In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning victory at the 2016 US presidential election, IPP Review sat down with Professor Yongnian Zheng, Director of East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, to address questions surrounding Trump’s win, democracy, US’ foreign policies and more.
IPP Review: The media and analysts are stunned by Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US general election. Are you surprised by the results?
I am not surprised at all. I have said before that if Trump did not win this time, the Republican party will notch an even bigger win in four years’ time. Especially in the context of Brexit in the UK, how could we not have expected Trump’s win?
The people who are taken aback by the result are the establishment, capitalists and academics in the US. Why? The establishment has been too far removed from reality, from society. It is like they are wearing the emperor’s new clothes, happy in their own self-delusions. The capitalists have been too self-serving to see the crux of the problem. As for academia, I feel a death knell has been sounded for contemporary social science. If it cannot re-invent itself, it will become detached from reality. In this matter, scholars in political science, economics and sociology should be ashamed of themselves.
They were pre-occupied with criticizing Trump. Academics such as political scientists even waded into politics and petitioned against Trump. They spent too little time reflecting on fundamental problems in the society and therefore they could not see where the real troubles lie.
You will fail spectacularly if you only view society through a particular lens, such as from the point of view of ideology, elitism or power. Why did we assume that Hillary Clinton would win the election? For those who thought that Trump would lose, what was the basis of their assumption? Was it ideology? Was it vested interests? Was it power? After Brexit, I wrote many articles to highlight the crisis that is surrounding democracy now. The times make the man; Trump is carried by the tides of our time.
The confluence of power, interests and knowledge is a dangerous thing; it makes a person selfish and limits his vision. This phenomenon is not confined to the US; it is also appearing in Europe and China. It is a trend and we need to reflect on it.
IPP Review: Can we describe what is currently happening in US democracy as populism?
Trump’s win is the people’s victory. The personal factor is very important in populism. Clinton gave the impression of being well-spoken and intellectual, but behind her captivating words she is just a politician, a Machiavellian at heart. Who are the ones who believed her? It is those who identified with her, those on the same ideological stand, and those who feared Trump would take away their interests.
Although Trump may be booed by the media and pundits, many Americans identify with him, saying “he is just like us.” He may have zero political experience, but Americans feel that he is “one of us.” Clinton knows the ins and outs of politics well and even used a private email server for official matters. This is a criminal offence, but as the establishment dislikes Trump, she was let off the hook.
The Democrats even made use of Putin and Russia to attack Trump. Does the average American care? No. What they care about is their livelihoods.
Therefore, the message being sent by the establishment, the White House, the Republicans, the Democrats and the media did not get to the Trump supporters or the swing voters at all.
Another important factor in Trump’s win is social media. In this election, he was only a Republican in name. In fact, the GOP derided him and distanced itself from him. It was social media that propelled him to victory. American youths do not get their news from traditional outlets like CNN and The New York Times anymore; they get the latest developments straight off the Internet. In other words, young Americans have lost their trust in the establishment.
Trump did not win the election based on policies; in fact, he was waging a social revolution.
After the sexual harassment allegations against Trump surfaced, the leaders in the GOP began to turn their backs on Trump. To Trump, it was a big relief, as it meant he did not have to pander to the Party’s interests anymore. Being free to do what he wanted, he fully made use of the popular sentiments to his advantage.
Trump’s win is a product of the development of democracy. I liken this US election to the crisis facing Western democracy in the late 19th century to early 20th century. However, there will not be an “end of history” as argued by Francis Fukuyama. What is happening now is a major adjustment in the development of democracy.
His win will trigger massive socio-political change in America and Western society. As Aristotle said, no system of government is perfect and it will transform when it reaches a certain milestone. Although we always think of America as having the perfect form of democracy, it too cannot escape this fate.
IPP Review: Will Trump make good on his election promises? Or can we just view it as election rhetoric and expect Trump to adjust his policies in the future?
Trump is a businessman, not a politician. He did not win the election based on policies; in fact, he was waging a social revolution. During the election, he did not need to lay out his policy recommendations; he only needed to use a few slogans, such as “build a wall” to rally his supporters. People mistook that as his policy, which it was absolutely not. What Trump did was a rebellion against the establishment, much like Brexit in the UK.
Did Trump supporters believe in his policies when they voted? No. What they wanted was to stop the establishment, to overthrow it. Trump and his supporters needed no policies or other goals. This is where many analysts went wrong. Elections in the past were played out between policies recommended by the opposing camps, which was not the case this time. As most analysts viewed Trump’s words as policies, they wrongly condemned him to failure. Trump’s win is a punishment brought upon the establishment by the masses.
