US Elections 2016: Final countdown

Candidates have had to deal with new political mood

Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan says billionaire candidate Donald Trump appeals to the working class but it is 'increasingly difficult' to see how Trump can win the US election.
Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan delivers his first in a series of lectures on coping in an ambiguous world.
Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan delivers his first in a series of lectures on coping in an ambiguous world. PHOTO: ST FILE

This election has brought to the fore a new political mood in America that both candidates have had to respond to: a disillusionment with globalisation, cultural alienation from the values of the elite, and a certain inward-lookingness.

This is the mood especially of the white, lower-middle working class, of the non-college-educated who feel themselves trapped on the wrong side of globalisation. Normally, these guys sit around in working-class bars and grumble, but this year they have found a voice in Mr Donald Trump.

This demographic and the political mood they represent were also tapped by Mr Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and it is a mood that is not going to disappear come election day. Already, Mrs Hillary Clinton has had to respond to this mood in her policy positions and, if she becomes president, she will have to deal with it somehow.

The most immediate question is what is going to happen to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Mrs Clinton said in the last debate that she will not support the TPP even after the election. Whether she means it or not, it is a bit early to tell.

When President Barack Obama was running for the presidency, he came out against the United States-South Korea free trade agreement. But a few years later he managed to turn it around, with some modifications that allowed him to claim victory. A good scenario would be Mrs Clinton doing something similar.

Beyond the TPP, the US will have to deal with China. I have no doubt in my mind that China wants to reclaim something of its historical centrality in East Asia. But how will China do it, in particular without weakening the confidence of Japan, South Korea and other countries in the American presence? If, say, Japan loses confidence in extended deterrence under the US alliance, it has the capability to go nuclear very quickly.

The US and China are now groping after some kind of new modus vivendi with each other and other countries in the region. This will go on for some time more, and I don't mean just a few years; this process of finding a new accommodation will go on for maybe a decade or more.

What the final outcome will be I don't know, but both of them are and will remain major players in the region. There will be ups and downs, of course, but the parameters will not be a totally Sino-centric region, or like in the past with a completely American-dominated region.

This mood has had implications for both major parties in the US. It has moved the centre of gravity of the Democratic Party somewhat leftwards and the Republican Party is in a complete state of disarray. Now, I would not underestimate the capability of the American political system to regenerate itself. It has done so many times in the past; it will do so again. But how long it will take is anybody's guess.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline 'Candidates have had to deal with new political mood'. Subscribe