After a 16-month campaign, Donald Trump has been elected as the next president of the United States. We ask Professor Ronald Pruessen, affiliated faculty with the Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School of Global Affairs, for his thoughts on the U.S. electoral campaign and the future of American politics.

What were some of the distinctive features of the 2016 U.S. presidential election?

We had a very unique candidate in Donald Trump. Not since the 1940s did we have such an outsider enter the political arena. It says something about the nature of politics today that a high profile figure of the world of entertainment and reality TV like Trump could clinch the Republican nomination. Even Reagan, who was an actor, had political experience – not least as governor of California. Trump had nothing like that. He was facing the first woman nominated as candidate of a major political party. It’s a feature that has attracted remarkably little attention, but it’s still worth noting.

What is it that could produce such a unique election?

Certainly the fact you have a society under great stress. We are dealing with major political and economic difficulties which carry all sorts of emotional and social consequences – gun violence, racial tensions, divisive attitudes towards immigrants. You’d have to go back to 1968 to find the same kind of intensity in American politics. The problems to which America is confronted are endemic issues that go beyond its own borders. It’s worse than it’s ever been. There was a time when things seemed to be better due to the increasing size of the middle class. But now, partly due to global movements, deregulation in the financial sector, the U.S. tax system and so on, you see rising social, economic and political inequalities that fuel intransigence. I don’t find it difficult to imagine that there will be a crisis moment when these tensions will become explosive.

What might be the immediate outcome of a Trump presidency? And what does it mean for the Republican Party?

We may expect something really quite ugly following Trump’s win. In fact, the ugly has already happened: you have such a large number of key figures within the Republican Party who have held their noses while endorsing Trump. It might get worse and you can expect others to follow suit. We had signals of this shift before, like the emergence of the Tea Party. But even if it’s not totally new, there was something distinctly more intense going on this time around.

The ground has constantly shifted within the U.S. political system, with new leadership coming along to replace the old one. Like in any democracy, American parties experience huge moments of turmoil and passion, followed by respite. American voters have short memories; they are notoriously fickle in terms of their loyalties. Ironically, this election could see either very dramatic changes in the U.S. or almost no changes at all – as citizens heave a sigh of relief and get back to their normal lives (as much as that’s possible given the problems the country is facing).

We’ve seen particularly polarized and polarizing arguments during this campaign. Should we expect this trend to continue in the foreseeable future?

There are a few things that I found particularly concerning during this campaign. With 24/7 news channels, competing media conglomerates, and the Internet, there’s an amazing capacity for manipulation and misinformation. The amount of blatantly false or distorted information that has circulated online in the past few months is astonishing, especially when you have demagogues who are anxious to exploit this environment. Trump is a stunning example of this, but virtually every other Republican rival was very similar in terms of their readiness to manipulate information – he just did it better, which is a pretty dubious prize.

How can a victorious Trump regain the confidence of a very large number of Americans who certainly don’t share the same views?

I don’t think it’s going to happen. These profound divisions are built into American society; they have existed for decades. Whether it’s Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, or Obama, no one has figured out how to make them disappear. The United States is a deeply fragmented nation; it’s the result of the incredible regional diversity you find from coast-to-coast, which produces a lot of cultural and economic differences. We’ve seen, however, an increasingly dysfunctional political system in recent years, with one party controlling the White House, the other Congress. It’s becoming more and more difficult for the government, and particularly for the executive branch, to deal effectively with the issues confronting America. We see the rise of extreme partisan views and a rejection of bipartisan solutions, especially among obstructionist Republicans, which makes it hard to address these challenges. The nature of the problems is such that it’s likely to be more of the same.

November 9, 2016

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