Will Trump’s election rhetoric become policies? I don’t think so. The election exposed a deeply divided American society and Trump will need to heal the emotional scars first. He needs to calm people’s fears. Without this, he will be unable to do anything.
Even if he succeeds in calming nerves, the checks and balances in the US governmental system will limit what Trump can do. As Professor Wang Gungwu said, democracy is the most conservative political system in the world—everyone has a say, yet nobody can accomplish anything. Just look at Taiwan: Ma Ying-jeou could not achieve anything nor will his successor Tsai Ing-wen be able to. It is the same with the US, Japan and Europe.
IPP Review: With Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, will the US democratic system be impaired?
We should not worry too much. There are indeed many countries who are centralizing their power, but the US democratic system is quite different. Countries like Russia were originally ruled by emperors and kings; hence their systems have always been top-down, with the government having a strong authoritarian grip on society. The US is, however, a bottom-up society with decentralization as its characteristic. In the US, it is the White House which has to listen to Wall Street. Furthermore, US society is opposed to autocracy and the country is born from uprising against unjust rule. Another factor is the decentralization of power between the federal and state government. If the federal government concentrates power in its own hands, many state governments will fight for independence.
IPP Review: Barring a constitutional crisis, what is happening with US democracy?
The middle class in the US has shrunk from 70 percent before the 2008 financial crisis to less than 50 percent currently. This is a critical situation. Obama was aware of it and he immediately set about reforming healthcare after becoming president. However, his reform was not thorough and it also smacked of ideology. In the end, he was also bought over by capitalists and started to tout the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). It caused a lot of resentment among ordinary Americans. The TPP is driven by the capitalists and works under the framework of neoliberal globalization.
Why did people not vote for Clinton? It is because she is a spokesman for the capitalists. The situation now is that the capitalists and the government are in cahoots. If Trump wants to change the status quo, he has to make the government take a more neutral stand between the capitalists and the masses. The government should not be completely on the capitalists’ side.
What should Trump do to benefit ordinary Americans? He needs to develop the economy and continue to push for free trade. He should restore the balance between the political, economic, and social power. Can this balance be achieved in the current constitutional framework? I think it is possible, but the government needs to play a pivotal role. The social problems that the US is experiencing now were caused by changes in social structures bought about by changes in the economic structure. So how should the political structure work in order to remedy the situation? Trump needs to ponder this question and strike a balance between the three parts. If he simply pushes the blame to African-Americans, Hispanics, and free trade, he would be making a big mistake.
We should not underestimate Trump. He is after all a businessman and may call upon his business acumen to solve these social problems. Politics has become a vocation to US politicians, to the extent that they create strong interest groups around themselves. Trump is not part of these inner circles; that’s the reason people pin their hopes on him.
IPP Review: What effects will Trump have on geopolitics? It looks like he will make major adjustments to America’s foreign policy.
There is much Trump can do on the foreign policy front; he may even trigger a geopolitical revolution. It is not because of his personal factor or because he has great power in foreign policy actions. It is because the US is still the sole superpower in the world. However, there are many conditions that limit what the US can do in its foreign policy. After World War II, the US was the strongest in the world in all aspects, including politics, culture, economy, and the military. However, currently, it is only strongest in terms of military power. Although the US may still have the largest economy in the world, it pales in comparison to the past.
Firstly, there will be significant changes to the US’ East Asia policy. It is expected that the US will slowly retreat from this region, a reversal of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.” The withdrawal may take a while as the US still has substantial interests in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, the retreat may take the form of a cooperation with China, such as collegiality. It would be different from Obama’s opposing and competitive stand against China. The US may share some power with China in the Asia-Pacific region but at the same time will want China to undertake some responsibilities as well.
Trump will slowly cut support to long-time US allies, and Japan will be the most affected. The Japanese have lost their chance to become a first-rate country. It will be in a fix for the next two decades as it cannot depend entirely on the US yet has to watch its back for China. The country will be torn between the US and China for a very long time to come, as it does not want to be an appendage to China yet it is getting cold shoulder from the US.
Even if Trump will be harsh on China, he would still agree to exchange interests with China.
