Two weeks on from one of the most shocking and surprising presidential elections in American history, commentators, academics and politicians alike are scratching their heads as they try to make sense of Donald Trump’s victory. Once ridiculed by countless influential voices on both ends of the political spectrum, the billionaire businessman is now just two months away from entering the White House as the 45th President of the United States.
Divisive, demeaning and destructive are three of the many adjectives that can be used to describe Trump’s presidential campaign, but each fail to pinpoint why it was that over 60 million Americans voted for a man with no political experience to run one of the world’s largest and most important economies.
Countless theories have been offered to try and explain how Trump managed to carry 30 states, with answers ranging from working-class economic anxiety to widespread racial resentment amongst whites. Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that Trump has tapped into widespread anger and resentment amongst the so-called “left behind”, and he now must deliver on his lofty campaign promises to avoid his presidency ending in abject failure.
Trump’s impressive gains in Rustbelt states – several of which were seen as being safe bets for the Democrats – helped him over the finish line, and many of those that chose the businessman over Hillary Clinton were Democrat-leaning voters that backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Countless former Obama voters were enthused and excited by promises to “make America great again”, and there is an argument to be made that Trump’s rhetoric on economic issues had as much to do with his victory as his calls for a wall on the border with Mexico and a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Anger at the perceived failures of globalisation and a Democratic Party that, in their eyes, had taken their support for granted for too long, Trump spoke directly to the white working-class population of the Midwest, offering them security, prosperity and, above all else, the return of jobs that many had seen shipped overseas.
During the campaign, Trump spoke often and passionately about his desire to dismantle Obama’s legacy on issues such as foreign policy, business regulations and climate change, but he also indicated that he is willing to build on some of the president’s achievements that many of Trump’s poorer supporters have come to rely on.
After promising to spend “$1 trillion on infrastructure” by “fixing our inner cities” and “rebuilding our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools and hospitals”, Trump has to understand that his success largely relies on whether or not he can deliver the prosperity that he promised to the struggling voters that, angry and disillusioned with mainstream politics, turned away from the Democrats and, in states like Wisconsin, voted for a Republican presidential nominee for the first time since the early 1980s.
But whether or not Trump will follow through with his promises is another matter, and it is one that could prove to be his downfall if he fails to show a genuine desire to aid those that helped put him in the White House. As many politicians before him have found out, campaign rhetoric is worthless if it is not backed up with real actions once in office, and after promising so much to so many on the campaign trail, Trump will be faced with widespread hostility if he fails to deliver the changes that many are eagerly awaiting.
A lot of what Trump can enact will depend on his relationship with the Republican Party hierarchy, and a potential problem could manifest itself in an almighty ideological showdown if he decides to plough ahead with the infrastructure plan that was a cornerstone of his pitch to blue-collar voters. The already icy relationship between the president-elect and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is likely to intensify as their markedly different visions collide.
This summer, Ryan, an avid believer in the virtues of the free market, laid out his agenda for the Republicans in ‘A Better Way’, which is now viewed as being the blueprint for American conservatives. Put together by six task forces and emanating from forums that were open to all House Republicans, the agenda found in ‘A Better Way’ boasts legitimacy within the party due to, in Ryan’s words, the “bottom-up” approach to putting it together.
With a Republican about to enter the White House (or at least a Republican in name only), the party now has a chance of bringing ‘A Better Way’ to life. But with Trump in charge, will they be able to? High levels of government spending on infrastructure are likely to frustrate Republicans, leading to disagreements in the House and Senate that could cause problems for the president-elect and curtail his plans.
Whilst he may end up butting heads with several Republicans, Trump’s willingness to pour money into infrastructure offers an opportunity for Democrats to influence his policies and help enact those that they agree with. Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, has already said as much, indicating that “we [Democrats] can work together to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill”. Even Bernie Sanders, who has criticised Trump over his views on climate change and the appointment of Stephen Bannon as a top adviser, has said that he could work with the new president when it comes to infrastructure. This suggests that even if staunchly free-market Republicans fail to rally round him, Trump could still strike a deal with several Democrats, particularly those from struggling flyover states.
However, as has always been the case with Trump, the question still remains as to how many of his campaign promises were legitimate and not just empty words. He successfully tapped into and utilised working-class frustration to win the presidency, but whether or not he means what he said remains to be seen.
Trump has already backtracked somewhat on his much-publicised wall along the border with Mexico and the deportation of undocumented immigrants, indicating that spending on infrastructure may also be an area in which he will prove to be full of hot air.
Even if he does try to embark on an ambitious infrastructure agenda, fierce battles with Republicans in both the House and the Senate could await him, meaning that his first few months in office are going to be far from straightforward.
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