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Trump’s real effect

Trump’s real effect

A new, dangerous form of transatlantic unity

by John Kornblum in Nashville

Sun 28 Aug 2016

Europeans often ask me: What would happen if Donald Trump were actually elected? I answer that American election arithmetic makes it unlikely that Trump, or any other Republican, will be elected president for some time to come.

For the 8 November result, the electoral college is key. Al Gore, the then Democrat challenger, won the popular vote in 2000, but George W. Bush still became president. The national opinion polls are relatively meaningless, because they compile votes from lots of places which play no real role in the electoral college.

The crucial figure is 270, the number of votes required for victory in the electoral college. These votes are apportioned according to population. The Democrats dominate the most populous states. One California voter exercises 18 times more influence than a voter from Wyoming. Winning the swing states of Florida and Ohio would be more than enough to put Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee, over the top.

Of greater concern than the actual vote is the long-term effect of the anger Trump has engendered in the overall US body politic. A significant realignment of American politics could be in store: the Republican party may not survive.

Equally important is the effect on US-European relations. Trump’s international notoriety – enabling him, for example, to win the support of Nigel Farage, the British anti-European Union campaigner – will encourage counterparts in many European countries and produce a new kind of Atlantic unity – the spread of dangerous populism in both the new and old worlds. We could be entering the last chapter of our transatlantic vision of hope, winding up not as tragedy but as farce.

Globalisation has made the voting public unpredictable. Both Trump and Clinton are trying without much conviction to find the right mix of rhetoric that will gather the most votes. Trump panders to the bitter, isolationist core which is always just below the surface in an immigrant society like America’s. Clinton sees much greater potential in courting the winners.

Clinton presents what can best be described as the post-war, liberal consensus: the American version of the European unification movement. The motto is: Keep up the positive momentum to head off the demons of the past.

Trump is a classic American huckster, hailing from a very wealthy family. He is what he has always been: a dangerously unbalanced attack-dog, with few scruples. He reminds me of PT Barnum, America’s 19th century circus king, who grew rich on his conviction that ‘a sucker is born every minute’. Trump takes that a step further: ‘The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.’

Clinton is the serial do-gooder from a lower middle class family who, for more than 50 years, has repeatedly overcome adversity to carry on a fight against injustice. No accident that she began her speech accepting the Democratic nomination with a long quote from John Wesley, the über do-gooder who founded her Methodist faith.

Neither candidate says much about the future. Recipes for corralling globalisation never pass their lips. Whatever their differences, they are united in their desire to use the status quo as the platform for their ambitions. Increasingly, this means abandoning substance of any sort in favour of personal attacks on their opponent.

One major difference is their assessment of the state of the nation. Here the parties have changed sides. Republicans traditionally celebrated all that was right about America. Now they, and especially Trump, paint a dark picture of a collapsing, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken country overwhelmed by Muslim terrorists and immigrant rapists.

The Democrats were once America’s social democrats. Now they espouse the upwardly mobile minorities and the educated middle classes. The Democrats have adopted the values of the new elites and they want everyone to feel good about it.

Clinton vaunts the successes of the American Olympic team. She assiduously courts Silicon Valley. Trump by contrast utters not a word about America’s marvellous Olympic showing. It muddies his dark message. So far only one high-tech leader has spoken in his favour.

Surveys show that Trump supporters are not destitute and homeless, as often depicted. They do not hail primarily from decaying industrial cities. Mostly they are less educated whites who fear loss of status and worry about their children’s futures. The real fault line runs not between the rich and the poor, but between the winners and the losers. Those with dreams and those who have lost hope.

The American economy is doing well, but things just don’t ‘feel right’ to large parts of society. We do not need someone who destroys the old order. What we need is someone who can make the new order work. So far neither candidate has proven that he or she really understands what that means.

John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany and Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This forms part of OMFIF’s series of commentaries on the US presidential election on 8 November.

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