What just happened? Morning, in America.

What just happened? Morning, in America.

New York city is strangely subdued this morning. The subway was packed, as usual, but people were quiet, eyes downcast or closed, occasionally looking each other full in the face, searching for reassurance - or maybe just hungover. For once, people were not checking their smartphones. They didn’t want to know. A city suspended in disbelief. 

How did we get here? 

Two things happened yesterday. 

First, in the midwest, particularly the northern rust-belt states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, western Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine, non-college educated white voters seem to have turned out in higher numbers than pollsters predicted - and overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump. This meant that those states either unexpectedly flipped into the Republican column, or came close. 

Second, in other states where the Democrats were confident of a victory, such as Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Clinton won a slightly smaller share of voters, especially ‘minority’ voters - African-Americans, Hispanic/Latinos and Asian-Americans - than Obama did. As a result, in those states, even though Clinton won the cities, she lost the vote on the strength of rural voting. 

Overall, Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump, but they were not in the places she needed them. The US is a federal system, and the distribution of votes and districting arragnements give rural voters considerable power. As in Australia, that is clearer in the Senate, where small states like Kentucky and Nebraska have the same representation as states with giant populations like California and New York (and Texas). But now the effect of that arrangement has become clear in the Presidential vote. 

In effect, the country is now divided in two - not narrowly or simply on race or class or gender - but on culture. 7 in 10 Trump voters, in exit polls, said that America was better off in the 1950s. Theirs is not a vision of a ‘post-racial’, post-gendered, post-nationalist society. It is a more reactionary vision, of Main Street, small-town, Jeffersonian America. 

Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan was ‘Stronger Together’. Trump’s voters agreed: they just have a different view of where the lines between the in-group and out-group that belong together lie. In that sense, yesterday really was America’s Brexit - a rejection of a politics that seeks progressively to enlarge the political and social community, and instead turns back to older, more localized traditions of togetherness. 

Where to now?

The long-run demographic trend is that ‘minority’ populations will catch up to the white population, which might suggest that this cultural shift will, in time, translate into a political one. But because of the structure of the electoral system, this depends where the younger, and more ‘minority’ populations live. As things stand, that population growth is in the cities, not in these ‘heartland’ counties. For a considerable period to come, we can expect tension within America between these two visions for America - and we can expect that cultural tension to be locked into the political and electoral system, and to pervade all public policy discourse. 

It is possible that, over time, technological change will also affect this population distribution. A shift to renewables, decentralization of the electricity grid, a move to on-demand transport and manufacturing, and telecommuting, could lead to more work and population growth in this rural ‘heartland’, in and around cities in the middle of the country, and away from cities. But it is not a sure thing. 

And the long-run is a long way off. In the meantime, the culture wars are here to stay. ‘Expertise’ is now a dirty word. Big data, and even science, is suspect. Instinct and its handmaiden, ideology, are on the march. The election campaign, plus changes in the media landscape, are a manifestation - and perhaps an exacerbator - of a dramatic narrowing of the space for civic - and civil - discourse. Instead, we see different cultural camps broadcasting their visions within closed media networks, to their supporters, and competing for overall market share. 

The impact – on the international order

For now, the Republicans have a significant advantage in shaping this market for government. The last two times the Republicans held the White House, Senate and House, were under George W. Bush (2003-2006) and in the 1920s (Coolidge, Hoover). Both produced war and violent change in the international sphere. In neither case, though, was the President also in the position to reshape membership of the Supreme Court for the next 20-30 years. That suggests an even greater scope for Trump to transform the nature of politics and policy discourse in this country - with potentially significant knock-on effects for the international system. 

Fundamentally, we don’t know what Trump’s approach to the rule of law - at home and abroad - really is. I suspect his approach to power is transactional. His approach to institutions is entirely instrumental. The question is how rapidly, in any given area, that leads to disruption of existing systems and ways of doing business - and how America’s competitors may seek to exploit the resulting uncertainty. 

