Opinion
07.03.16

US Elections: Bracing for a capricious President Trump

Illustration by Roland Brückner | bitteschoen.tv

Mark Hallerberg outlines what the election of Trump or Clinton would mean for Europe.

The American presidential campaign has reached a stage where it is pretty clear who the candidates will be from the two major parties in the United States.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has a lead in delegates that is almost impossible for Bernie Sanders to overcome. Delegates on the Democratic side are awarded proportionately, and Sanders would need overwhelming, and implausible, wins in some of the remaining large states like California and Ohio to catch her.

On the Republican side, some states move from proportional to “winner-take-all” allocations beginning on March 15. This means that one of the candidates well behind Donald Trump in delegates would have an easier time catching up with the New York real estate magnate if he won these states. But this also means that the alternative candidate would have to finish first in most of the remaining primaries. Many in the Republican establishment hope that Marco Rubio can do this, but this looks unlikely.

So Clinton versus Trump. What would the election of either mean for Europe?

Primary season is period of radical statements

To answer this question, one should usually be careful reading too much into policy statements made during the primary season. The core voter in the respective parties is either more left (Democrats) or more right (Republicans) than the typical voter in a general election. The usual pattern is that the candidates move to either extreme in the primary elections then move back towards the center for the general election in November.

On the Democratic side, this dynamic is in full play: Bernie Sanders has pushed Hillary Clinton further to the left on several issues. She now includes standard lines about income inequality in her speeches. Perhaps most notably, she claims that she opposes the two major trade deals, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  Both positions are a clear response to Bernie Sanders [in] and an attempt to shore up labor voters in particular in the primary. Many observers (including me) expect that she will find a way to support both. She recently has made it a point that if she were to win she would extend most policies that President Obama has introduced. She might be somewhat more willing to use military force in some parts of the world than President Obama, but otherwise her victory would generally extend a status quo Europe already knows. A President Clinton would not involve many surprises for Europe.

Clinton promises continuity, Trump unpredictability

On the Republican side, the outcome is less predictable. On trade, Donald Trump has called the TPP “a disaster”. While China is not a signatory to the trade pact, he is convinced that China would be the big winner. He has not been as clear with TTIP, but his rhetoric is anti-free trade. On foreign policy, he notes that he would be “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although under pressure from the other candidates he stated that he is a strong backer of Israel. On Syria, he is adamant he will allow no refugees from that country into the US, and he has threatened to block temporarily all Muslims from visiting the country. He has supported Russian airstrikes in Syria. President Putin, for his part, has complemented Donald Trump as the “absolute leader” in the presidential race. Donald Trump blames President George W Bush for the attacks on September 11, 2001, and he claims he always opposed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He would seemingly alienate important countries to the US. Not only would he build a wall with Mexico, he would force the Mexicans to pay for it. He attacks China at every turn.

With the exception of the ban on Syrian refugees, none of Trump’s positions come from the mainstream of the Republican Party. His nomination as the Republican candidate for president leaves open many questions about what he would really do if he wins in November. Would he move more towards the traditional Republican positions to consolidate his position in the party?

Caught in his own trap?

One way to do this is through hiring the advisors of the previous Republican administration, which would mean including people who worked with one of the two President Bushes. But Trump cannot stand the Bush family, and that deep animosity would affect whom Trump would bring with him to the White House.

More generally, it is unclear whether Trump changes these positions for the general election. That dynamic of going right for the Republican primary and going to the center for the general election makes less sense this time around. It would be difficult for him to walk back his attacks on China, Mexico, and all Muslims because they are now part of his political identity. On 9/11 and Iraq, he is further to the left than many Democrats. On trade, one suspects that the “businessman” candidate will change his mind (like Clinton would). But because the old dynamic of moving to the center does not seem applicable to Trump, no one really knows what he would do in the general election or what his policies would be if he does win.

What is known is that he has a very good chance of becoming the next President of the United States.

This article was first published in German by Cicero.

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