I woke up at 4am this morning and went straight to the TV. Three hours later I am still in a state of shock. For a European who is co-director of a human rights centre, trying to make sense of Trump’s apparent victory is tough. How can a man who has said such derogatory things about women, minorities and immigrants, who in election debates came over as such a bully and a braggart be so popular among so many people? How much is it a positive endorsement of Trump’s views, attitudes and policy agendas? How much is this a vote against Hilary Clinton (and how much is that about a dislike of her policies, or her as a person, or anti-establishment sentiment or even simple misogyny)?
I am a British citizen who is still trying to make sense of Brexit. While there are differences, there are also clear parallels. Both votes seem (at least in part) like a howl of rage from disaffected voters who feel like their lives are getting worse not better. And that rage is in part directed at the failure of their governments to make the economic system work for them. Many people do not see the movement of goods, workers and capital from country to country as a benefit to them. Quite the opposite. And they are encouraged to blame ‘the other’. The migrant. The foreign goods. The policies of foreign governments (devaluing their currencies) or European ‘bureaucracies’ (imposing their regulations on us).
Trump has said he will “rip up” existing trade agreements, renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and impose a 35 percent tariff on imports from Mexico and a 45 percent tariff on imports from China. And as I watch the final rites of the election, markets are tumbling and economists predicting very turbulent times ahead, largely because of fear that Trump might enact these policies. Its the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and the great depression all over again. We will have to wait and see what now happens in reality. He wouldn’t be the first presidential candidate to tone down anti-trade rhetoric when he actually gets into office. And some pundits are already saying that Trump is a businessman. He will want to trade, get deals done. His anti-trade rhetoric was just a ruse to get him elected.
But whatever happens next, we need to reflect on why anti-globalization sentiment is a key component part of the Brexit and US election dynamic. Those that see the problems as simple (Trump, Farage) are able to convince electorates that the answers are simple too; We need to exclude people and/or goods from our shores, and then the system will start to work for us again.
Most of the rest of us recognise that there are problems with the system. They are just more complex; an increasingly yawning gap within all countries between the haves and have-nots, a taxation system that is not capturing the value of goods and services within the nation state but allowing it to be squirreled away by global elites, a trading system that works for (at least some of) us as the consumers of goods and services, but appears to ignore our role as workers, who need to produce in order to consume. And so on.
Today, I am still reeling with shock, mourning for a world where elections make me feel hopeful not fearful. But if we are to repair divided national psyches in the US and the UK, then tomorrow we need to wake up ready to start the hard work of thinking and persuading.