As the race for the White House moves into its final days, the gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is wafer-thin. After trailing his rival by 12 points last month, Trump has been experiencing a late surge, fuelled, in part, by the FBI’s announcement that it was investigating new emails sent by Clinton while she was Secretary of State.
With at least one poll putting Trump ahead, the world is now confronting the once unthinkable: that after Tuesday’s vote, the property tycoon might become the US leader.
If Trump wins, he will be the first man ever to reach the Oval Office with no prior political or military service. His campaign has been characterised by ramped-up rhetoric, a disregard for facts and the stoking of fear. So it’s little wonder those who don’t support him are worried about the future. But would Trump really follow through on his more extreme policies? Indeed – having alienated himself from many potential allies – could he, even if he wanted to?
“American political scientist Richard E Neustadt said the US president is just a good clerk,” says Murray Leith, senior lecturer in politics at the University of the West of Scotland. “His power is the power to persuade based on the strength of his political capital – his relationship with Washington and the political elite.”
Trump was never part of the Washington establishment and many Republicans have already disowned him.
The Republican party is expected to retain control of Congress, but is unlikely to have the 60 Senate votes required to overcome a Democratic filibuster. All the same, we shouldn’t underestimate Trump’s ability to get things done. Some of his policies – repealing Obamacare, for example – would require the consent of Congress, but experts say others, such as renegotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, could be done unilaterally (although they might later be contested in court). In a recent piece in The New Yorker, one senior Republican referred to Trump’s desire to “erase” Barack Obama’s presidency. Official campaign adviser Stephen Moore said his transition team were looking for 25 executive orders Trump could sign on the first day. Renouncing the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emissions was given as a possible example.
The task of forecasting what Trump might do as leader is further complicated by his inconsistency. His isolationism, nativism and desire to tackle immigration are entrenched. But there are few actual policies – beyond the building of the wall – on which he hasn’t flip-flopped. Despite all this, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the impact a Trump victory would have on the US and the rest of the world.
The tightening of the presidential race has already rattled the markets with global equity prices and the dollar falling for several successive days.
Trump has said his policies on trade – he wants to renegotiate Nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and impose tariffs on imports from China – and on immigration – he wants to deport up to 11 million undocumented workers – combined with massive tax cuts, would create 25 million jobs and boost growth to 3.5 per cent.
However, some experts, including Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, believe a Trump win would cause the stock market to crash and plunge the world back into recession. Markets crave stability. Clinton is seen as the continuity candidate, taking up where Obama left off. Trump is an unknown quantity.
According to Professor Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University’s school of international relations, the markets have “priced in” a Clinton victory. “If Trump wins, the stock markets will fall [as they did in the aftermath of the Leave vote],” he says. “But what happens next will depend on what Trump says in the hours and days that follow. If Trump says, ‘I am going to block Chinese imports and start a trade war,’ then, yes, the markets could react very negatively.”
Following through on his plans to deport all undocumented workers would also wreak economic havoc as the economy depends on imported labour. The right-leaning think tank, the American Action Forum, has suggested it would cost the government between $400 billion and $600bn, and reduce real Gross Domestic Product by more than $1 trillion.
“The stock market would go up and down depending on what Trump was saying at any given time,” says Dr Brian Fogarty, a lecturer in quantitative social science at Glasgow University. “But the stock market knows he is a businessman and would be likely to put business interests first. I think income inequality would grow, but the stock market would remain fairly stable because there would be a belief that businesses would be taken care of.”
The Washington-based Tax Policy Centre has also said Trump’s plan to cut income tax would increase the national debt by $7.2 trillion unless it was offset by spending cuts the Republican candidate has not proposed.
Few people believe Trump will build a wall on the border with Mexico (although former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich thinks he’ll be forced to try), far less that his plan to make Mexico pay will pan out. Nor do they think he will ban Muslims (which would be unconstitutional). As for the mass deportation of undocumented workers – it’s unworkable. “You’d need every coach in America for six months, 24-hours-a-day and they’d quickly run out of drivers,” says Leith wryly. Still, his racist rhetoric has consequences. It has already fuelled Islamophobic attacks.
Having placed immigration at the centre of his campaign, Trump is obliged to make some early announcements – the scrapping of the H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers, perhaps – or face a backlash from his supporters. If he were to suspend the Syrian refugee programme or implement an aggressive surveillance initiative to prevent radicalisation, there is a risk he would alienate more moderate Muslims and push them towards the jihadis.
Similarly, a Trump presidency is unlikely to improve the relationship between the African-American community and the police. Successive fatal shootings of black men have seen protests flare in many parts of the country (and led to the killings of police officers in Dallas and Des Moines).
Obama has tried to defuse tensions, highlighting the discrimination African Americans face within a weighted criminal justice system and setting up a task force on policing. Trump, on the other hand, has pitched himself as the law and order candidate, labelled the Black Lives Matter protest group “divisive” and “inherently racist”, and suggested that some cities – such as Chicago – would be safer if they introduced “stop and frisk” policies (which have already been ruled unconstitutional).
