The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has been met by markedly different reactions from different quarters: while many were terrified by Trump’s victory, others met it with jubilation. Trump’s election is ultimately part of a global trend of anti-establishment rebellion, led by populist politicians who are typically illiberal and authoritarian. For some, Trump’s victory was foreshadowed by the United Kingdom’s similarly surprising decision to leave the European Union in June. Both results were driven by older, less educated voters in economically deprived areas who have become increasingly disillusioned as traditional parties failed to address their economic concerns. Unless we, throughout the world, recognize this drift away from a liberal world order and take steps to prevent it, the post-war world order that has promoted global peace since 1945 will collapse.
The anti-establishment populism that facilitated Brexit and Trump’s rise is part of a broader global trend that has led to the rejection of traditional, centrist political parties and to the elevation of populist, typically illiberal, politicians to high office. For instance, anti-establishment sentiments in Hungary led to the 2010 election of Viktor Orban, a right-wing nationalist and populist, as prime minister. Orban has governed Hungary in an increasingly authoritarian fashion and was the first leader of an EU member state to endorse Trump.
Meanwhile, deep dissatisfaction with traditional political parties and years of economic crisis have led Spain to hold its third general election in a year. Because of the fragmentation of the political scene, no political party has been able to win a majority in the Spanish legislature in the two preceding general elections. In the Philippines, discontent against the elite propelled Rodrigo Duterte, a maverick anti-establishment politician who vowed to crack down on drugs and crime, to the presidency this past May.
Trump’s election as president should not be viewed as a black swan event. We should take the implications of his victory seriously, as it may further embolden far-right politicians and populists across the world, especially in Europe, who are now looking to exploit antagonism against the elite and immigrants for electoral gain in a number of upcoming elections.
In December, Austria will vote in a highly contentious presidential election. One of the candidates, Norbert Hofer, has pledged to build a fence on Austria’s southern border to keep migrants from entering the country and “stop the invasion of Muslims.” If elected, he would be the first far-right president in Europe since 1945. Like Trump, Hofer is popular among manual workers, men, and those without a college degree. France will also elect a new president next year, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of a far-right, anti-immigration party, hopes to ride the wave of global populism to victory. Although slightly behind in the polls, she views Trump's victory as a sign of her impending success.
Centrist parties around the world need to use Trump’s victory as an opportunity to unite and oppose the politics of populism and hatred. They need to expose the half-truths that populist politicians peddle in a bid to win the votes of disaffected voters. The false claim by Brexit campaigners that 5 million more migrants could enter the United Kingdom by 2030 if Turkey and four other applicant countries join the EU, and Trump’s assertion that he would bring manufacturing jobs back to the US (which has been debunked by economic experts) are both examples of exaggerations and untruths that feed on public fears. Centrist politicians must fight back against such appeals to fears and prejudices, which are being exploited simply to win votes. There is also an urgent need to engage voters who have been left behind by economic progress and globalization and feel neglected by the political establishment. Otherwise, such voters will be convinced that mainstream politics do not serve their interests, and more politicians like Trump are likely to be elected.
Even if Donald Trump’s electoral success does not lead to the election of more right-wing demagogues across the world, his presidency raises grave concerns for global diplomacy and security. Should he fulfill his pledge to renegotiate or withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, or renege on treaty obligations to offer military support for NATO allies, he will irreparably damage US credibility abroad. Even if Trump moderates these views, his campaign pledges have already shaken the foundation of global security and stability. For decades, nations around the world have counted on the US to honor its word on a diverse range of issues. The diplomatic agreements and alliances that undergird our collective security have withstood partisan shifts before, but Trump has campaigned on a platform to completely overturn them all.
Even basic American commitments to human rights and liberal democracy have been cast into doubt. Trump has suggested that he will discriminate against minorities and encourage torture, and he has displayed contempt for democracy itself. His proposals would subvert the Geneva Convention and undo the progress made over generations by international human rights agreements. Nations around the world can no longer be sure what the US stands for under a Trump presidency. Since the end of World War II, the world has looked to the US as a leader in international cooperation, but this may all change under a Trump presidency. The world may become more fractious and drift toward multipolarity, especially if Trump’s success is replicated by other intolerant and authoritarian leaders around the world.
In many cases, the US also underwrites the security of entire nations and regions. Trump’s actions as commander-in-chief will thus have major impacts on conflicts around the world, and he is likely to escalate many of them. The US commitment to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula may soon be tested by North Korea. Trump has previously pledged to make Japan and South Korea pay for their own defense against North Korea, overturning decades of American defense strategy in the region, although he seems to have reversed this stance since his victory. Trump’s stance on NATO has already alarmed the Baltic states, which fear that Russia may be encouraged to test America’s commitment to their defense.
Predicting Trump’s reaction to an international crisis is an exercise in absurdity. Trump has been exceptionally mercurial as a presidential candidate, has never before held public or military office, and has a history of business decisions which have been dodgy at best. It is therefore unwise to merely rely on pronouncements that he has made on the campaign trail. Once in office, he is likely to take advice from hardline, hawkish Republicans, many of whom have been tipped for positions of power in his new administration. Already, Trump has nominated retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has openly expressed Islamophobic views, as his national security advisor. Thus, while Trump’s rhetoric has hinted at an isolationist stance, he will be surrounded by advisors who will urge him to defend traditional American allies. This further increases global uncertainty, given that a highly unqualified man now has the power to start and end nuclear wars. His decisions as commander-in-chief of the United States will have grave implications for global stability and security.
While Trump has expressed isolationist tendencies in some foreign policy areas, he will likely exacerbate radical Islamic terrorism’s threat to the West. During his campaign, Trump has repeatedly made inflammatory comments against Muslims and has suggested that there should be a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. If Trump continues with his anti-Muslim rhetoric and does carry out his plans, he may become a rallying cry for radical Islamist terrorists, who would view him as a grave threat to Islam.
Already, Trump has been featured in propaganda videos made by ISIS, and he was the group’s preferred candidate to win the presidency. By normalizing hatred and racism, Trump may well push even more disaffected Muslims around the world into embracing radical Islamic ideology. Even if he does defeat ISIS, as he has repeatedly promised throughout his campaign, he would not be able to stop homegrown, self-radicalized terrorism, or new terrorist groups rising from the ISIS’s ashes. Far from making the world a safer place, Trump will likely make it an even more dangerous one.
A Trump presidency is likely to upend the existing world order that has brought peace to many parts of the world if he acts on the promises made during his campaign and if he is joined by more demagogues with extreme views on governing society. However, this grave threat to values of liberalism and tolerance around the world can still be stopped, if moderate politicians unite to oppose the politics of fear and hatred. Furthermore, politicians and the media need to take immediate steps to address the concerns of deprived and marginalized communities, which have been ignored for far too long, and have now become the driving force propelling radical politicians to power. If we fail to act, everyone’s stability and security will be in doubt.
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