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What Can We Expect From Post-Trump America?

14/12/2016 15:23
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For the last few weeks, we have seen a huge number of articles reacting to the result of the US election; wondering how some of the polls could have missed it so badly, predicting what President-elect Trump will do first and whether he will stick with the more controversial pledges he made during the campaign, and mulling on what it says about America that someone could be elected after having made such outrageous statements. There has been comparatively little written, however, about what America will look like after the first (and only?) Trump term.

It is easy to say with hindsight, but in many respects the Trump victory should not have been a surprise. American documentary maker Michael Moore wrote an amazingly prescient piece at the end of October predicting almost exactly what would happen, and had identified the very states where Trump could cause an upset as long ago as August.

As he points out, pundits and Clinton supporters were in some sort of 'echo chamber', where they could not fathom a situation in which the American people could support a candidate like Trump in sufficient numbers for him to win. This, despite what Jeremy Corbyn has rightly referred to as the rise in popularity of the "fake anti-elitism" peddled by "rich white men", and the tendency towards what can only be described as angry voting.

What's next remains very much an unknown, since there is no real precedent for a President with no political experience, little in the way of prior statements, and no real policy beyond the eye-catching announcements made at campaign rallies. Whilst his pledges to 'drain the swamp', protect American workers and tackle immigration have been developed in Trump's 'Contract with the American Voter', everything else remains something of a mystery, slowly being developed apparently on the hoof, and subject to change if the last few weeks are anything to go by.

Like many who campaign on such a platform - and we have seen the new UKIP leader Paul Nuttall talk of "Making Britain Great Again" just this week - there is a yearning to bring back a past which either did not exist or which is no longer possible. This does not matter, however, since it is not important to specify what it is that you are trying to bring back, just the assertion that our predecessors somehow had it better than we did, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

During his search for a Vice-Presidential candidate it was reported that Trump was prepared to offer unprecedented levels of power to his pick, which gives us a clue into how hands-on he will be. It is not hard to imagine President Trump as the figurehead whilst policy ideas are formulated and implemented by those working behind the scenes. This could have served as a relief, were it not for the people he has surrounded himself with.

These individuals give perhaps the strongest clue as to what Trump will do, and therefore what 2020 America will look like. Through a combination of the nature of his campaign and the people he has managed to upset, Trump has had to surround himself with characters who the more uncharitable would describe as extremists, but who at the very least can be considered to possess fringe ideas.

Whilst many people welcomed the side-lining of disgraced New Jersey governor Chris Christie, at least he held more mainstream ideas and he possessed some relevant work experience. Mitt Romney as Secretary of State would have provided some element of normality, but Trump's eventual nomination of Rex Tillerson, seemingly due to his deal-making skills and relationship with Vladimir Putin, demonstrates Trump's - almost certainly incorrect - faith in skills from the world of business being transferrable to the world of diplomacy.

The nature of Cabinet appointees may not ordinarily be too much cause for concern, but such is Trump's lack of ideas and governing experience, there are yawning chasms in his policy for his appointees to impose their ideas. His selection of climate-change deniers, those with incredible personal wealth, and a proprietor of an extremely right wing website give clues as to where this might lead.

So predicting a 2020 vision of America may be somewhat difficult, but we can make a few educated guesses based on what we know, and I have my own opinions about what is likely to happen.

Those who voted for Trump are likely to find themselves disappointed by the situation they find themselves in in four years' time. That is not necessarily because I predict disaster for Trump's economic policies or because I foresee World War 3, though it is worth mentioning at this point that an emboldened Russia - with only a low chance of American intervention under Trump - should give everyone cause for concern, and I personally believe that the chance of Russian expansion into the Ukraine, Caucasus or Baltic States is high.

Instead, I say this because one look at what we do know of Trump shows who is likely to benefit. For all his talk, he is very much an 'establishment' figure; proposed tax cuts will be of far greater benefit to the wealthy 'elites', sustainable manufacturing jobs are devilishly hard to get back in the modern world, and any proposal to help 'coal country' that does nothing to simultaneously hurt the oil and natural gas sector is likely to be ineffective and cause difficulties elsewhere.

Trump proposes a massive infrastructure programme which on the face of it seems eminently sensible, but questions remain about who will fund it; if Trump wants the private sector to meet the cost, aided by generous tax credits from Government, then any benefits felt for citizens will have to be weighed against the fact that the private sector will own the infrastructure and want a return on their investment.

