US Election: World Prepares for New Era Following Surprise Trump Win

10 November 2016

Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States, winning the Electoral College vote in the world’s largest economy. The outcome – which has surprised pollsters, policy analysts, and even campaign officials themselves – has initially shaken global markets, as both the US and the international community respond to campaign announcements of the drastic change in Washington leadership that promises to break with decades of previous policies.

The win by the billionaire real estate developer and former reality television star will bring the White House under Republican control after eight years. Republicans have also held onto their majorities in both chambers of Congress, in an outcome that has similarly countered earlier poll predictions that had suggested a slipping grasp on the Senate. 

The election results were confirmed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, capping a wildly unpredictable campaign season that ran for almost two years. Trump had faced off against Hillary Rodham Clinton of the Democratic Party, who polls had widely expected to win prior to the 8 November election. The former Secretary of State, senator, and First Lady is the first woman to ever be a presidential candidate for a major political party, in a country that only established a woman’s right to vote at the national level in 1920 – less than one hundred years ago.

A deeply divided nation

As the nation now prepares to move on from one of the most bitter election seasons in recent memory, all eyes will be on how Trump and his team will address the policy and political divides that appeared sharply in focus during this presidential campaign, and what may come next for the “populist wave” that preceded this week’s polls.

Throughout the election season, politicians and voters have jostled over whether the economy is on the rise or in tatters; whether trade is a promising avenue for growth or a major source of unemployment and job destruction; whether and how much the US may be suffering from “unfair competition” from other trading powers; and how to address income inequality and the perceived distrust of so-called “political elites.”

The campaign also brought to the fore the deep-seated social tensions across the American electorate regarding sexist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic attitudes – and how to counter these prejudices both in policy as well as in political and public discourse.

Indeed, exit polls conducted by CNN saw respondents describe foreign policy and the economy as reasons for supporting Clinton, while views on immigration and terrorism were high on the agenda for Trump supporters.

Approximately 60 percent of Clinton supporters were in favour of offering legal status to illegal immigrants working in the US, while an overwhelming 84 percent of Trump supporters advocated for them to be deported to their home countries, according to CNN.

Giving his victory speech in New York City in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Trump congratulated his opponent for fighting a difficult race and for a decades-long career in public service, and pledged to do his utmost to bring the nation together under his upcoming administration.

“Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division,” said the new President-elect. “To all Republicans and Democrats and Independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.”

Trump has advocated for policies that would unravel the hard-fought health care reform seen under the Obama Administration; extend a wall along the Mexican border to stem the flow of illegal immigrants; deport millions of illegal immigrants; and undertake “extreme vetting” of immigrants after previously calling for a religious ban on Muslims seeking entry into the United States. He has also been openly criticised for derogatory comments and treatment towards women, including numerous allegations of sexual assault.

Giving her first speech on Wednesday afternoon after having lost the election, Clinton said that she had offered to work with Trump to heal the divides seen across America, while urging her supporters to continue fighting for the vision that had underpinned the Democratic Party campaign, one which they defined as being a party and country of inclusiveness and hope.

“We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future,” she told a packed room in the New York City.

“Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years, but all the time. So let's do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear. Making our economy work for everyone, not just those at the top, protecting our country, and protecting our planet,” said Clinton.

She also made a particular call for embracing all communities and abandoning all prejudices – and for the country to continue the fight to break “that highest glass ceiling” for a woman to someday win the US presidency. 

Shifting world order

On the eve of the election, Trump predicted that the result would be “Brexit plus, plus, plus,” in a nod to the 23 June referendum in the UK which saw that country’s citizens vote by a narrow margin to leave the European Union.

The “Brexit” vote led to a change in leadership in the UK’s Conservative Party after the results were confirmed, with preparations for exit talks between the UK and the remaining EU members proving protracted and difficult so far, given the emotive nature of the topic and the deep economic, social, and geopolitical ties that underpin their relationship.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to formally trigger the provision in EU law that kicks off those negotiations by the end of March, though that timeline is now in question in light of a UK High Court ruling stating that the government needs parliamentary approval before doing so.

Analysts have also been quick to draw parallels between the so-called “Brexit” outcome in the UK and a future Trump presidency, crediting both outcomes partly to a growing discontent among the public over the pitfalls of globalisation.

While various policymakers in favour of more open markets have argued in favour of “better explaining” the benefits of trade and globalisation in response to increasingly prominent “populist” movements, some analysts warn that the problem instead goes deeper – for instance, Ricardo Meléndez-Ortiz, head of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (publisher of BRIDGES) has insisted that what is needed is to also address the various domestic and international policy factors that have exacerbated income inequality and caused job losses in some sectors.

Although the “Brexit” vote was similarly a shock, the US election outcome has been treated as even more so, given the isolationist political approach and incendiary rhetoric adopted by the now President-elect throughout the election season In a hegemonic nation that has traditionally been seen as guarantor of a liberal international order.

Many political watchers who had hoped for a Clinton win – or who were wary of what a “President Trump” might mean – have cautioned that the outcome could become an American tragedy, one with devastating implications for both the American people and the international community.

Others have hoped that Trump may actually adopt a more measured tone once facing the day-to-day challenges of political office, drawing on his years of negotiating major business deals, or have called for all players involved to try and embrace optimism and cooperation in order to chart a shared path forward in uncertain times.

