Wednesday 22 May 2019

It will be a tall order to heal wounds and unify the nation after such a debased election campaign

Bernie Sanders (left) and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate at the University of New Hampshire in February. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters
Bernie Sanders (left) and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate at the University of New Hampshire in February. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters

Liz O'Donnell

When the first votes came in, I was glued to CNN, having followed the heady coverage all day. Whatever the outcome, it would be historic; the first woman president of the United States or victory to the ultimate outsider. It would be a close contest, but most people felt Mrs Clinton would shade it. Yet as those early results came in from Kentucky and Indiana marked red on the map of the United States, my heart sank.

It was the percentage difference in the votes for Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton which set alarm bells ringing, reminding me of Brexit and the first 'Leave' majority (61pc) that came in from Sunderland and a 49.3pc 'Leave' vote from Newcastle. In the end, almost all north-east areas voted Brexit and the rest is history.

The unusually high turnout in the US election was indicative of something, but what and in whose favour? Some people stayed up all night, others went to bed fearful of waking up to the reality of a Trump victory. And so it turned out.

Phones pinged with WhatsApp messages of disbelief. How could the pollsters and all of us get it so wrong again? As Mr Trump had forecast, it was "Brexit plus plus". Another case of the angry alienated voter making his/her mark and upending the system.

More than anything, Mr Trump had connected with those who felt unrepresented and "forgotten" by Washington and the political establishment. Millions of Americans who had not benefited from the trade and economic policies of either party wanted a president to focus on "making America great again" and create jobs. His populist slogans of building a wall to keep out Mexicans, however unhinged, struck a chord.

I thought of Mrs Clinton and how hard she had fought, first in the primaries against her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. Looking back, that campaign probably did her more reputational damage than anything Mr Trump could throw at her. People gave little credence to Mr Trump's outrageous claims of "crooked Hillary". But the FBI investigation into her private email controversy dogged her campaign and reopening the matter so close to the election day certainly lost her votes. Mrs Clinton was unlucky and she made mistakes. Mr Trump, by comparison, appeared to be Teflon despite a thousand self-made clangers.

Mr Trump tapped into and harnessed anger and dissatisfaction among voters and channelled it into a "movement". This would not have been enough to elect him. But close to the end, he cleverly brought home traditional Republican party voters and politicians repelled earlier by his behaviour, by focussing on classic Republican values: repealing Obamacare and securing the Supreme Court by the appointment of conservative judges.

Mr Trump, a man who knows little of diplomacy or foreign affairs, who has never served in any elected office or the military, is now charged with leading the United States of America as commander in chief. He has achieved political victories for the Republican Party in Congress and the Senate. The constitutional tradition of peaceful transition of power from Democrats to Republicans will be observed. There will be big talk of healing wounds and of unifying the nation.

After a spree of debased political discourse, when all norms and standards went out the window, that will be a tall order. Mr Trump's victory speech was conciliatory and mercifully short. But Mrs Clinton's concession speech was masterful. It combined her personal disappointment at the outcome with a steely resilience and a call to Democrats not to lose the faith in fighting for what is right. Despite her mistakes, she is a consummate politician, honed by three decades of hard graft in public office. Like many of her admirers, I was emotionally drained watching her get through the most difficult speech of her life. On a human level, to lose when one is so close to high office is a devastation. She had not seen it coming so her shock and pain was evident.

Voter turnout had been flagged as a key indicator. But people were watching the Latino vote and overlooked the alienated poor white vote. There was a massive turnout of working class men who voted for Mr Trump. White women without college degrees, who make up about 17pc of the voting age population, also voted for Mr Trump over Mrs Clinton by a whopping 28-point margin, 62pc to 34pc. Class played a bigger part in voting than gender or race.

Sexism and misogyny was in evidence. In Florida, a Trump poster screamed "Trump or Tramp - Trump that Bitch - lock her up". No wonder civilised people were reduced to head-hanging despair. Political discourse was debased like never before.

Watching millions of Americans queuing up to vote in the various states was interesting, as was the fact that 45 million votes had been cast weeks earlier.

It seemed strange that, unlike here, there is no embargo on election day in the media so all day people were bombarded not only by TV commentary but by the emotive adverts. Now that it is all over, Americans find themselves living in a different country, with cultural and political divisions laid bare.

No one knows which or if any of Mr Trump's political promises will be kept. Will a wall materialise? Will he indict "crooked" Hillary? Deport illegal migrants?

On trade, his promises are equally scary and given Republican control of Congress and the Senate more likely to happen.

Ireland and Europe could fall victim to his tax proposals, particularly on reducing corporation tax to 15pc to compete with us. US corporations pay billions in corporation tax here. Our economic model is heavily dependent on the United States.

On foreign policy anything could happen. In Washington DC as officials clear their desks there must be uncertainty, even fear. Who will he put in his cabinet?

Angela Merkel's statement of congratulations was guarded. To see champagne being opened in Moscow and overtures from Vladimir Putin was curious. Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen were celebrating. Mr Trump's brand of populism and anti-establishment anger has taken hold in many European states; Brexit was just the most recent victory for that movement in Europe.

But Ireland's strategic interest lies in sustaining good relations with the new US administration. I can visualise First Lady Melania resplendent in Kelly green on St Patrick's Day.

Life goes on.

Irish Independent

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