“I think [a Trump victory] will increase the mistrust within black communities,” says Dr Zoe Colley, lecturer in American politics at Dundee University. She points out that Trump supports the Blue Lives Matter (a pro-police movement) and wants to reinstate the 1033 programme, which allowed police forces to use military surplus and left black communities feeling as if they were occupied. “He seems to want to return to policies which, in the past, have been viewed as exacerbating race relations,” says Colley.
The Special Relationship
As with most things, Trump blows hot and cold over his feelings for the UK. He was delighted with the Brexit vote, praising the British people for “taking back control of their country”. But his ardour cooled when David Cameron called his plan to ban Muslims “stupid and wrong” and Theresa May clashed with him over his claims that there were no-go areas for police in London because of radical Islam. He, in turn, accused the UK of free-riding over defence.
Of course, the Special Relationship is not based on individual friendships, but on common interests, and leaders are perfectly capable of putting aside personal animosities in the interests of diplomatic relations.
But the Brexit vote has changed the power dynamics. Outside the protection of the EU, the UK will be more reliant on the US, but the US saw Britain as its bridge to Europe, and may now lavish more attention on France and Germany. Last week, May backed away from repeating her attack on Trump on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, telling Piers Morgan: “Who wins the American Presidential election is entirely a matter for the American people.” Whether Trump has the motivation to put hostilities behind him and work constructively with her remains to be seen.
Attitude to Nato/ relationship with Russia
Trump’s ongoing bromance with Vladimir Putin has set alarm bells ringing in Europe and the US. In the past few years, the Republican candidate has defended Putin’s leadership style, his support for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, at a time when the rest of the world is watching Russia’s apparent expansionist ambitions with trepidation. At the same time, the Russian government has been suspected of trying to bolster Trump’s campaign by hacking into the private emails of Clinton’s allies and dumping the information into Wikileaks (a claim Julian Assange denies).
If all that wasn’t unsettling enough, Trump has repeatedly criticised Nato, branding it obsolete, and suggesting US military support for Nato allies will be contingent on them paying their full share of the Nato budget. But a weakened Nato plays into Russia’s hands and might encourage Putin to consider incursions into the Baltic states which have large Russian populations. “If Trump does not instantly come out after his election and reconfirm strong support for Nato, it could get very dangerous,” says O’Brien. “What would the Russians start doing, then? Would they see it as a carte blanche to start putting pressure on Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia?”
As an east coaster, Trump probably hadn’t given a great deal of thought to gun control before standing as a presidential candidate. But to his core support – poor white men without a college education – the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms is fundamental, and so he has lent vocal support to the National Rifle Association (NRA). To a degree, Trump’s position on guns is immaterial. Obama spent much of his presidency talking about introducing tighter controls, but achieved very little. But again, language sets the tone. Some claim Trump’s frequent call to arms (at one point he appeared to suggest assassinating Clinton would be one way of preventing her appointing the Supreme Court judge of her choice) is leading Americans to tool themselves up. Some Trump supporters have talked of resorting to violence if their candidate loses.
Last week, the Brady Campaign, which supports gun control, claimed gun sales were soaring, with Sturm, Ruger’s earnings up 66 per cent. “What’s most troubling is this correlation between soaring gun sales and an increasingly turbulent and violent political atmosphere,” said Brady Campaign president Dan Gross. “Americans are literally arming up for the election at the direction of some powerful influencers.”
Ever the equivocator, Trump has changed his position on abortion several times over the course of the campaign. While Clinton has reaffirmed her support for Roe vs Wade – the landmark case which guaranteed a woman’s right to a termination – Trump initially said abortions should be outlawed and “some form of punishment” inflicted on women who had them. Then, in the furore that followed, he argued the legality of abortion should be decided at state level, with criminal actions taken against medical providers. He also called for the defunding of Planned Parenting (while conceding it helps women with cervical and breast cancer) and for a ban on partial birth and late abortions.
Supreme Court appointments
One of the most significant legacies a president can leave are his appointments to the Supreme Court. Over the next four years, between two or three vacancies are likely to arise in addition to the one left by the death of the staunchly conservative Antonin Scalia in February. Since then, the court has been evenly balanced with four liberal and four conservative judges. But Republicans in the Senate have refused to hold hearings on the man Obama nominated as his replacement: the comparatively liberal Merrick Garland. Trump has already said he wants to appoint judges in the mould of Scalia, who spent much of his career opposing LGBTI rights. He has published two lists with a total of 21 potential nominees, most of whom would swing the court further to the right on issues such as the environment, voting rights and gun control. One of them, Senator Mike Lee, has denounced Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality and declared the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Trump has also said he would favour Pro-Life judges.
While Trump has acknowledged the dangers of nuclear proliferation, he has said he would not rule out pressing the button and suggested some other countries – such as Japan and south Korea – should build up a nuclear arsenal to defend themselves against China and North Korea. This is consistent with his belief that the US cannot go on being “the policeman of the world”.
Perhaps Trump’s time as Commander-in-Chief would be defined less by his individual policies, and more by the way he behaved under pressure. How would the man who likes to act on instinct respond to an emergency on the scale of the Cuban Missile crisis? Or – given the stream of sex allegations – perhaps it would be defined by a succession of scandals. As we count down the hours until the result is known, the only thing that seems predictable about a Trump presidency is its unpredictability.