US Elections Show a Country Deeply Polarized

This blog post was written by students of the course entitled “Presidential Elections in the United States” — Karl-Gerhard Lille, Vy Nguyen, Luis Roberto Vera, Gert Siniloo — together with their instructor, Louis Wierenga.

The United States just elected its 45th President, Donald J. Trump, in one of the most controversial elections in living memory. This election has spoken to two major issues in American society: a deep resentment and mistrust of Washington by many Americans and an extremely polarized society in a changing world. This election also has numerous foreign policy implications that will impact other countries besides the United States, Estonia being one such country.


Democratic and Republican Presidential Nominees – Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The choice made by American voters on 8 November 2016 was inconceivable and almost terrifying, but perhaps necessary. Donald Trump is indeed the President-elect of the United States, a testament to the national populist uprisings sweeping nations far away, as well as close to home. He is the symbol of the unrest gripping America: a sluggish economy tinted by societal turmoil, suspect national security, and no respite in sight. The mood of the nation was ripe for change, and Mr. Trump seized the moment. After an election season of moderate highs and tremendous lows, he prevailed as the candidate of opportunity, rather than of “managed decline”.

To be fair, the American electorate hardly awarded him a great mandate. Mrs. Clinton actually garnered two-tenths of a percentage point more in the popular vote tally than Mr. Trump, yet the Electoral College handed the election to him by a solid margin. The country is deeply polarized and it shows: the coastal blues are demarcated by a contiguous block of red in the so-called flyover country. We just witnessed the clash of these “respective bubbles”. The “out-of-touch” elites — the media and the entertainment industry, academia, as well as the government in D.C. — were effectively rebuked by a large swath of the country, who rejected the elites’ moralizing, as well as their policies. The white working‑ and middle‑class workers of the Rust Belt — the “deplorables” — actually broke for Mr. Trump in such measure that he almost swept the entire region. The people who voted for him tended to be those most hurt by the effects of globalization.

One should remember that the Americans just elected the presidential candidate that they liked less and thought less qualified. This bespeaks volumes against the status quo, but also of desperation among the populace. To many, Mr. Trump signifies a country and a people gone berserk, now that such a divisive figure will be elevated to the very highest office. To many, however, he embodies much-needed change, possibly a glimmer of hope. Indeed, very few would place trust in Mr. Trump, but they sure are counting on him.

One of Mr. Trump’s greatest liabilities — his lack of political knowledge — became one his greatest assets: employing simple vocabulary, he proposed simple solutions to complex problems, making politics more accessible to the everyman. He used the worries and insecurities of the people to great effect, from vowing to bar Muslim terrorists and Mexican drug dealers, while also vowing to be the candidate of “law and order”. He even took a chance with the supporters of Bernie Sanders, trying to paint Mrs. Clinton the common enemy of both factions. The need to overturn the status quo was so great that Mr. Trump was given exceptional leniency with regard to his suitability for office. Deep dissatisfaction with the government as a whole made the image of an uncompromising and undiplomatic strongman even more appealing. Since Mr. Trump has not been consistent in his political views, voters were able to project onto him whatever they wished. Conservatives staunchly insisted that he actually fits into their party platform, while some liberals argued that he was even more liberal and ground-breaking than Mrs. Clinton.

The media was a great factor in Mr. Trump’s success. Mr. Trump was at ease in dealing with the media, while Mrs. Clinton was not. He is a performer with a knack for theatrics and he possesses the appeal of a reality TV star, although this might not amount to what one might call charisma. Mr. Trump’s controversial and provocative statements dominated the news for days, which were bound to capture the public’s attention. This may have also helped him divert attention away from his lack of political knowledge. The media discovered that Mr. Trump’s antics attracted enormous numbers of viewers and clicks. Instead of political issues and Mr. Trump’s ignorance towards them, the media chose to entertain their audiences. Overall, however, Mr. Trump’s strongest asset might have been Mrs. Clinton herself, who was equally unpalatable to and likewise mistrusted by the electorate.


“I Voted Today” sticker given to everyone who voted in the presidential elections. Photo credit: Memphis CVB / Flickr Creative Commons

One of the many questions that arises now that Donald Trump has been elected, is what policies will be implemented – the GOP’s platform or what Donald Trump stated during the course of his campaign? The differentiation is made because most of Trump’s most controversial statements are not included in the official Republican Party Platform.

If we strictly stick to his campaign announcements, there will be drastic changes in migratory policy (mass deportation of illegal immigrants was a popular statement). It is also unlikely that the United States will continue Obama’s guidelines regarding health care and social security, education, international policy, and the environment.

One of the main concerns that Mr. Trump will have to face is how divided his country is, both socially and ideologically, how tolerant his administration will be, and the nature of his relationship with white supremacist-nationalists, Neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and the Ku Klax Klan, all of whom publicly endorsed him. Social and racial unrest will probably remain for the time being.

Although at this point we can only speculate, it is likely that the United States will see its geopolitical role and military status diminished, and that matters that were not resolved under Barack Obama’s presidency (i.e. Guantanamo Bay Prison and US military involvement in the Middle East) will linger.

Estonia cannot allow itself to be complacent

At first glance, the election of Trump as President of the United States, our biggest and most important ally, poses some concerns. We mustn’t forget the statements Trump made during the campaign about NATO and coming to the aid of allied states, saying that it depends on whether a country pays its fair share to the US for helping them. This raised eyebrows in the US and forced a lot of European politicians to voice their concerns, if Article 5 in the NATO Treaty, which states that an armed attack against one member state is an attack on all, would still hold under a Trump presidency, which will now materialize.

For Estonia, being a member of NATO is our main security guarantee. Yes, Estonia is among the few NATO countries that contributes at least 2 percent of GDP in defense spending, but the sheer implication of leaving countries to fend for themselves until they start paying their bills would probably undermine the trust within NATO and call into question the whole existence of the organization – not to mention how a stance like this would be interpreted by potential enemies.

To be fair, the issue of increasing defense spending in Europe has been on the table during previous US administrations as well – but never has any major candidate suggested that NATO principles would be made dependent on whether the bills are paid or not. Statements like the one made by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who has been floated as a possible Secretary of State in Trump’s administration, on how Estonia is a suburb of St. Petersburg to whose aid he might not come in case of attack, does not really add any assurance.

In any case, Trump’s statements on NATO are far from the promise made by President Obama two years ago in Tallinn that Estonia would never again stand alone in the face of aggression. Estonian politicians and diplomats should now try to work very closely with other allies to ensure that the problems of our region of the world are heard and considered within Washington. As a small country, Estonia doesn’t have the luxury to ignore major powers, despite the person they choose to be their leader.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX2SPSD

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally. Photo credit: Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Another thing Estonians should be worried about are Trump’s positions on Russia. He has praised Vladimir Putin as a leader on several occasions, and has also said he would like for the US and Russia to have friendly relations. Although Trump has been accused of being too friendly towards Putin, this does not speak so much about the President-elect’s sincere love for Putin, but more to the ignorance Trump has shown regarding foreign policy issues (Trump saying that Putin would not go into Ukraine reminds us of another President who vowed that there would be no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe under his administration – and that was in 1976).

This leads us to the central point we have to keep in mind in analyzing a possible Trump administration: it all comes down to who he selects to be his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and foreign policy advisers. It will be very much up to these people to give him sophisticated and balanced advice and ensure that he listens. Trump has boasted on numerous occasions how he picks the best people to work for him – now we just have to hope that this was not all hot air, for in today’s world there isn’t a lack of foreign policy challenges in which to practice the art of the deal.

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