Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on the Presidential election night
Oh, God!! I feel terrible. And it’s not just the lack of sleep. Did it really happen? And for the second time in less than five months? To wake and know that the world has changed, again. Outside this cottage, three miles from anywhere, on the edge of Snowdonia, lashing rain is drenching the darkness, the stands of oak on this hillside really are rattling in the wind, just as the bard said they did at the death of Llywelyn Fawr – “Poni welwch chwi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw / Poni welwch chwi’r deri’n ymdaraw“.
Scarcely a day has gone by in the last months when one has not been left open-mouthed at the behaviour of Donald Trump. Nothing has been left unused in his lexicon of offensiveness, no minority left unbelittled, no woman unscorned, no depths unplumbed. Yet no contravention of any one of the norms of decency dented his support. Is this really the champion of the ‘left behind’? Is this owner of a towering, gold-plated Manhattan palace, really the Robin Hood of the huddled masses? Or have the put-upon of a transatlantic Sherwood Forest voted for the Sheriff of Nottingham?
Hard to know what was scarier, some of his campaign speeches or his blithe volte face in his victory address with his talk of “binding the wounds of division”, also praising Hillary Clinton’s service to the nation, as if he had no culpability for taking a chainsaw to both his opponent and nation. His attempted expunging of every uttered calumny is breathtaking in its cynicism, underlining a cold contempt for the electorate and his obvious belief that the end justifies the means. It is understandable that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but what if you have campaigned with poison? Whether it is winning a presidential election or winning a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, surely how you win is important. It will not be right to dismiss the content of Trump’s campaign as merely the natural excesses of a partisan contest, any more than British people should now ignore the falsehoods on which the Brexit case was made.
The parallels between these two events are legion; indeed, they are part of the same phenomenon. The similarities are being reiterated endlessly on television: a howl of rage of the left behind, an anti-establishment roar, a protest against immigration or globalisation or rampant inequality, or all three, the difference of view between the young and the old and between the most educated and the less educated. There is, too, the stark arithmetic of division in both countries: in America’s case, Hillary Clinton even edging the popular vote – 47.7% against 47.5%. Britain’s 52-48 split in the referendum seems decisive in comparison, small though the Leave majority was.
Most difficult of all, in both cases, will be delivering on the expectations raised among the supporters of the victors. No-one can doubt the depth of anger at the negative effects of globalisation and technology on the developed world – the off-shoring of employment, the shrinking of basic industries, the destruction of middle order jobs – but conversely, this has also raised millions in the developing world out of poverty. Yet continuing global imbalances – exacerbated by war, famine and corruption – are still driving some of the biggest migrations of people in centuries.
While there is no doubt that the effects of these trends on the home populations of the developed world have to be addressed by politicians, it is the cruellest deception to tell people – whether the poorest or the hard-pressed middle classes – that all can be put right by vapid slogans in television adverts or, even worse, by straight lies on painted battlebuses.
Both Donald Trump and Teresa May are going to be struggling with their economic Rubik cubes. Mr Trump has promised tax cuts for individuals and businesses that will cost trillions in lost government revenues, and yet has promised to spend $600billion on infrastructure and to sharply increase defence spending, at the same time as taking a protectionist approach to free trade, especially directed against the Chinese whose surpluses are both the mirror image of America’s deficits and to a considerable extent the latter’s guarantor. It is not even clear that Trump’s economics will gain the approval of Republican fiscal disciplinarians in Congress. They certainly will not allow him to become a modern Franklin Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the production of Apple iPhones is not going to be switched from China to America any time soon.
Mrs May meanwhile is still struggling to get her disparate Cabinet members to even agree on a balance of objectives, the Leave campaign having promised simultaneously to deliver tariff free access to Europe, the end of freedom of movement and a reduction in immigration, increased expenditure on the NHS, and no reduction in tax revenues from financial services on which the government has relied for too long.
If she comforts herself that swapping Obama for Trump will put Britain further up the queue for a free trade deal with America, just wait until she is faced with a protectionist American president intent on putting America first. He will be content to ride as roughshod over her as he has done over the Scottish countryside. In relation to America, Britain has surely learnt by now that it is the supplicant, and talk of the special relationship a dollar-free piety to be wheeled out when it suits.
This is not to dismiss the real pain implicit in populist revolt. It has to be addressed, whether in America or Britain or, as we are likely to be reminded in the coming months, in the Netherlands, France and Germany. But it demands an international approach and that the nomadic corporate sector should carry a fair share of the burden. It also demands some change in Germany’s fiscal intransigence.
Sadly, this does not exhaust the range of fears furrowing the brow of the international community. The fate of the Paris agreement on climate change and of the deal with Iran are two other beacons of hope that will suffer if Donald Trump is true to his word. The prospect of mutual admiration between two of the world’s most powerful narcissists casts another dark cloud, not least over Eastern Europe – part of a continent for which we still carry responsibility notwithstanding the vote on 23 June.
Arguably, in the 1930s the world paid a heavy price for isolationism in America and for unrestrained populism in Germany. What price are we now going to pay for populism in America and a British isolationism within Europe?