US Elections 2016

The most stunning revolt in America's history

Americans and the world can now only hope that Trump once again defies all predictions - and rises to unprecedented heights to manage the demons he has set free.

America has its Brexit. The only difference is that this time there is no part of the world that can dismiss this as a local European difficulty.

After this, the free-market, open, globalist-minded world can only sit back and wonder where the next domino will fall. Maybe France. Is anyone now confident that Ms Marine Le Pen cannot win the presidency next year? Whatever comes next cannot reverberate as much as Mr Donald Trump's improbable victory.

But it is now beyond doubt that we are seeing a revolt against the political and economic order that has governed the Western world for decades. The market reaction made clear that investors see this result in those terms.

The grievances may have been specific - the cost of Obamacare most obviously - but the underlying story is the same and many of the features are common to both the Brexit campaign and to many of the other populist movements being seen across the Western world.

Mr Trump's win is immeasurably more significant than Brexit, not merely for America but for all those nations that look to it for a lead and who now see an utterly unpredictable man at its helm.

This was a vote that signalled America's descent from optimism to pessimism. Eight years ago it voted for "Hope" and for the slogan "Yes we can". Mr Trump's campaign was one that painted America as a victim.

For those who saw the Brexit vote at first hand, what has happened in America will seem all too familiar.

A jubilant supporter at Mr Trump's election night party yesterday. Many of those who voted for him were aware of his shortcomings. But the grievances which impelled them to back him outweighed any distaste for him. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

At its heart is a nation almost split down the middle in which neither half can comprehend even for a moment what drove the other to vote the way it did. And the more the wise heads yelled that people could not vote for this man, the more convinced his audience became that he was just what they wanted.

His very unsavouriness to the nation's ruling elite, to its intellectuals and liberals and even to the grand figures in the Republican establishment became almost his greatest selling point to a segment of society convinced that what it needed most was something different. Even if he had not won, the scale of anger and division he stoked would have been hard to quell.

Across the states, Mr Trump touched a chord with the angry, working class, white mainstream who have seen the certainties of their world fade with globalisation, with free trade, with technology and with the sense that America no longer punches its weight in the world.

As with Brexit, an emotional appeal with a simple slogan overcame every rational explanation, many accepted truths and every legitimate doubt about the worthiness of the candidate. As with Brexit, it did not matter that there were no details behind the sweeping promises. The people voted for change first and resolved to worry about the details later.

No position was too outrageous. Threats to jail his opponents, muzzle the press or ban an entire religion from entering the country all failed to dent his appeal. His praise for Russia's leader and refusal to disavow endorsements from the Ku Klux Klan made no difference.

And only far too late did the establishment begin to sense the danger. Just as Mr David Cameron, the former British prime minister, loftily dismissed the UK Independence Party as "fruitcakes, loonies and racists", so Mrs Clinton described half of Mr Trump's supporters as "deplorables". The fact that some of them are deplorable does lessen the foolishness of tarring the rest with the same brush.

Mr Trump came to see the Brexit campaign as a template, even flying in one of its leaders, Mr Nigel Farage, for support and advice. He predicted his victory would be "Brexit plus plus plus". As Mr Trump dug deeper into the core of discontent, Mrs Clinton appeared to abandon them in favour of more traditional bases of support, endeavouring to drum up the fear he engendered among women, minorities and graduates.

Many of those who voted for him were keenly aware of his shortcomings. But the grievances which impelled them to support him outweighed any distaste they might have. Speaking outside a polling station in Brooklyn, an unemployed IT manager admitted: "I don't know if I trust him." Another considered him "the lesser of two evils". More positive supporters talked of how he would "Make America great again", "drain the swamp" and bring back lost jobs.

Another way of saying the same thing is that he promised to turn back the clock to an era when America was more sheltered against the economic forces of the world.

Many will speculate that in Mrs Clinton, the Democrats gifted Mr Donald Trump perhaps the only opponent he could defeat. He could not have chosen someone more suited to his strategy. Mrs Clinton represented everything his rising opposed. Aside from the liberal policies which most Democrats would espouse, she spoke to a sense of an establishment continuum and a proximity to the hated Wall Street, whose leaders escaped meaningful sanction for the economic crash.

But she also seemed attached to the very groups this rebellion has targeted, most particularly the working women and immigrants who are crowding them out of the labour market, the college graduates enjoying prosperity as they saw their traditional industries closing down.

There is no question that she also faced misogyny - the caller to Rush Limbaugh's rightwing radio show who said she reminded him of every man's ex-wife also touched a nerve with some voters. We will never know for sure the impact of the resurrected FBI probe into her e-mails, but the conjecture will be that it gave some voters the permission they were looking for to cast their ballot against her.

But there was also a joylessness to her campaign, almost a sense of entitlement. For what was meant to be her victory party, she hired the huge and soulless crystal palace, the Jacob Javits Conference Centre, seemingly so she could indeed point to the great glass ceiling above her head as she declared that she had smashed through it. That moment will have to wait.

Inside the hall, as the reality dawned, one could see the incomprehension among Clinton supporters. They were having to cope not merely with defeat but with a defeat they simply cannot understand. It is a defeat which is going to force people to revise their view of America.

Mr Trump and his insurgents cheerfully broke every rule, told extraordinary untruths and adopted policy positions which strain credibility. The greatest worry for his opponents - and indeed for the wider world - is that having won by defying every conventional wisdom, he has no reason to start listening to it now. There will be few restraints to stop him fulfilling pledges to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran, scrap proposed trade treaties or weaken America's commitment to Nato. Again, as with Brexit, minorities will wake this morning more fearful about the prejudice which has now been legitimised and unleashed against them.

Once every few decades, America has managed to find the right man for a crisis of confidence, perhaps most notably the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt. Mr Trump rose to power by recognising that his country once more had a yearning for such a man.

There the similarity would seem to end. But he has now delivered the most stunning revolt in his country's history. Americans and the world can now only hope that he somehow manages to prove that - against all the obvious indicators - he is capable of rising to those heights and managing the demons he has set free.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'The most stunning revolt in America's history'. Print Edition | Subscribe