For the UN, this means at best a cold shower - and perhaps open hostility from the central architect and anchor of the whole post-war UN regime, the US. The UN will have to be much more hard-headed, focused and efficient, if it is to survive. My employer, UN University, is about to take on a committee chairing role related to a big inter-governmental negotiation on migration. We will have to approach that quite differently now. The Trump Administration won’t have time for UN utopianism; but we at the UN also have to find a way to stand up for migrant and refugee rights – for human rights all around. 

I also anticipate the Trump Administration moving towards a more transactional, and bilateral, approach to Great Power relations. In Europe, that means Merkel and Germany are now the central dealmakers, though hemmed in by Brexit and the possible election of Marine Le Pen in France. To the east, Russia has enlarged room to reestablish its sphere of influence in its near abroad. If Trump chooses not to confront Russia militarily, Russia may build power through a combination of military-political maneuver (hard power) in the Middle East and both open business and clandestine financial, cyber and political action in Central Asia and eastern Europe (soft power and hidden power).  

In Asia, Trump’s focus will be on doing business with China and Asian powers. The impacts on Australia will be indirect: China may well choose to use Trump’s limited interest in foreign adventures as an opportunity to slowly enlarge its own influence in South East Asia. Like Russia, it will do this through a combination of hard, soft and hidden power. 

The impact – on political and policy discourse

I expect the space for evidence-based public policy discourse at the international level to shrink. Many political actors around the world will take the lesson from this campaign that information operations are now a central part of effective strategy in both national and international politics. The 'culture wars’ have already arrived at the UN and in international affairs in a limited way; they will probably become more noisy, and more obvious, now. 

Denialism will be more obvious. And some powers will look to international processes to create international ‘facts’ and norms that they can use for political cover in their own information ops at home and on the international stage. This will be obvious on issues ranging from drugs policy to climate change. (Climate change was all but absent from the US election. But it’s not impossible that European actors - or even China - decide to show leadership on this issue in the years ahead, and Trump and the US largely stand aside.)

The impacts – on markets and business

The broader impacts on global markets and the private sector are harder to glean. (Hence the massive volatility in the markets today.) The big question here, as elsewhere, is whether Trump makes regulation of markets more transactional, and less institutional. He has given signals that the Fed’s independence will be curtailed. That probably means the politicization of monetary policy, and there are good reasons to think that points towards a likely recession, which, in turn, will have feedback effects on politics in the US - probably pouring oil on the fire of divisionism and culture wars. 

Trump will also have to disrupt the current orthodoxy on free trade; the high turnout in the rustbelt states was heavily based on his promise to do so. But he’s a business man, and will want to be able to show that he is making deals with foreign powers to keep America out of foreign entanglements. Many foreign powers will want access to US markets to be part of that deal. The result may be a shift from multilateral to bilateral deal-making, and greater politicization of foreign investment. But don’t expect Trump to fully disrupt the circulation of elites and their personal wealth. His business past points in the opposite direction.

There will probably be limited support from the incoming administration for the promotion of ethics, rights and sustainability in business. The question that begs, though, is whether private sector actors in the US - and abroad - will push this agenda on their own, without the active involvement of the US government, or relying on regulatory action. That’s not impossible. The 50% of the US that voted for Clinton, including some business leaders, millenials, and activists, may look for new avenues for principled action - and switched off by politics and public discourse, perhaps they will look to act not only through traditional ‘civil society’ mechanisms but also through market-based behavior. 

Morning in America

Tomorrow is my birthday. I will wake with the famous phrase of another American President on my mind: “It’s morning in America.” I know many people would just like to roll over and go back to sleep, in the hope that when we wake again, this will all turn out to have been an unwelcome dream. 

It is not. This is the New New World Order; and it looks remarkably like the Old World Order, in which power was more nakedly wielded. Like voters in Britain post-Brexit, people in America today are waking up to realize that their future changed yesterday. That the lives they had already imagined themselves into have quietly died overnight. They are in mourning. 

But you have to play the cards you are dealt. This is what we have got, and what we have to build on to have something to pass on to those who come behind us. It’s up to us to make the most of it - together. 

Whatever that means. 

As Lewis Carroll said, Happy Un-Birthday.

Listen to my interview on WNPR

Listen to my interview on WNPR

VIDEO: A great discussion at the International Institute of Strategic Studies

VIDEO: A great discussion at the International Institute of Strategic Studies