Richard Heller: Trump and the American dream that failed millions
American voters have frequently rejected conventional politics and demanded new priorities from their government. The first major example was Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828 (Trump supporters will be no match for Jackson’s at his inauguration: they drank Washington dry in a frenzy of joyous freeloading). In modern times, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 has been cited as a precedent for Trump’s.
But compared to Trump, both Jackson and Reagan were political insiders. Trump will be the first American President with no apprenticeship in any political office, or government, or the law or any branch of the military. He is a self-uneducated man, a narcissistic businessman accustomed to instant obedience and an even more narcissistic reality television personality. This is a dangerous psychological preparation for the Presidency. But his voters clearly found his resumé an asset. They wanted a total outsider – to repudiate a political system which treated them as outsiders.
Trump won against the ultimate political insider. He could have defeated no other candidate but Hillary Clinton, product of the mightiest fundraising political machine in American history. Astonishingly, Clinton made the billionaire Trump look like the champion of the little man – and even the little woman.
Trump certainly fed the bitterness and acrimony which has entered American life, the growing intolerance of Americans for other Americans who differ from them politically and culturally. If Trump’s presidency comes unstuck he will almost certainly try to find scapegoats within American society, particularly minorities.
However, America’s friends should be very careful to avoid snobbery about the people who have just chosen Donald Trump. Trump did not win because his supporters were ignorant, racist, sexist bigots. No American candidate can win a majority from such voters.
Trump won because millions of Americans felt cheated of the traditional American dream of bettering themselves and their families through hard work. Many of them live in provincial towns and rural communities which are alien territory to the political class, the media and (clearly) the pollsters.
These are people who have lost secure, well-paying jobs and social status. They have been squeezed by rising costs of housing, healthcare and education, particularly if their children still hope to go to college. Main Street in their local town has lost its familiar landmarks, especially the local businesses which sponsored civic improvements and the Little League baseball team, which gave vacation jobs, and sometimes permanent ones, to their children, and which offered generous credit in tough times.
The world has good reasons to be frightened of Trump’s presidency. Many of his declared policies were crazy or unlawful and already retracted (such as the ban on Muslims from entering the United States). But others are still standing, especially the start of a long series of trade wars. Much else, especially on the economy, is a blank.
Trump faces very little constraint. The Republicans control Congress. This means less than it might normally, since Trump is virtually an independent. He ran against the Republican establishment and trounced them. If Congressional Republicans try to shackle him, he could easily denounce them.
However, Republican control of the Senate will help Trump in one vital area: it should approve his choices of Supreme Court justices. This could give the Court a conservative majority (particularly over abortion rights and gun control) for 20 years or more.
For Britain, Trump will be far more sympathetic to Brexit than Clinton and her foreign policy establishment. But this will not extend to any special trade deal unless it is massively favourable to the United States. Trump has already signalled his reluctance to confront Vladimir Putin on behalf of Nato. He seems to regard Putin as a minor business rival who might be open to a deal. If Britain and European countries want to confront Putin they will have to pay for it themselves. Indeed, they may have to get used to a world without American leadership, since Trump is fundamentally not interested in foreign policy.
The crucial constraint on Trump will be the expectations he has raised in his voters. He has to restore to them the American dream. He must deliver them secure, well-paying jobs and rising living standards for their families, and revive the belief that their children will live better than they do.
If Trump fails, voters will turn on him as they have turned on the present establishment, perhaps even more savagely. He will be identified as just another politician and derided as a phoney and a fake.
To avoid this fate, Donald Trump will have to learn very quickly what creates American jobs and what destroys them. He will discover that he cannot risk crashing the world economy. If he avoids that in his first hundred days, he will have a chance and the rest of us can be grateful for small mercies.
Richard Heller was born in the United States and written extensively about American politics. He was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey.