From day one, when Donald Trump announced his plans to run in the presidential election, no one believed he would win. But the New York billionaire and his team actually did the impossible, besting representatives of the political establishment of the Republican and Democratic parties. The outcome of the election marks the start of a new era not only in US history but in the evolution of the US political system.
According to some estimates, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a small margin. If this holds, Trump’s win in this case will be due to the tricky math underlying the indirect vote in the electoral college. Given that over 120 million Americans went to the polls, we cannot say that Donald Trump won by a landslide.
The outcome also laid bare the major divisions in American society. Unlike in the mid-19th century before the Civil War, the divisions are less territorial in nature. In most states, none of the candidates received more than 50 percent of the vote. The Republican and the Democratic candidates often took diametrically opposed positions on almost every important issue of US policy.
The Trump team managed to win over the middle class, which traditionally supports the Democrats. By contrast, Hillary Clinton enjoyed the support of many major companies, which have traditionally leaned toward conservative politicians. Large IT and internet corporations provided tremendous support to Hillary Clinton, but it was not enough to secure the Democrat’s victory. This is indicative of the impact which the structural changes in the US economy have had on the political system.
The ambitious socioeconomic agenda of the Democratic Party during the financial and economic crisis of the end of the last decade earned broad support from American voters. President Barack Obama won by a huge margin in 2008, and the Democrats also secured a majority in both houses of Congress. Once the acute phase of the crisis was over, the popularity of conservative ideas in the United States began to grow again. In response to Barack Obama’s left-liberal anti-crisis policies, the right-wing conservative Tea Party was formed (named for the Boston Tea Party), highlighting the emerging polarization of American society of the late 2000s. The crisis dealt a major blow to the middle class, which is, to some extent, the foundation of the US economy and has determined the political balance of power in the United States in recent decades.
In 2010, the majority of seats in the House of Representatives went to the Republicans, while their victory in the Senate in 2014 won them full control of the entire legislative branch of the US government. Obama's victory in the 2012 elections was not as large as in 2008, and the mid-term elections in 2014 were considered a crushing defeat.
Notably, Republicans won again in the Senate this year, but it came at a price, perhaps even a higher one. In the Senate, 34 seats were up for election, 10 of which were held by Democrats, and 24 by Republicans. There was a chance Republicans could lose half of the Senate seats being contested in these 24 Republican states. The fact that the Democrats failed to win the majority in the Senate can also be considered a major defeat. They had much better chances of winning than the presidential candidate. Of the dozen states where the fight was fierce and the forces were equal, the Democrats managed to win only in two, the traditionally Democratic Illinois and independent New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, the population of which is less than 1.5 million people, victory was secured by just 725 votes (353,978 for the Democratic and 353,262 for the Republican candidate).
Rand Paul and Marco Rubio who lost the primaries to Donald Trump in the middle of the year have kept their seats in Kentucky and Florida, respectively. The victory of Rubio and Trump in Florida is particularly meaningful. When Trump won the Florida primary, Rubio decided to drop out of the presidential race and for a long time was undecided on whether to run for another term in the Senate in his home state. After much deliberation, he decided to run against Democrat Patrick Murphy. Rubio's victory means that the Republican views still prevail in the battleground state of Florida.
The alignment of political forces in the lower house hasn’t changed much. Unlike in the Senate, where one-third of senators get re-elected every two years, all 435 seats were up to grabs in the House of Representatives. With the counting of votes still continuing in some districts, it is clear that the Democrats have increased their representation in the lower house, but not enough to secure a majority.
The continuing popularity of the Republicans can be attributed to dissatisfaction among the middle class with Obama's policies. Donald Trump connected with voters through his slogans about creating new jobs, trade protectionism, moderate isolationism and, in some cases, even nationalism (with regard to Muslims and undocumented Hispanics). Influenced by Donald Trump, the economic program of the Republican Party designed to support the middle class became a little more attractive for many traditionally Democratic voters, which determined the outcome of the presidential election.
The Republican Party win was not big, but nevertheless it was sufficient to gain control of both houses of the 115th Congress. Notably, this was deemed the least likely configuration in post-2016 Washington.
Last time the GOP controlled the White House and Congress was in the early 2000s, when George W. Bush was in office. Back then, the popularity of the Republicans was attributed to their policy on terrorism.
In the tradition of American politics, one could say that unified Republican executive and legislative branches will be less constrained by their Democratic opponents. To some extent, this tradition was broken, as Donald Trump does not represent the Republican political establishment. Moreover, given that during the primaries, Donald Trump made many enemies among the Republican Congressmen, it is likely that his initiatives will be met with resistance not only from Democrats, but also Republicans. For more than a century now, the US system with its checks and balances has been plagued by the confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of the US government, but with the arrival of Donald Trump it may take on an even more aggressive form.
One of Donald Trump’s strengths is his uncanny ability to strike deals. He took advantage of it to make deals with the representatives of the Republican Party during various stages of the election campaign.
He promised to use this ability to sign new trade agreements and international treaties, including during his talks with Russian leaders.
A new reset in relations with Moscow is unlikely to occur. The Republican Congress doesn’t have a single pro-Russian representative. However, it is likely that the Obama administration's policy toward Russia will be revised. Trump "the negotiator" clearly plans to continue the dialogue and to resume cooperation. It is critical to take advantage of the opportunities that will open up in the course of this dialogue.
During the next two months it is important to pay attention to what Republican politicians do. Words of support or disapproval of Donald Trump, voiced prior to the inauguration, may hint at their willingness to serve in his administration. After the inauguration, the White House and Congress will appoint and approve several thousand people to various positions, primarily, in the State Department, the Department of Defence and the National Security Council. The choice of people to fill executive branch appointments will suggest the outlines of the future policies of President Trump’s administration.
President Trump will also have to act as a "peacemaker" for the American people. Winning by a small margin means, in fact, that half of the country does not support him. For the first time in a long time, the election results caused protests.
During the last phases of his election campaign, he significantly changed the tone of his speeches, and positioned himself as a peacemaker for the nation, such as during his speech in late October in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a historic site associated with President Lincoln and the end of the Civil War.
In his victory speech, he focused on his intention to reunite a divided America. In particular, he began his speech speaking warmly about his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, thanking her for a hard-fought campaign and her service to the country. Addressing the nation, he said that only by working together will Americans be able to renew the American dream. Overcoming this major rift in American society is his primary goal. This is how Donald Trump will make America great again.
Pavel Sharikov, PhD in Political Science, Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences