When historians look back on 2016, they are bound to see it as the year everything changed. Five months after Britain voted to leave the European Union, both the British government and EU institutions remain mired in uncertainty. That has been deepened by the unexpected election of Donald Trump to the White House.
We are told that both outcomes were due to voters in Britain and the United States feeling so disillusioned with globalisation and their own political élitesthat they were prepared to gamble with the future. Since they felt they had no stake in the system, they saw no reason not to tear it down and start again. One stark fact shows how reckless such a sentiment could be: just over a fifth of Trump’s supporters thought he would start a nuclear war, yet voted for him anyway.
It is telling that Trump himself saw events in Britain and the US as connected, promising ‘Brexit plus plus’ during his campaign. But since Brexit has left Britain contemplating a future in which, according to its own Chancellor, growth is expected to slump, causing tax revenues to plunge and national debt to rise to around 90 per cent of GDP, one wonders what the President-elect meant by such a slogan.
An American foreign-policy expert who has examined Trump’s statements on foreign policy since the 1980s says he does have a consistent view of the world: he is against US alliances, opposes free trade and supports authoritarianism. Asian countries have already had evidence of the second on that list, with Trump announcing that he will scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty the day he takes office.
As for the first and third, American allies in Asia and beyond have cause for concern. Not only has the future President questioned the purpose of Nato, his public admiration of Russia’s Vladimir Putin has led many in Europe to fear that he would not come to the aid of the former Soviet-ruled Baltic states, for example, if they suffered Russian encroachment or annexation, in the manner of Crimea. Certainly Putin is unlikely to expect any interference as he wades through blood to keep Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power.
A much-quoted comment has it that the US establishment – the Washington political class, the media and the polls – misread what was to happen because they took Trump literally but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally. So they did not regard his insults to women as making him unfit for office, or expect him actually to build a wall the whole length of the US-Mexico border, let alone get Mexico to pay for it. The optimistic reading is that we should look at what Trump does rather than what he says, though that too raises many questions.
The President-to-be has made it clear, for example, that he sees no conflict between his business dealings and his political role. He allowed his daughter, who is among family members he has named to run his empire while he is in office, to sit in on his first visit with a foreign leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Many fear that Trump’s foreign policy will simply be an extension of his extensive business interests around the world, with ample scope for corruption allegations.
But it can be argued that Brexit will do more permanent damage than Donald Trump. Not only has the President-elect sought to sound a little more moderate as his transition period goes on, possibly beginning to realise the awesome responsibilities that now fall to him, but many believe the American system of checks and balances will curb some, if not all, of his unthinking impulses. And in four years he could be gone.
Four years, on the other hand, may barely be enough to appreciate the consequences of Brexit. Given the present state of confusion in London, it is possible that the process of leaving the EU will barely have begun. But in the meantime, Britain and Europe have been weakened, at a moment when Trump’s election has the world facing great uncertainty. It is the combination of the two events – Brexit and Trump – that is dangerous.