Many countries once fretted over how the United States views the rest of the world. As the sole pre-eminent power in the post-Cold War era, that mattered. But nations got more concerned about how Americans see themselves, as the nastiest ever race to the White House unfolded over an exceedingly long year. It seems like another epoch altogether when Senator Ted Cruz became the first Republican candidate to throw his hat into the ring in March last year. He was described as "easily the most hated man in Washington". But that was before Mr Donald Trump gave him a run for his money by raising the political stakes to an unimagined height. Mrs Hillary Clinton, and the political order she represented, was then riding higher on the poll charts. She remained on top (by just a whisker later) all the way till the results started emerging. It showed how few could read American voters accurately.
The eventual victory of Mr Trump and the Republicans stunned global capitals and markets. What was on the minds of Americans when they went to the polls and how do they want their nation to act in an uncertain world? That is a matter of considerable importance for Asia too, especially in the light of geostrategic repositioning that is already taking place in the region. America has been the great internationalist for decades under both Democrat and Republican presidents. Is that self-perception destined to run smack into a wall that has become a metaphor for Mr Trump's "America First" worldview? So much is riding on the superpower's leadership that a drastic change of course would mean reassessments by many countries that could play out in a number of uncomfortable ways and for an uncomfortably long period. If it is no longer possible to count on a dependable ally and an old predictable order, what then can one fall back on?
What the election results reveal is just how sharply disruption has affected American politics - more profoundly than what Brexit is doing to Britain and how President Rodrigo Duterte is overturning Manila's oligarchic establishment. Political dynasty, experience in office, time- honoured ideals, the weight of facts and institutions, a superior war chest, party orthodoxy, and even a battery of big political names, pollsters and rock stars seem to matter less in the age of disruption, it seems. Even if this is seen as a freak result with two unpopular candidates acting as the perfect foil for each other's warts and beauty spots, there is no denying that the majority of Americans identified themselves more with Mr Trump. This was despite the fact that some of his positions on trade, immigrants and foreign affairs spooked many around the world. Mr Trump struck a gracious, statesmanlike note in his victory speech. The world will be watching to see if he surprises again when he gets to the White House.