Furthermore, as the proposed tax credits system to encourage private investment is extremely generous; economist Paul Krugman suggests a situation where a private consortium builds a toll road for $1 billion;

'Under the Trump plan, the consortium might borrow $800 million while putting up $200 million in equity - but it would get a tax credit of 82 percent of that sum, so that its actual outlays would only be $36 million. And any future revenue from tolls would go to the people who put up that $36 million'.

Krugman goes on to ask three questions; firstly why, with borrowing so easy for the American Government and interest rates so low, would the Government simply not make the investment itself; secondly, with investors likely to cherry-pick those infrastructure needs which will return a profit, what will happen to those - Krugman suggests repairing levees and cleaning up hazardous waste - which do not have a revenue stream; and finally, how can we guarantee that this will not just lead to work being done that would have been carried out through necessity anyway, only now with the assets privatised in the hands of companies who have paid '18 cents on the dollar'?

These are all very valid questions and are at the heart of the paradox with Trump; he rages against the 'elite', but is set to make a very small elite of his own very wealthy indeed, both through the contracts themselves and the inevitable corruption and cronyism that will surround it. This in turn raises questions about his business empire; any company that benefits from these generous tax credits who have any business dealings with the Trump empire could surely be considered a conflict of interest, and how many degrees of separation do we require before it is not?

If Trump were to go ahead with his repatriation tax - another key pledge - to encourage those with money stashed overseas to return it to the U.S. at a low tax rate, then those who stand to benefit most are enormous firms like Hewlett Packard and General Motors, not to mention those individuals at the top, the mega-rich like Trump himself.

When George W Bush tried something similar in 2003, a small fraction of the money that came back to the U.S. was used to invest in the economy, removing one of the justifications for the policy, but even if we are charitable and accept that it might produce a pot of money for Trump's plans, and it may require further investment in the US economy, do the ends even justify the means? Producing a fund for investment in infrastructure whilst providing a massive tax break for the mega rich does not sit right with me.

But whilst the ongoing issue with the Supreme Court is in fact less a shift than simply a missed opportunity for Democrats to re-make its balance, since Trump will simply be replacing like-for-like, the bigger possibility is if another vacancy emerges during Trump's term. Both of Bill Clinton's appointees will be in their 80s by the end of Trump's first term, as will Anthony Kennedy, the 'swing vote' in many of the Court's most closely-contested decisions.

If any of those require replacing, Trump has a chance to stitch up the Court for a generation. It is therefore a fairly safe bet that whatever Trump himself achieves, even a two-term Democrat once he is gone will likely find a Supreme Court ready to challenge any of their more liberal policy. This may yet prove to be Trump's lasting legacy.

So if the arch-populist Trump can do nothing for those who feel left behind by the political process and let down by politicians, what then for these millions of voters? Will one of the two main political parties in the US have to lurch towards further extremism in order to convince voters that they understand their concerns, will a third party emerge, or will voters realise that it is only through mainstream politics that problems can be solved, even if this might be achieved more slowly than they like?

Quite simply, we have no idea. Individuals with the mind set and temperament of Trump generally do not come to power in a representative democracy like that in America, or if they do they quickly dismantle the means by which they were elected or can be removed. This will not happen in America, so Trump will be forced to seek the approval of the American people in four years and walk out of the White House in eight, at most, not to mention hang on to control of Congress in the even-numbered years in between.

There is a strong argument to be made that Americans, and ironically those who voted for Donald Trump in particular, are in a no-win situation. If he does succeed with his policies - the ones he will actually be able to achieve, not the more outlandish from the campaign trail - then at best he will be able to provide the illusion of improvement for the poor and vulnerable, but nothing concrete. 'Stop the world, I want to get off', is not a realistic approach for a politician to take in order to deal with globalisation.

If he does succeed, those that benefit, as I have already detailed, will be people like himself, not the Midwest voters who delivered him the Presidency or the tens of millions of Americans living below the poverty line. If he doesn't succeed, then those who gave him their vote will simply have signed up to four years where America got more unfair, less intolerant, and more isolationist, whilst the sense of disappointment from those who thought Trump represented change is likely to be many times greater than those who felt that Barack Obama was a let-down.

At that point, no-one really knows where America will go next.

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