What can we in Southeast Asia expect now that the unthinkable has happened?
The businessman-turned-populist Donald Trump has managed to pull off a major upset and has become the 45th President of the United States, beating Hillary Clinton.
At the time of writing, Trump has managed to win at least 276 Electoral College votes, scoring stunning victories in battleground states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. This puts him in over the 270 vote threshold for victory. This marks the stunning conclusion of a roller-coaster election, marked by Trump’s heated rhetoric against various groups as well as scandals involving Clinton’s e-mail and her husband Bill’s Foundation.
America, it has to be said, has had its “Duterte moment”: a charismatic but unpredictable populist upending not only the machinations of his country’s political elite, but also everything we thought we knew about political science and international affairs.
It would appear that the revolt in the heartlands of the West that we first witnessed with the “Brexit” vote in the U.K. earlier this year has now taken root in America.
There will obviously be a ton of analysis to go over, but let me focus on what immediately interests us here in the region: what can we expect from a Trump presidency? The most obvious answer is that we simply don’t know. Trump is unpredictable. He is a maverick. He has managed to make a common cause with the white, working-class and rural Americans.
These are people who feel left out or alienated by changes in American society over the last couple of decades. Many have had looked on as their communities and their livelihoods have been destroyed by free-trade and changes in technology.
The leftward shift in terms of social mores under outgoing President Obama’s rainbow coalition of minorities has come as a shock to the more conservative.
Trump, along with his supporters seethe at what they see as the condescension of the metropolitan elites, the world of the New York Times, of Beyonce and Jay-Z, essentially the 'New Establishment', many of whom especially in the tech-sector will need to rethink how they engage with 'The Donald'.
Trump and his cohorts will be seeking to discard what they see as permissive, liberal tolerance for minorities to return to what they believe is America’s genuine values: Christian, white and male-dominated.
Trump has clearly been able to capitalize on the bewilderment and anger of the white community, creating a powerful sense of shared identity (and victimhood) amongst many millions of ordinary white Americans.
This will in turn stymie the Republican Party's attempts to control him.
I saw some of this frustration as I spent the last few days of the campaign in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The crowds for Trump’s final rallies were so large and impassioned that I wasn’t eventually able to get in.
Essentially, Trump has been able to transform himself from a real estate businessman to a media operator and now—one of the republic’s most remarkable politicians. And along the way, he has demonstrated both brilliance and ruthlessness in equal measure.
But again: what will this mean for us in Southeast Asia?
The nations of Southeast Asia have grown comfortable with America’s military and political presence for decades as well as its position as the globe's biggest importer. This will all change.
We in Southeast Asia may well be expected to "pay” for our share of the peace the Americans bring. Certainly, we can forget about Obama’s ambitious “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, will be history given Trump’s nationalistic and protectionist leanings.
Meanwhile, all of this is taking place as China and Xi Jinping gathers in strength both domestically and internationally - witness President Duterte’s recent pivot to Beijing.
Or perhaps it will not be that bad: maybe Trump will instead seek to cut deals with China and Russia, leading into a new sort of global detente.
Trump’s vision of a “strong” America will change the world order as the US steps away from its self-appointed role as the world’s policeman or spreader of democracy.
His America may simply be tougher and more pragmatic, letting China take what many see as its rightful place in the world while still maintaining a pecking order of some sorts.
Or could it be what the doomsayers have predicted, that this is the 1930s redux, as peoples turn against what they see as an unjust world order (globalization) in favour of nefarious ideologies?
Who could control Trump if this came to pass?
That’s precisely the problem: we simply don’t know.
And so while China and Russia may gleefully greet a Trump presidency, one suspects in the long-run that his unpredictability will make things very difficult for them as well.
America’s election has come to an end tonight, but the uncertainties for the US, for our region and the world have just begun.