Comment: Trump’s win shows us that anything can now happen in US politics

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to members of the media during his meeting with President Barack Obama in the White House on November 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President-elect Donald Trump speaks to members of the media during his meeting with President Barack Obama in the White House on November 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It is almost two weeks since Donald Trump was elected 45th president of the United States.

The nation is still in shock, even those who supported him, and is trying to figure out what it all means.

I wanted to be in America when Mr Trump was elected because it is such a huge moment in history.

This is not to claim that I expected his victory, but to say that it was clear for months that him winning was distinctly possible.

You did not need great political insight to know it was so, but just to have been watching upheavals in western democracies.

Consider what has happened in the last year alone: Jeremy Corbyn, a man thought to have no chance of becoming Labour leader not only became so but was re-elected comfortably despite the overwhelming opposition of his own MPs.

Independents and populist movements of the left and right have had electoral success in countries ranging from Austria to Spain, from Netherlands to Greece.

More dramatic than any of those successes, Brexit was approved by a relatively comfortable UK-wide margin of almost 4%.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump defied the experts by winning a Republican nomination that we were told he had no chance of winning.

At that point, earlier this year, it was clear that conventional wisdoms were being shattered around the developed world.

Another thing became clear in recent months: no matter what Mr Trump said, no matter how outrageous, his polling figures stayed close to Hillary Clinton’s or at times rose above her.

The sex tape, in which he bragged about how he took advantage of his appeal to attractive women, seemed to cause his support to dip, but only a bit.

On this trip I have been to Florida, North Carolina, Washington DC and now Puerto Rico (a territory of the United States) and talked to over 100 people.

We know from the election result that the US was divided almost 50:50. My sense is of a roughly equal four-way split in reactions to the outcome:

around a quarter of voters are delighted at the result, a quarter warily welcome it, a quarter is disappointed but prepared to rally round the president-elect, and around a quarter is distraught and not at all reconciled to it.

Mr Trump’s victory was almost a fluke. He lost the popular vote by a margin approaching two million votes (it is still being counted) but won on the electoral college (some pundits had speculated about the opposite outcome: Mrs Clinton losing the popular vote but winning on the electoral college).

Some people who know Mr Trump think he did not want the job. That would explain his indifference to normal rules of campaigning.

• He was abusive to all his main competitors.

• He made a calculated call for a ban on all Muslim entry to the United States.

• He championed the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in America.

• He said to Mrs Clinton’s face in a debate that he would like to see her jailed, and later led crowds in “lock her up” chants.

• He described Mexicans as druggies and rapists and criminals, and implied that a judge with a Hispanic name was biased in a legal case against the Trump business.

• He mocked a disabled reporter.

• He referred defensively to the size of his manhood.

• He refused to release his tax returns.

• He repeatedly said that an electoral system as transparent and robust as America’s was rigged, and then dropped that claim the moment he won (by the sort of whisker that would have been easily overturned if the system had in fact been rigged against him).

• He demonstrated ignorance of, or casualness to, cornerstones of American foreign policy such as Nato.

• He brazenly adopted stances he had never before believed such as opposition to abortion and attending prayer meetings.

• And, as mentioned above, he talked about interacting with women in a way that many critics characterised as assault.

Any of the above comments or evasions or stances would formerly have sunk a mainstream presidential contender.

But for every voter who was appalled at such rhetoric, someone else saw a straight-talker.

My impression is that there are four key reasons for his victory:

First, there was deep dislike of Hillary Clinton, for whatever reason (she seemed to be viewed as a shrill feminist and the ultimate Washingon insider).

Second, there was a fundamental respect for Mr Trump’s personal achievements as a billionaire businessman who epitomises the American dream.

Third, a deep desire for change, one that both chimed with the western-world desire for the same and also reflected a desire that is usually felt in America after a two-term president.

Fourth, a fear of cultural decline among white voters (the tycoon JD Vance has written about support for Trump among groups such as the blue-collar Scots Irish, ie descendants of Ulster settlers).

I judge the anxiety among whites to be as significant as the job insecurity among the working classes, although both anxieties are linked.

Gradually the Republican Party could become to white people what unionist parties have long been to Protestants. As we know Northern Ireland voters rarely cross the tribal divide even if they don’t particularly like a candidate from ‘their side’.

This is not to say whites are racist, but more that there is unease at rapid change.

The US electorate was almost 90% white 30 years ago and is now 70% white, and ever declining.

It is not unusual in urban areas to encounter Hispanics who speak little English.

Mr Trump also tapped fears about Islamic terror.

Americans post 9/11 would be in no mood to tolerate in the US an incident such as the trial in Belfast last year of James McConnell for his anti-Islamic sermon (charged after an Islamic leader, who praised the ‘peace’ brought about in Mosul by Isis mass murderers, had the audacity to lodge a formal complaint about Pastor McConnell).

Where do things go from here?

• In Northern Ireland, the Assembly elections showed that the DUP is well placed to benefit electorally from the global mood – despite being in government, it can appeal to the ‘cultural anxiety’ vote because is seen as a check on Sinn Fein.

• In Britain, Theresa May should be wary about seeking a fresh mandate. The Tories would be likely to do well, but anything could happen, from a Lib Dem revival to a strong showing for Corbynite Labour (some US pundits think Bernie Sanders might have beaten Trump, an assessment that once seemed absurd but is now plausible).

• In Europe, if Marine Le Pen somehow wins the presidency in France, one of the most pro-EU countries, Brussels will have a bigger problem to deal with than Mr Trump and Brexit.

• In the Oval Office, Mr Trump will be heavily constrained by the checks and balances established by the founding fathers 240 years ago, who feared a demagogue in the White House.

He benefited from those checks in the electoral college, which sought to protect the influence of the states, but he now has to navigate a powerful Congress and Supreme Court (even when he nominates the current vacancy in the latter with a conservative judge, it will only maintain its previous balance).

The Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate, but the latter narrow majority depends on sentaors such as John McCain, who has always been independent-minded and who dislikes Mr Trump. Aged 80, he does not face re-election for six years.

If Trump is a disaster, Republicans will suffer in congressional elections in two years.

Mooted Trump appointments suggest that his team know they have to work with mainstream Republicans, including leaders who denounced him.

But while Mr Trump faces constraints, he can scrap Obamacare (the bid to ensure universal health coverage), the Iran nuclear deal and US participation in climate change deals.

Regardless of what he does, the symbolism of a Trump presidency is immense.

It changes everything about what we considered to be possible in American politics.