international analysis and commentary

The method behind Trump’s challenge and the questions for Europe


All along, despite never leading in the polls, the capable Trump campaign team clustered around Kellyanne Conway had a theory as to how they were going to prevail in the just-concluded presidential election. Conway believed that Trump’s most fervent supporters—high-school educated white men—were being systematically undercounted in all the polling data. There were three basic answers as to why this was happening.

A brilliantly executed campaign strategy….

First, the group has been so disheartened by both the effects of globalisation on them and the willing acquiescence of the Republican establishment in favouring economic forces causing their distress, that they had been too demoralised to vote before Trump came on the scene as their undisputed champion. The very slogan of his campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was perfectly pitched at the very real insecurities of these largely-forgotten voters.

A second reason for the likely undercount was the demographic’s distrust of the mainstream media and polling firms. A further major pitch of Trump to his less-educated white male supporters was that his vilification in the mainstream media was just the latest example of the politically correct left-wing press’s efforts to culturally dominate the country. People who believe such a message are highly unlikely to volunteer for a polling firm who they are going to vote for.

A third reason for the undercount was that not all these voters wanted it to get around that they were going to vote for a presidential candidate scarred by accusations of racism and bigotry. But Conway and her team fervently believed that these ‘shy voters’ would nevertheless emerge in sufficient numbers to sway the election.

This world-class strategy worked perfectly to the shock of the rest of the world, as Trump upended the heavily favoured Hillary Clinton to stunningly claim the presidency. Sure enough, these uncounted white male voters actually existed, and in large enough numbers in the upper Midwest (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin) to shatter decades of Democratic dominance there and claim the presidency for Trump.

The last projected Real Clear Politics poll of polls judged that Clinton would receive 46.8% of the overall vote, while Trump managed only 43.6%. In reality, Clinton’s numbers were almost perfectly judged as she ended up with around 47% of the overall vote. However, Trump’s totals were a highly surprising 48.2%, four and a half points higher than had been posited. This winning margin entirely justified the missing voter strategy, and proved Conway’s inspired hypothesis entirely correct.

…gives way to policy incoherence

So if this is how Trump won his shockingly unlikely victory, what do we know about how the populist firebrand will govern? Paradoxically, from a European point of view, the good news is that the new president will not demand nearly as much of a hard-pressed Europe as Hillary Clinton would have. This gives the embattled continent both time to sort through its existential crises relating to the never-ending euro question and the refugee challenge, as well as to take the pressure off the unravelling transatlantic relationship.

So Trump’s brand of what Walter Russell Mead would call Jacksonian nationalism – unilateralism mixed with isolationist impulses – while unnerving Europeans used to dealing with internationalists dominating both major political parties, asks little of a Europe not inclined to do very much on the world stage.

But if this is the ironic good news, the bad news is that America embracing this very different sort of foreign policy presents the world with a strategic vacuum likely to be filled by more aggressive states such as a declining Russia and a rising China. With America in the midst of a populist nervous breakdown, no one is minding the candy store; there simply is no other country remotely capable of serving as the global ordering power. That leaves us all living more and more in the strategic jungle, where only might makes right in international relations.

Nor can the US be looked to anymore as a bastion of the free trading order that has so enriched the world since 1945. With Europe already largely succumbing to the siren song of protectionism and the base of the Democratic Party more anti-trade than at any point in memory, the final nail in the coffin has to be the unfriendly takeover of the GOP – long the party of free trade – by the most avowedly protectionist presidential candidate in the modern era. If the US under the Jacksonian Trump disdains to set the strategic pace, nor is it coming to the macroeconomic rescue of the world either.

Be careful what you wish for

So if on the one hand, while Europeans will be happy to have little demanded of them by their often maddening American cousins, the continent is likely to miss the American-led order that roused in them endless complaints. For the only thing worse than American over-involvement in the Europe of the past is the coming American under-involvement in the continent’s wobbly future.

President-elect Trump has himself called NATO’s continued efficacy into question, even if rightly decrying Europe’s long-standing inability to meet the most rudimentary of defence spending commitments. But a Europe that has not had to worry over-much about its strategic position in the world, having long ago sub-contracted such things out to their American allies, suddenly and jarringly find themselves very much on their own in a dangerous new era, with an opportunistic Russia on its flank to the east, and the threat of terrorism and radical Islam to the south.

Europe is being cast out into this dangerous world at the worst possible moment, a time of great economic weakness, political confusion about the European project itself, and an era of negligible defence spending. Given its structural pre-occupations, it is highly unlikely that in these trying circumstances Europe will rise to the new strategic challenge America’s dramatic withdrawal from the world presents.

Ironically, Europe has at last acquired what Gaullist utopians have dreamed of over the past decades: the continent’s much greater strategic independence. However, given the state the continent finds itself objectively in, this newfound freedom could well prove more of a curse than a blessing, as we enter the new, dangerous era of Trump.