Another important change in East Asian geopolitics would be US’ policy on the Korean Peninsula. Both the US and China agree that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons. However, China believes that the North Korea nuclear problem is caused by the US. If the US reduces its presence in the Korean Peninsula and the alliance between the US and South Korea changes, the THAAD deployment issue will be solved. This will pose a big challenge for China too. If the US reduces its influence on the Korean Peninsula, China will have to take ownership of the North Korean nuclear problem. It will be a huge responsibility on China’s part to ensure the denuclearization of North Korea.
Southeast Asia will also be affected, as the US plays an important balancing role in the region.
The effect of a Trump presidency on Russia will be great. If the US retreats from the world, Russia will become an imperial country again. Historically, Russia has shown its adeptness in playing the geopolitics game. It will first occupy the geopolitical spaces vacated by the US, such as the Middle East. Second, it will start to target the small countries around its periphery. Third, it will get into loggerheads with NATO. All these will affect China greatly. Some Chinese scholars have said that China and Russia will form an alliance. On the contrary, I think China and Europe will form a friendly relation to combat Russia. With a weak US, the fault lines between China and Russia will be exposed.
Russia, just like the US, has a tradition of imperial expansionism. China and Europe, having no geopolitical clashes, will become more friendly with each other as they have strong economic ties. China has set up the 16+1 platform with Central and Eastern Europe. Western Europe is worried that this initiative will split the European Union (EU). However, if Russia becomes an enemy of the EU, then the relationship between EU and China will turn for the better.
Trump’s presidency will affect China the most. China should not wrongly assume that the US is going downhill. In fact, China should not try to kick the US out of the Asia-Pacific region, as it needs the US to play the important role of peace keeper for the world. Even if Trump will be harsh on China, he would still agree to exchange interests with China.
China was once beaten by imperialism, leading to the loss of geopolitical influence over Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, the South China Sea, etc. With China now on an ascending trajectory, its geopolitical influence will definitely expand. Even if its future economic growth remains at 5-6 percent, China will still become the world’s biggest economy. Many Southeast Asian countries will get closer to China; Malaysia and the Philippines are currently adjusting their relationships with China, next will be Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. But the adjustment will be carried out over a long period of time.
China’s geopolitical influence will have a major impact on political systems in the region. In the past, political systems in East Asia were influenced by Western geopolitics. Now, under the geopolitical influence of China, Hong Kong will be the first to feel the impact. Its current “One Country Two Systems” structure may gradually morph into “One Country” only. Similarly, Taiwanese politics will be directly affected.
China should view this critical transformation with rationality. It might lead to a breakthrough in solving the Taiwan issue. In terms of trade and economy, China and Taiwan are linked inextricably. Tsai Ing-wen, since becoming the leader of Taiwan, has refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus in the “One China” framework. China did not really act on it, but a drop in tourist arrivals from mainland China has already had a negative impact on Taiwan’s economy. If China decides to come down harder on Taiwan in terms of policy actions, the Taiwanese economy will suffer even more. Thus, it is possible to solve the Taiwan issue peacefully.
Although some Southeast Asian countries will lean closer to China, it does not mean that China will change their political systems. However, they will adjust themselves to achieve coexistence with the Chinese system. Asia has all along been a region that exemplifies “unity in diversity;” it will find common ground for mutual development in the absence of an external superpower like the US.
Review: Should China be prepared for trade protectionism from the US?
We should not hold Trump to his words said during the election. There is much difference between election rhetoric and policies. Basically, I believe that the US needs to adjust its neoliberal globalization. I do not quite believe that the US will build a wall on the Mexican border and that the US will shut its doors to the outside world. The US is strong because of its openness; if it closes up, its decline will be faster. This is not what Trump wants; he wants to “Make America Great Again.”
The most Trump can do is to amend, not abolish free trade. There will be disruptions to US-China trade, but it does not mean that globalization will wind to a halt after Trump becomes president. There are people who say that the US has a tradition of isolationism. My view is that the US did isolate itself before 1890. However, during that period, it expanded itself peripherally and was only closed off to world affairs.
The US has interests all over the world. What the US needs to do is to adjust and protect, but not retract, its interests. Trump, or any other US presidents, would not be able to withdraw US interests. That is because the White House cannot control Wall Street and US enterprises. In the short term, the US economy will be affected by new Trump policies, but they should not make any major impact over the long term.
Initiatives like the TPP will meet their end. I expect Trump to emphasize on bilateral free trade, in the form of bilateral free trade agreements between the US and major economies. It is easier to achieve fairness in bilateral free trade, so China should not be too worried.