Last Wednesday I met an American travelling abroad. He told me that his reaction to the election of Donald Trump to the White House had been “Wow! This wasn’t what was supposed to happen!” However, he mitigated his sense of shock with the cheerfulness that Americans so often exude, saying “Don’t worry too much, America will go on much as before”. I couldn’t help thinking that if true this will be something of a disappointment to those who thought they were voting for a big shake up.
Trump’s election campaign appealed primarily to white working-class males. White Supremacist groups endorsed Donald Trump for President and went on to hail his victory. The tone of the campaign was a shock to many across the nation. It has been described as ugly and divisive, and as personally insulting to many Americans, including Muslims, Hispanics, and women. The FBI reported a rise in hate crime during the Presidential campaign. Since Trump became President-elect there has been a further spike in recorded hate crime. Such crimes include the spraying of swastikas on walls, mock building of cardboard walls outside the homes of Mexicans and ‘white only’ and ‘coloured’ signs in school drinking fountains.
In the peculiar way that American democracy works, while Hillary Clinton failed to win enough electoral college votes to win the Presidency, she did win the popular vote by over a million. The majority of Americans citizens said ‘not in my name’ to Donald Trump.
The outbreak of protests across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York, from Portland to Washington, from Dallas to Kansas City, reflects an undercurrent of dismay. Characteristically Trump immediately tweeted a totally unfounded allegation that the protests had been instigated by incitement in the media. He then withdrew the allegation and instead praised Americans for their political engagement.
Many Americans are feeling a very genuine concern for individuals and for the entire nation following the election. Hundreds of Jewish scholars showed solidarity with other victims of hate crimes by signing a statement published in the Jewish Journal calling on ‘fair-minded Americans’ to ‘resist the degradation of human rights’. Such feelings of dismay and even shame can quickly turn to defensiveness and belligerence on all sides.
Already we have learnt several things about what a Trump Presidency will be like. Trump has intimated that he will not press charges against Hillary Clinton after all. It appears that he is now in favour of building a ‘fence’ along the Mexican border rather than a ‘wall’, and the US will probably have to pay for it, rather than the Mexicans. President Trump’s words are not to be taken literally.
Trump continues to refuse to publish his tax returns. He prefers to keep his affairs to himself. This is something to be concerned about given the potential for conflict of interest between Trump’s personal affairs and his Presidential responsibilities. This week Trump settled out of court charges against himself to the tune of $25 million. Trump’s tendency is to negotiate his way out of trouble than to defend his position in a court of law.
There are some in America who like the idea of there being restraints on what an individual can just make up his mind to do. It is of doubtful legality for the President to just go ahead and appoint his own family members (and so many of them!) into high office. The appointments we are beginning to see are an indication that Trump’s Presidency will herald a lurch to the hard right.
It is undoubtedly true that Trump has fewer restraints on his Presidential powers than previous administrations have had. The Republican Party now has a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Trump is also in a position to control the balance of opinion in the Supreme Court by filling vacancies with his own appointees. It is not absolutely clear what the President-elect will do, but it is fairly clear that he has almost unprecedented power to do it!