Trump's win was a surprise, the immediate future will be just as unpredictable

09 November 2016 - by Matthew Coyle

Donald Trump has won a bitterly fought American presidential election but were the signs there all along?

As it was for the remain campaign, in Sunderland, during the counting stage of June's European Union referendum, alarm bells must have been ringing for Hillary Clinton when she cast her eyes towards the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Clinton will have been perturbed that a state she was favoured to win heavily in yesterday’s US presidential election should prove so difficult an obstacle to overcome. Virginia is marked by the schisms that beset so much of the western hemisphere at present; prosperity and penury exist in uncomfortable, unspeaking proximity. Yet, as recent presidential bouts have proved, rapidly altering demographics, educational attainment and increased wealth (the latter two were once standard descriptors for Republicans) have rendered the populous northern reaches fertile ground for Democratic electoral gains. Clinton did eventually bank Virginia’s 13 electoral college votes. However, that she was made to wait until late into the evening for territory previously considered safe spoke to more powerful forces at work elsewhere. The Old Dominion was not meant to be a battleground.

Trump may now call himself president-elect of the United States thanks to a large-scale victory that few (if any) ever saw coming. Trump had previously cited Brexit as an indicator for his eventual success. Given his controversies, intermittent focus on policy and apparent lack of planning, these words might have seemed hollow, unconnected to a different vote, on a different issue, on a different continent. Through accident or design he turned out to be right.

The similarities are obvious today, though they have been highlighted by shrewd observers in the period since the UK’s summer referendum. Post-truth politics, so potent during the months prior to the latter contest, was one of the pillars of Trump’s quest for the White House. Saying whatever is required to garner public support hardly begins and ends with Trump, but in his grip many could not resist. This in turn fuelled the kind of anti-establishment sentiment that propelled Brexit from fringe aspiration to present reality. 

White working-class communities on both sides of the Atlantic have now responded to straightforward answers addressing complex issues. Early sounds from Trump yesterday were less than confident, but, nevertheless, his message – combining high populism with nativism and opposition to the American free-trade regime – rang true with multiple sections of the citizenry. Female voters, considered so important to Clinton's coalition, did not break for her en masse. White women, conservative women and white protestant women (all sizeable groups) cast more ballots for Trump than they did for his opponent. 

This result represents no landslide. What it does signify, rather, is a usurpation of the authority wielded by polling experts   the respected University of Virginia guru, Larry Sabato, projected Clinton to secure 322 electoral college votes; Princeton University had logged her chances at 99 per cent  and political commentators. This outcome has further undermined their influence, already under intense scrutiny following the failure to properly diagnose Brexit as a concrete possibility.

What this means for Northern Ireland is unclear. With a Clinton back in the Oval Office, the peace process would at least have been on the radar of the Commander in Chief, along with how that process might be protected during the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Instead, Trump's world view, largely unformed in spite of his voluble pronouncements, cannot be predicted at this point. From a broader standpoint, the special relationship that reaches from London to Washington could see itself remoulded once more.

Trump has already stated his preference for moving the British to the front of the trade-dealing queue, a fact trumpeted by prominent leave advocates like Sammy Wilson and Nigel Farage. For Wilson, and others, locating Northern Ireland favourably in the UK’s future trade arrangements with the US is surely a priority.

Striking measured tones, both Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness offered their congratulations to the victor. “Northern Ireland has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States and I look forward to working with Donald Trump’s administration to continue this,” said the First Minister. The deputy First Minister sounded an equally diplomatic note: “I will work constructively with President Trump to maintain and strengthen our well established and deeply valued relationship with the United States.”

The jostling for position starts now.