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30th Apr 2017

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Trump: The day that shook the Western world

  • Brexit figure Nigel Farage was the first European political leader to be received by the new US president Donald Trump after his election in November. (Photo: Reuters)

For anyone who thought that the Brexit vote in June would mark the year's biggest political upset, the real earthquake came on 8 November - the day the US elected Donald Trump.

As with British pollsters and Brexit, US pollsters had predicted that the controversial property developer would lose.

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  • Obama's departure and Trump's election leave German chancellor Merkel on the forefront in the global arena to defend the values that have maintained world order for the past 70 years. (Photo: Bundesregierung/Denzel)

The moment that his victory became clear, at about 8:00 a.m. Brussels time on 9 November, US diplomats in the EU capital began saying he would govern more soberly than he had campaigned.

Foreign policy experts said Trump, who has no political experience, would submit to the tutelage of the Republican Party just as actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan had done in the 1980s.

During his final tour of Europe in November, outgoing president Barack Obama also said that the “solemnity” of Trump’s new office would prompt moderation.

Most EU leaders greeted the outcome as though they agreed with Obama.

British prime minister Theresa May said she would be Trump’s "strong and close" partner "on trade, security and defence". The EU Council and European Commission chiefs invited him to Brussels at his “earliest convenience”.

Some right-wing EU leaders welcomed Trump, saying that his nationalist politics was a vindication of their own views.

"It’s been a while since I've been there, since they treated me like a black sheep," Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said after Trump invited him to the White House.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful politician, was among the few who voiced alarm.

She said she was willing to cooperate with Trump, but only on the basis of “values” including respect for the “dignity of every individual, irrespective of origin, colour, religion, sex”.

End of an era?

Her mention of values came after Trump whipped up racist and sexist hysteria at his campaign rallies.

He said Mexicans were “rapists” and that Muslims were “terrorists”. He also degraded women and disabled people. In remarks made prior to the campaign, but which surfaced during it, he boasted about grabbing women “by the pussy”.

In terms of future US policy, he spoke of firing a “nuke” at the Islamic State militant group in Syria. He said Nato was “obsolete”, promised to “look into” recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and vowed to scrap the Paris accord on global warming.

“FUUUCK!” Mexico City’s newspaper, El Grafico, printed on its front page on 9 November, in a vulgarism that matched Trump’s own shock tactics.

“American Psycho”, said Liberation, a left-wing French daily.

The US has had controversial leaders in the recent past, such as the inarticulate George W Bush whose invasion of Iraq in 2003 destabilised the Middle East, discredited America’s image overseas and caused a rift with France and Germany.

But if Trump’s campaign remarks end up becoming policy, then the coming rupture in EU-US relations could make the Iraq war moment look insignificant.

If he tries to do a deal with China and Russia to divide the world into spheres of influence, that could mean the end of the post-World War II transatlantic alliance.

It could also mean the end of the Western-led, rules-based, post-Cold War world order.

EU holds its breath

Trump, whose administration will enter into office after 20 January, has tried to sound conciliatory and statesman-like since the election, but he has given scant ground for optimism.

He has pledged to “normalise” ties with Russia, even though Moscow continues to wage war in Ukraine and to massacre civilians in Syria.

He has displayed his ignorance of international affairs by, for instance, telling the UK who to appoint as its US ambassador in a protocol fiasco.

With EU chancelleries watching whom he picks for his new team as a sign of his intentions, he has also named divisive figures for top posts.

His national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is a man who recently tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”, because they wanted to enslave humanity.

His intelligence chief, Mike Pompeo, has said it was acceptable to torture terrorism suspects.

Trump’s new environmental protection head, Myron Ebell, thinks climate change does not exist.

Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was chairman of Breitbart, a hard-right news website that was accused of spreading conspiracy theories and other disinformation during the campaign.

War of ideas

Even if Trump’s presidency ends up being more tame than many expect, his victory has struck an ideological blow against the EU.

The spectacle of a right-wing populist becoming the most powerful person in the world comes amid a war of ideas in Europe.

Far-right and anti-EU parties such as the National Front in France and the AfD in Germany hailed Trump’s victory, as they had hailed Brexit before it, as a propitious omen.

Trump has helped directly by pledging to “work with” the National Front and by lifting Brexit frontman Nigel Farage to international fame via personal meetings.

The Breitbart website has said it would launch operations in Europe, in a project set to feed more hard-right content to EU audiences.

The Trump campaign also showed, more broadly, the power of disinformation to steer public debate.

Some pro-Trump outlets fed voters a steady diet of fake stories that gained traction on social media even after normal newspapers had debunked them in what came to be called “post-truth” politics.

Pro-Trump trolling, as with anti-EU, and pro-Russia trolling is now likely to become a bigger feature in the European information theatre.

Merkel stands alone

Many consider that Trump's ascendancy has left Germany’s Angela Merkel almost the lone defender of liberal values on the world stage.

She has international stature but, for all the EU’s talk of military integration, she has no army strong enough to defend EU territory or to project its influence overseas.

She is expected to win next year’s election, but she is also likely to emerge bruised from the fight, in which AfD, on recent form, could grab more than 20 percent of the vote.

Obama warned that if Trump did not take his new office seriously, then he would not keep it long, because of the harsh scrutiny placed upon White House incumbents.

Trump has broken with past form by refusing to divest his business assets into a blind trust, handing control to his close family instead.

That creates fertile ground for conflicts of interest.

Under the US constitution, elected officials are not allowed to receive “emoluments” from foreign rulers or states. If any of Trump’s companies got special treatment from foreign partners due to his post then he might fall foul of that law.

There is no judicial precedent for impeaching a president over emoluments and there would be no incentive for fellow Republican Party members to go after his head, however.

He has already gotten away with an outrageous campaign. With all the levers of power in his hands, he might get away with larceny as well.

This story was first published in EUobserver's Europe in Review 2016 magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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