Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
America’s new president has won the vote of a disunited country and a distrustful electorate - making it extraordinarily difficult for him to govern effectively with any real mandate.
Artwork representing a divided nation by American artist David Datuna circles around the Trump Tower in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesArtwork representing a divided nation by American artist David Datuna circles around the Trump Tower in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This morning the US and the world wakes to a fundamentally altered political, and geopolitical, landscape. The US has followed the UK and a number of other European states in rejecting the establishment and globalization and opting for nationalism and populism. Trump’s win will resonate far beyond America’s borders.

But the victory celebrations among team Trump will likely be short-lived. Tomorrow he must figure out how he’ll reconcile, and govern, a desperately fractured and combustible nation.

When President Trump takes office on 20 January he inherits an immense burden. The manifold challenges facing the unlikely commander-in-chief are hard to overstate. The greatest of these will be domestic, and none more serious, pressing or testing than the task of rebuilding an ‘inclusive’ America, and re-engaging an intensely disenfranchised, polarized electorate.

This election has made stark the deep divisions laced through the US. These have always existed - but this incendiary campaign has further stoked them.

Victory speech of conciliation

Trump must now pick his path. He can maintain his vision for exclusion and govern for just over half a country. Or he can attempt to bridge the chasm and govern for all. This will be enormously difficult. While his victory speech was one of conciliation, based on his commentary to date, it is not clear that this sentiment will last.

Either way, he is tasked with meeting the expectations of those disenfranchised voters who elected him. A task that is nigh on impossible to do. It will involve spending significant resources – time, energy, political capital and money – on reintegrating them into a political system they reject, and which he now represents.

There are some policy solutions to support this – namely around job creation, education and retraining. But they alone won’t suffice. Moreover, any solution will require cross-party support. In this fractious political landscape, unity will be sorely lacking.

The stark divide between parties is echoed within them. Both will now undergo painful internal struggles as their factions fight for supremacy - but despite Trump's win, the Republicans could fare worst, and there will, inevitably, be a struggle for its leadership. While the Trump faction will predominate in the near term, he should not expect either the Freedom Caucus (the Tea Partiers) nor the traditional conservatives to easily fall into line.  They both desperately want to govern, and will use a Republican in the White House for their own ends. 

Whatever happens, the US can manage four years of a Trump presidency, with all the institutions, bureaucracy and checks and balances that are baked into its system. Despite the fact that - at least for the next two years - Republicans will hold all three arms of government (White House, Senate and Congress) the factional infighting will ensure that Trump is constrained.

The international impact of Trump could prove more significant.

Trump has made clear he intends to let others deal with many of the global challenges the world faces. But he inherits an international stage that is less stable, less safe and less certain than the one Obama stepped onto.

Already this ugly election has dented America’s idealized image abroad. Its ‘soft power’ has, perhaps irrevocably, been weakened. It has stripped the gloss from Western democracy itself: if this is what democracy looks like, many simply don’t want it.

America’s position as a superpower is likely to decline more rapidly now. It’s unclear that other Western and Asian allies will want to follow the US - or that the US will want to lead. The urgent need to heal domestic divisions and rebuild trust at home will see US financial and political resources turn inwards. With America stepping back from the global stage, and its allies in Europe transfixed on Brexit, the West will be unable to lead globally, and its institutions will likely stagnate. Other countries, including China and Russia, will take advantage of this - and may be in for a sharp shock should Trump respond negatively.

This was a divisive battle. America’s new president has won the vote of a disunited country and a distrustful electorate - making it extraordinarily difficult for him to govern effectively with any real mandate.

Trump may be celebrating now – but his greatest tests lie ahead.

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