin and Russia. For a slightly apocalyptic but plausible ‘worst case scenario’, see the Huffington Post.
For America itself, a Trump presidency and fundamentalist Republican dominance of Congress could roll back decades of progressive and liberal initiatives, and hamper any efforts to reinstate or extend them in future, thanks to the Supreme Court. The certainty that Trump’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the court will be an arch conservative will not have much immediate effect, as so was Scalia, but the possibility of at least two liberal justices being replaced in the next four years could swing the court far to the right. Expect to see challenges to the Roe vs Wade abortion decision, even further weakening of gun control legislation, and a chipping away of various civil rights provisions. Any questioning of aggressive policing in minority communities, and the ongoing militarisation of law enforcement agencies, will be shut down. And like the TPP, President Obama’s flawed attempt at comprehensive health insurance, the Affordable Care Act, derided as ‘Obamacare’, will be history.
The Republican resurgence will be analysed and dissected in every detail by journalists and other commentators over the coming weeks and months, and by political scientists, historians and other academics for years. Its many facets are too numerous to expand upon here, but two features stand out. Firstly, while there was there was a ten-point ‘gender gap’ in support for Trump, tens of millions of American women voted for him, despite many of his policies not being in their interest, and his well-publicised sexist remarks and general boorishness. Secondly, after badly getting wrong the outcome of the Brexit referendum, and now the result of both the presidential and congressional races in the US, the reputation of the polling industry is in tatters on both sides of the Atlantic. The polling companies have to thoroughly re-engineer their methodologies and sampling techniques.
The win by Trump and the Republicans is historic, truly a ‘day the world changed’. But it is part of a worldwide trend, a hankering for the certainties of a fabled past in the face of globalisation and rapid technological change. Substantial sections of society in almost all developed countries feel left out, and are finding what they think are saviours in right-wing populists: Trump, UKIP in the UK, Le Pen in France, and other anti-free trade, anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe. In more authoritarian countries the same trend is also evident: Putin’s attempts to regain some of the prestige of the former Soviet Union; Rodrigo Duterte’s Marcos-era tough guy image in the Phillippines; and Xi Jinping’s rehabilitation of aspects of Maoism in China. The ‘Trump triumph’ marks a huge surge in that process, and poses challenges throughout the world, not least for a small, outward looking country like New Zealand with, thus far, a population and political and economic elite looking to the future, not the past.
Mark Boyd is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research analyses television news coverage of New Zealand election campaigns, comparing it to coverage of recent campaigns overseas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org