The unexpected continuation of the US election campaign that has been playing out came as a real surprise.
It had seemed that the vote on 8 November would be decisive. Trump’s victory was in no doubt. There was nothing about this election that resembled the events of 2000 when it took a re-count and the intervention of the Supreme Court to determine the winner. Hillary Clinton indeed, purely mathematically, won more votes. But that is an issue for the US electoral system, for all the rules and regulations governing elections were followed. The billionaire should have been, by now, calmly preparing for his inauguration and planning his first 100 days in the White House – a period for which the president-elect is traditionally granted a kind of ‘breathing space’ by the media, the electorate, and the political elite. But it is now apparent that he will not be given any such leeway, and his first days as President will be in an atmosphere that is anything but calm. The accusations that dogged him through his campaign have only intensified following his election. So, of what is the 45th American president deemed to be ‘guilty’?
The campaign, by some in the media and a number of politicians, against the president-elect is unparalleled in modern US history. The country saw something similar back in 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln. At that time the leaders and public opinion in the southern states had already refused to recognise Lincoln as the new president. In 2016 things did not go that far, but there are a number of indications that attempts are already underway to de-legitimate Trump as the winner of the presidential election.
One question is how we should evaluate recent publications about the “Trump dossier” reportedly prepared by Christopher Steele, a former officer with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), for US firm Fusion GPS which, apparently, hired him to carry out this work back in June 2016?
The “dossier” contains what it claims is information on Trump’s sexual antics and “international criminal activity”. Leading media outlets are quite open about the aims of publishing the Trump dossier. Tom Burgis’ article for the FT entitled “Former MI6 officer lies low after unmasking as author of Trump dossier” asserts: “If the intelligence were true — and no conclusive proof was offered — it meant that the presidential nominee for the Republican party had been cultivated by Russia for at least five years”. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that Mr Steele not only shared the information he collected with the customer in question, but by August last year had also “handed some of his report to a senior FBI official with whom he had worked previously”.
How information from this “dossier” made it into the media is also worth noting. The above FT article claims that “in Washington the dossier took on an almost mythic quality as talk of its supposed contents spread first among news organisations, then congressional staffers, before finally reaching lobbying firms and think tanks”. Let us set to one side the issue of whether or not this was ethical, and also the considerable problem of its accuracy, and focus on one thing: this was targeted action against a US presidential candidate. So why does he engender such enmity?
A recent FT article by Philip Stephens entitled “What Vladimir Putin Really Wants from Donald Trump” put it like this: “Mr Trump broke all the rules of politics to win the White House”, but let’s take that phrase and dig a little deeper.
First came the shock of Trump’s victory. He had struggled to be taken seriously as an opponent by the Democrats from the moment he threw his hat in the ring. Most political pundits predicted that his political ambitions would dissipate a month or two after the campaign started. The Republican leadership had similar difficulties taking him seriously as their candidate throughout the campaign. Everyone miscalculated: during the campaign Trump’s support among the electorate grew. He won: US citizens, hitherto largely mainstream, have definitively turned their backs on the American political establishment.
Second, look at who has sponsored election campaigns for senators, congressmen, and future presidents in recent years. American financial capital, historically content to play both sides, in 2016 coalesced around Clinton – and lost. The numbers speak for themselves: Hillary Clinton’s election campaign budget amounted to almost $1.2 billion. Trump’s was smaller, and included $50 million of his own money. His victory, therefore, also amounted to a significant financial loss for influential groups within the US elites.
Third, Trump’s victory demonstrated how biased the ‘independent’ think tanks and media outlets were. Not only were social research, polls, and political analysis off target, the results of the 2016 presidential elections so compromised their reputations that the more far-sighted of them (such as the Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times) rushed to issue apologies, promising to do better in future.
Fourth, Trump won under the openly nationalistic slogan “Make America Great Again”, thus casting doubt on the inherent value of globalisation as the sole approach to world development. This phrase was inherently dissonant, because what need could there be to “make America great again” if the United States is, as it claims, a world economic leader vocally advertising its achievements and laying claim to be the dominant global power?
Perhaps we are talking about two different Americas? Could it be that everything we had understood as part of American world leadership did not in fact apply to America itself? And if that is the case, should the focus be not on America, but on the American people?
Fifth, Trump committed another ‘deadly sin’ in the political establishment’s eyes. For 70 years America’s position as a global leader was built on developing special relations with its European allies via transatlantic cooperation. This political loyalty was repaid in US military assistance to Europe, which grew to such proportions that it rendered any need for their own national armies virtually obsolete. The United States accepted that Europe would be reluctant to fund NATO’s military spending at 2% of GDP. Even Germany’s involvement was on a significantly lower level. And now Trump has won – Trump, who during his election campaign said quite bluntly that the Europeans would have to pay for US efforts to ensure European security.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the conclusions are clear. Today, across the world, people are watching – some condescendingly, others anxiously, and others still with Schadenfreude – to see how this US political drama, in which concepts of ‘fair play’ seem increasingly alien, will unfold. The resulting political instability – actions by a significant portion of US and western elites to de-legitimise President Trump – carry serious threats to the stability of the world’s political systems. This has to be understood not only by objective politicians in the West, but also by politicians and leaders in countries such as Russia and China. This is, in fact, what underlies their balanced, calm rhetoric, not only about Trump’s election, but also regarding the dramatic actions taken by the outgoing US president.
Of course, political events currently unfolding in a country of America’s stature will influence today’s geopolitical architecture more broadly. It was arguably the previous US government’s failure to listen to what a vast number of Americans were actually saying that has got us where we are today. The two sides need to start talking to each other, rather than continually finding ways to undermine each other, because only wide-ranging dialogue between political opponents can ensure that we avoid a dangerous escalation of this confrontation. More than that, it will enable us to build a new system of international security and cooperation, one which corresponds to today’s global environment.