Bill Jamieson: 2016, the year that changed everything

The historic events of 1968 defined insurrection for Bill Jamieson - until recent the events of Brexit and President Trump

Donald Trump supporters celebrate a seismic victory that the pollsters didn't see coming.
Donald Trump supporters celebrate a seismic victory that the pollsters didn't see coming.

Just when you thought this year had sprung enough surprises comes the most convulsive of all: we went to bed with Hillary Clinton as America’s next president – and woke up with Donald Trump.

I had considered 1968 to be the most insurrectionary year of the modern era: the student riots in Paris; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the Prague Spring. But 2016 runs it close as the Year of Insurrection – here in the UK, now in America – and soon to roll across Europe.

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It is tempting to view the most dramatic presidential election in US history as a “black swan” event – a singular out of the blue shock most unlikely to be repeated. But I sense that this will continue to resonate. Elections are pending on the continent with the “basket of deplorables” already gathering force in France and Holland. As with our own Brexit insurgency, the repercussions will be keenly felt.

It’s the third time in 18 months that the pollsters and the pundits have got it wildly wrong – first the 2015 UK election, then the EU referendum vote – and now the Trump presidency. On each occasion the predictions of experts and opinion formers were blown to pieces as voters behaved in a manner contrary to bien pensant opinion.

That phenomenon alone is deserving of searching questions. For all the analytical sophistry and advances in digital technology to help track voter behaviour, real world outcomes made fools of them all. The same pundits, unapologetic over their shattered predictions, continue at their stations, providing hand-wringing “analysis” of why the voters behaved in such an irrational and contrary manner.

Meanwhile, a greater and more urgent task now looms: how to sort out the morass of contradiction and inconsistencies presented by Trump’s victory.

Where to start with the unravelling? There is the paradox of a crude and offensive anti-politician who defeated the most qualified political opponent in America; a hard-nosed candidate on defence yet who has queried the benefits of Nato and who is strongly admired across Russia; the front-runner of a party that has championed globalisation yet who questions free trade and proposes tariffs; the “right wing” anti-big government candidate, yet who promised to outdo his Democrat opponent in an ultra-Keynesian spending splurge; a billionaire businessmen, but one who won the angry working class vote by a mile. So it goes on - truly unbelievable, but all of it true. “Normally” – aha, what a dangerous word this has become in 2016 – comfort would be taken from the president-elect’s previous experience. But the man about to assume the most powerful position in the world has no experience of government or public service.

And today the apprehension is less over what we heard of Trump’s opinions in the campaign but the confusion over which of his many threats and promises he will in fact carry out. It is this uncertainty – the “unknown unknowns” of a Trump presidency – that has caused investors to remain on the sidelines until a clearer picture emerges of his real intentions.

Here at home, Trump’s victory has been likened to that of the UK referendum vote on 23 June to quit the EU – a convulsion that toppled David Cameron, brought in a new Prime Minister – and a new chancellor. But will we now see a Trump-like revolt against global free trade? Indeed, had not Ukip’s Nigel Farage appeared on Trump’s campaign and been seen to express solidarity?

This sense of shared popular insurrection against an out-of-touch elite was almost palpable. Millions of voters, here and in America, feel keenly that the political system has not delivered for them and that their concerns about the loss of industries and employment have long been ignored. Trump himself had of course predicted that his victory would be “Brexit plus plus plus”.

But it is a flawed comparison. Vote Leave was enthusiastic to the point of evangelical about the benefits of global free trade and promoting a vision of an outward-looking, global-facing Britain. Trump’s campaign by contrast featured protectionist ideas and a retreat from free trade. His proposals involve renegotiation of NAFTA, naming China as a currency manipulator, an end to the Trans Pacific Partnership and the US Trade Representative bringing cases against China.

There is another widely-held view that Trump’s victory, like that of the UK vote to Leave, was a right wing reflex, a conservative backlash and a n awful rejection of shared values, fair treatment and compassion.

But this revolt has deeper and indeed, more socialistic origins. America’s political system has relied for its survival on an ability to prevent the domination of one group over the rest of society, to provide the people with a voice on how they should be governed, and to enable most Americans to access education and share in the process of wealth creation.

But Daron Acemoglu, professor of Economics at MIT and co-author of Why Nations Fail, argues that while the economy made huge gains over the past three decades, most Americans benefited only a little or not at all. “Millions of workers,” he writes, “saw their jobs automated by machines or taken away by cheap imports or offshoring.

The inaction of those with the power to make the gains shared more equally started chipping away at the foundations of a political system based on the belief that a rising tide should lift all boats.”

Big corporations and Wall Street enjoyed an outsized voice in Washington and with the 2008-9 financial crisis prompted the government to save car makers and big banks “but did not deem it necessary to bring help to millions of households suffering joblessness, foreclosures, and debilitating uncertainty”. Washington is now reaping the whirlwind.

But can the new Trump presidency disarm it? With the Republicans also controlling Congress and the Senate, it might seem as if he has a free hand. But here is another flawed conclusion from the election. Trump may have rarely mentioned America’s deficit and debt in his campaign. But these are major concerns of Republicans in Washington.

Trump has pledged personal and business tax cuts and a big boost for infrastructure spending, saying he would borrow several hundred billion dollars to ”at least double” Clinton’s spending plan. But US federal government debt has topped $19 trillion (£15.3 trillion), three times the level in 2000. Republican fiscal conservatives will give him a hard time over this.

Meanwhile the populist insurgency looks far from spent and is set to roll across Europe, with critical elections or referendums pending in Italy, Holland and France. The insurgents will be emboldened by America’s blow against the Washington elite.

With unemployment in the euro zone at 10 per cent and youth unemployment at 20.3 per cent the ground looks tinder dry. This Year of Insurrection has already rocked the world. It may yet have a sting in its tail.