What next for Obama’s legacy?

In the months and years ahead, the ramifications of a Trump administration on the global economy and sustainable development will be closely watched, both in light of his own declared policy intentions as well as the notably different approach he has pledged to take relative to his predecessor, outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama.

Obama has attempted to create a legacy on multiple fronts, particularly on trade policy and climate action during his second term. With trade, his administration worked with 11 other Pacific Rim nations to conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, an ambitious accord that proponents and analysts say includes some of the most advanced trade provisions seen on environmental and labour protections.

Obama has touted the TPP as a chance to help set the “rules of the road” for trade in the vast Asia-Pacific region, as well as setting a high standard and race to the top for global trade rule-making.

For his part, Trump has openly repudiated the accord, pledging that he will pull the United States out of the 12-country deal, along with seeking a re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) currently in place with Canada and Mexico, warning that should the two other trading nations in the accord not agree to his terms, he would pull the US entirely out of the agreement. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 June 2016)

For their part, Mexico has been calling for talks to “modernise” the Agreement for several years; at press time, the Mexican Economy Secretary welcomed the opportunity presented by a future Trump Administration to review the treaty.

The TPP is still at the ratification stage in the US, and while Obama’s team has repeatedly expressed their hope that it could be approved during the upcoming “lame duck” session of Congress before the new president takes office, congressional leadership has reiterated following the election result that they do not intend to hold a vote this year. (See Bridges Weekly, 3 November 2016)

Meanwhile, the accord has proven deeply unpopular with the US public, though analysts debate whether the issue is really about the TPP’s substance or instead about the wider concerns that trade deals have not been to the benefit of all Americans across the board.

According to CNN exit polls, 59 percent of Clinton voters agreed that trade is either a job creator at home or does not have an effect on jobs, while 65 percent of Trump supporters questioned by CNN said that it hurts jobs.

Murky road ahead on climate policy

Another major mark of the Obama Administration that may also be hanging in the balance is the outgoing president’s numerous efforts on climate action at home and abroad.

Domestically, Obama has taken a series of executive actions – such as measures to slash methane emissions from the oil and gas sector – aimed at helping rein in the most harmful of greenhouse gas emissions. On foreign policy, despite steep opposition in Congress, his administration took on a leadership role in supporting the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted last December and in force as of last week. (See Bridges Special Update, 6 November 2016)

Clinton had championed creating jobs through green infrastructure and taking a series of other steps to cement Obama’s climate legacy. On an issue of sharp divergence, Trump and the Republican Party overall have openly repudiated the White House’s climate agenda, having pledged to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement onclimate change, along with defunding the UN agencies which work on climate change. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 July 2016)

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) kicked off its annual climate conference on Monday 7 November, with the spectre of the US election looming over the talks in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.

Media reports issued following news of a Trump victory suggested an atmosphere filled with uncertainty, as negotiators attempt to continue talks on key areas – including climate finance. (See Bridges Special Update, 6 November 2016)

For the time being, the implications for the new climate regime may not be immediate, as the world waits to see whether Trump as president follows in the footsteps of Trump the candidate. Furthermore, the Paris Agreement is already in force for the US, and under Article 28 of the UN accord, signatories cannot withdraw from the agreement within the first four years of it having entered into force for them – which would essentially cover Trump’s entire first term.

Some sources have speculated, however, that Trump could seek other routes to pull the US back from international climate efforts. What his victory could also mean for the US’ “nationally determined contribution” – the individual climate plans each UNFCCC party has submitted, which are the building blocks of the Paris Agreement and are expected to be improved over time – has also sparked questions and concern in the climate community.

Other issues such as whether the US will still pursue its efforts to back a goal of developed countries providing US$100 billion annually in climate finance by 2020 may also now be in question. Within that context, the US has previously committed to paying US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), of which it has so far paid US$500 million.

The GCF was set up as a multilateral fund where governments could channel money towards helping developing countries to limit or reduce greenhouse gasses and to adapt to the unavoidable effects of climate change.

Obama calls for “successful transition”

As news of Trump’s victory began to sink in, Obama called upon the nation to do its utmost to move forward, and pledged that he would work to ensure a “successful transition” for the incoming administration.

“Now, it is no secret that the President-elect and I have some pretty significant differences.  But remember, eight years ago, President [George W.] Bush and I had some pretty significant differences,” said Obama on Wednesday.

“But President Bush’s team could not have been more professional or more gracious in making sure we had a smooth transition so that we could hit the ground running.  And one thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency, and the vice presidency, is bigger than any of us,” he continued.

He also welcomed the inclusive tone taken by Trump in his victory speech on Tuesday evening, urging the incoming leader to continue advocating for national unity throughout the transition and beyond.

“That's what the country needs – a sense of unity; a sense of inclusion; a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law; and a respect for each other,” said Obama.

ICTSD reporting; “LIVE: UN climate talks reaction as Trump wins US presidency,” CLIMATE HOME, 9 November 2016; “CNN exit polls,” CNN, 9 November 2016; Axelrod: Election a ‘primal scream’,” POLITICO, 9 November 2016; “Trump win sends shockwaves through development world,” DEVEX, 9 November 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect additional developments since Bridges initially went to press on Thursday.

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