The alliance will survive TrumpAmericans and most of the world were shocked by Donald Trump’s surprise victory on Nov. 8. There will be endless attempts to explain what happened, but to me Trump’s victory boils down to the following simple narrative: 60 percent of Americans saw their real income decline over the past 15 years and saw nothing but bungling by their government with Iraq, the financial crisis, Obamacare and seeming passivity in the face of Russian, Chinese and North Korean bullying.
The Republican establishment sensed dissatisfaction with Obama and thought that they could win the presidency by expanding from their base of older white conservatives to include Latinos, women and other growing demographic groups. That would have been the strategy of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. But Trump did the opposite — he drove up the white vote by essentially arguing they were right to blame immigrants, Muslims and trade deals for their problems. Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction by a ratio of 2-to-1 and Trump was the only candidate who promised not only to change direction, but also to punish the Democratic and Republic establishments responsible for the status quo.
For people feeling disenfranchised and economically anxious during the Obama years, this was a simple, powerful and winning message — the same one that worked for Brexit in the U.K and Duterte in the Philippines. In contrast, Hillary Clinton looked like the penultimate example of a corrupt establishment figure and thus failed to energize her own base.
So will the United States now become a completely different country? Not necessarily. Trump’s destructive narrative about allies, nuclear weapons, trade, Russia, civil liberties, women, disabled people and the press has turned off much of the world. But it is very important to remember that the American voters in small towns who gave Trump this victory were not voting for him because they want a wall at the Mexican border, a nuclear-armed Japan and Korea, or a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
They voted for Trump in spite of divisive statements because he looked most like the change agent they wanted in Washington.
Interestingly, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs published poll results the week of the election that showed that Americans still support alliances and free trade. That America has not changed.
But because Trump’s supporters did not care about his policy proposals, he now transitions to the presidency with the least developed policy agenda of any president in modern history. That is itself a source of uncertainty, but there are at least some broad themes we can now anticipate.
First, Trump is likely to put competent people in charge of his foreign and defense policies, beginning with Vice President Mike Pence and likely including a cabinet of people like former congressman Mike Rogers, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and Senator Jeff Sessions. At the same time, Trump will brandish his anti-Washington credentials and reward loyalists by peppering the national security agencies with inexperienced and quirky appointees who will harass and confuse allies and the bureaucracies at State and Defense. The traditionalists will prevail, but it won’t be fun for the bureaucracies or the allies.
The second thing we can anticipate is that a Trump administration will increase spending on defense. Given the North Korean threat, this is a good thing. The Republican Congress is already planning to hold President Obama to a “continuing resolution” that freezes the budget until a Trump administration can introduce increased defense spending in 2017 — probably about $60 billion per year — that has been sorely needed to sustain readiness and fund new weapons systems at a time of heavy deployment schedules for a stretched military. Missile defense (including Thaad) will be a top priority.
The third thing we can expect is that Trump will now set aside the trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals. This will hurt American credibility and undercut the United States’ closest allies and trading partners, but it may not be permanent. Trump has said that all trade deals have been disasters for American workers (which the data show is not true, of course), but he has also said that he can negotiate better trade deals if he becomes president.
Trump won traditionally blue (Democratic) states like Michigan and Pennsylvania by attacking trade and globalization, but he will not be able to hold together his Republican coalition unless he eventually has a plan to expand exports. My guess is that the trade agenda is frozen for at least a year, but with the right political rebranding could start again even under Trump.
What nobody knows is how Trump will comport himself as president. It is possible that his tone will now change entirely, building on his uncharacteristically gracious and unifying acceptance speech. His supporters say he only cares about winning — and having won the top job in the country, he will now try to win at governing. Others who have known him for decades in the business world predict that his poor behavior will continue in the White House. Some suspect from his lack of interest in policy issues during the election that he will be satisfied to take credit for things, but will leave policy development and execution to his cabinet.
One thing is certain: The American people want an effective president who is respected on the world stage. If Trump fails in that respect, he will be out of office in four years.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.