John Bruton: It may be impossible for Trump to live up to promises

Opinion: Donald Trump supporters felt he would return them to an imagined past

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands during an election night rally in New York. Photograph: AP

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands during an election night rally in New York. Photograph: AP


Donald Trump has raised so many expectations that it may be impossible for him to live up to them. Populism in power may not be as popular as populism was on the campaign trail.

The United States is such a diverse country that it is hard to come up with a single or a simple explanation for his victory. However, it was primarily a cultural, rather than a narrowly economic statement.

A majority of Americans are anxious about the pace of change, and about the fact that the familiar world, in which they grew up, is disappearing. Americans felt that, by voting for Trump, they were taking back their own country.

In a sense, they felt he would return them to an imagined past, in which they would be more comfortable. Trump supporters no longer felt in full control of their future.

They felt that traditional institutions, like trade unions, could no longer protect them from the forces of automation and immigration, or allay their worries about the affordability of entitlement programmes.

These factors explain the Trump gains in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Donald Trump appealed to American nationalism, a nationalism that provides Americans with a sense of belonging and mutual security in an uncertain world.

This nationalistic surge is not confined to America. English nationalism is behind the Brexit vote. Nationalism is likely to play a part in the French Presidential election, with potentially disastrous results for the European Union.

Trump was much more eloquent than Hillary Clinton. He came across as comfortable with himself, whereas Hillary Clinton appeared anxious at times. He had the confidence to allow himself to be spontaneous, whereas she did not.

People listened to him, partly because they did not know what he was going to say next. He did not worry about what the media described as “gaffes”, or worse.

His electorate made allowances for him, because they felt he was authentic. Authenticity is very much in the eye of the beholder, and if people like what they hear, they will consider the speaker “authentic”.

In fact, in her concern to master the complexities of this difficult job, Hillary Clinton may in fact have been the one who was authentic, but that did not occur to many voters.

But the Trump victory was about more than a livelier personality, and better rhetoric. Trump’s victory also was a rebellion by those, who had not had the benefit of a college education, against being patronised, and told how to think, by those who had.

This resentment has been aggravated by the prohibitive cost of college education in the United States, which has shut so many people out of the “American Dream”.

It is much harder to start poor, and become wealthy, in the United States today, than it was 50 years ago. Trump explicitly sought to appeal to this discontent. He was able to do this simply by repeatedly attacking elites, but without putting forward policies that would increase social mobility.

His political incorrectness appealed to this voter bloc. He used their language, and it appears that the more he was attacked the more silent support he gained.

This voter bloc would also be more comfortable with Donald Trump selecting Supreme Court nominees, because abortion remains a live issue in US politics.

Actually applying his policies will be the real challenge for Donald Trump as President.

If he implements 45 per cent tariffs on imports from China and 35 per cent those from Mexico, this will start a trade war. US corporations, who have invested in supply chains involving these two countries will face major disruption.

The likely abandonment of the Trans Pacific and Trans Atlantic trade and investment deals will slow the growth of world trade, which already has weakened by the slowing of the Chinese economy.

This is bound to have negative effects on European exporting nations, like Germany. A great deal of bureaucratic energy will be absorbed in renegotiations of existing trade agreements, which will add to business uncertainty.

He will not get Mexico to pay for the wall, so it may never be built. The status of illegal immigrants in the United States will not improve, but I doubt if we will see mass deportations.

The present situation is deeply unfair, and an affront to the rule of law, but it will probably continue.

Infrastructure investment

On the other hand, his commitment to invest heavily in the tired infrastructure of the United States will give a boost to global economic growth.

His tax cuts for richer Americans will not do much for growth because the better off people are, the more likely are they to save, rather than spend.

He will be seen as having all the power he needs to implement all his policies. He will not have many excuses. He will not be able to blame a hostile Congress for blocking him, because, as president, his party has a majority in both Houses of Congress.

He promised the repeal, and the replacement of the Obama health insurance programme. It is proving to be more costly than expected. Repealing it, however, will be easy. Replacing it will be really difficult.

Whatever system of paying for healthcare is chosen, the costs seem to be rising inexorably. This is because people are living longer, and expecting, or are being recommended ever more complicated treatments. I think this will be Donald Trump’s most difficult domestic policy challenge.

The most difficult thing to assess is Trump’s foreign policy. Clearly he will be looking for US allies to pay more for their own defence. But previous presidents did the same. His trade policies will work against this. A trade war will weaken the ability of allies to pay more for their own defence.

In way, thanks to fracking and the increase it has made in US domestic energy supplies, the US is much more independent of the rest of the world than it used to be. An early sign will come when Trump has to decide of his policy on the war on Syria.

If he decides to ally himself with Russian president Vladimir Putin, he will put himself on a collision course with Saudi Arabia. This could draw Turkey into the conflict because of its strong opposition to Assad. This will be one of the big imponderables of the Trump Administration.

John Bruton is a former taoiseach.

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