US President-elect Donald J. Trump’s electoral upset last week sent shockwaves through Washington’s traditional political class who were planning for months for Hillary Clinton’s ascendance to the presidency. President Obama — who saw his once political rival, now the successor to carry on his legacy — had even scheduled a party at the White House. Short of picking out Bill Clinton’s office space in the East Wing, the Clinton II administration in waiting was already rolling out shortlists of their cabinet picks and fleshing out Clinton’s first 100 days.
Expectations were running so high that her team confidently assumed Clinton was not just in reach of a Democratic majority in the Senate but one in the House as well. Instead, of investing resources in her traditional blue states, she went so far as to campaign in Arizona, thinking that a surge of voters would come as a result of the president-elect’s stances on immigration.
A red reality
But, as the numbers came pouring in, the reality was a lot more red than blue from Wisconsin to Florida. Democratic pundits and political commentators assumed that Obama’s broad diverse electoral coalition was demographically formidable to the Republican Party’s much less diverse coalition. Many of these commentators would harp that it would be decades before the Republican Party could place one of their candidates in the White House.
While there will be months of analyses and replays of how her election loss was missed, her campaign had deeply underestimated the desire for change in critical parts of the country she flew over and invested a lot less resources in. While Hillary Clinton indeed secured the popular vote, what Clinton didn’t secure was the “rust belt,” which didn’t bleed blue as her pollsters predicted but deep red. Her campaign and the Washington political establishment had both overlooked and ignored for too long voices outside of Washington and Wall Street. She also lost every major swing state except for Virginia, which she narrowly won. The Democrat Party also failed to secure a majority of the Senate or the House. It wasn’t her legally questionable email practices that cost her the election, but simply, Clinton couldn’t sell her case well enough to the American people. There was a red path to the White House and now Donald J. Trump not Hillary Clinton will occupy the presidency for not just four years but possibly eight years.
A moment for unity
As a Republican who expressed deep reservations about some of the policies the president-elect articulated and some of the actions he took on the campaign trail, this election outcome indeed was initially a shock. I never though was a signer of #NeverTrump letters. Unlike many members of the Republican political and intellectual establishment in Washington who are either going to hold their nose and not work with the new president or those in the Democrat Party who now see opposition to Trump as their now raison d’etre, the moment is now not for division but for unity.
In his election night victory speech, Donald Trump set a tone of engagement and inclusivity. His subsequent statements have further re-enforced this tone. His policies have also importantly not been unveiled yet nor his entire cabinet. It would be a mistake to judge Donald Trump’s presidency on the rough and tumble of a long campaign. It’s an opportunity now to move beyond the divisive and partisan rhetoric of this long political season and to support and to work with the new president and his incoming administration to address the deep challenges facing the US.
Many in Washington had become frankly too immersed in a bubble and new perspectives on domestic and international policies are needed. These challenges require participation in the policymaking process not obstruction. Before one tries to close the book on his presidency, take this moment as a new beginning to solve old and new problems.
A new beginning
In the early days of a presidential transfer of power, there’s a rampant temptation to assume that the contest of ideas that is naturally part of a presidential campaign purely translates how the victor (the president-elect) will act (just look at the presidential campaigns of Kennedy and Reagan) on the domestic arena and the world stage. President-elect Trump will certainly approach the presidency differently than President Obama. They have distinct philosophies on the role of government and what their priorities are. The Republican Party naturally is a different home than the Democratic Party.
In the foreign arena, one can likely expect still a deep weighted focus on domestic challenges, but importantly, a renewed focus on ensuring that the American people and US companies’ can compete more effectively in the global economy. From President Clinton to Obama, repeated presidential administrations effectively addressed the costs of globalization. The president-elect will likely put a priority then on rebalancing and strengthening economic partnerships abroad, alongside the traditional security and strategic dimensions of relationships. At the same time, an increased focus on security of the US and its citizens measured with restraint abroad will be prioritized. A President Trump will put a large focus on ensuring the US military has the capabilities to protect the homeland and ensure its interests abroad (the US navy has been for too long neglected). It’s not a surprise then that a President Trump would focus more on defeating Daesh in Syria and Iraq than ousting President Assad. A President Trump will be less focused on nation-building abroad when challenges at home are a priority.
Alliances will be important for the US but it doesn’t mean that Washington alone can carry the costs of these partnerships. A President Trump will not give the same free pass to Iran as President Obama did, but on the other hand, he will not give a blank check to allies in the region if the US’ interests aren’t advanced as well. The US will equally expect more from its regional partners to address regional challenges. This isn’t so much an abdication of US global leadership (as some would harp) but a recognition that Washington needs to be strong at home to be effective abroad and to actually have actual allies not just states that free-ride. It’s importantly then a new beginning and neither Washington nor its allies should miss out on this opportunity to build a stronger, safer, and freer world.
• Andrew Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center.