Dispossessed by economic globalisation, faced with growing economic inequality, and wanting change, the people of the United States have elected Donald Trump to be their President. In doing so, they voted for the unknown, for rhetoric that may or may not be met by commensurate action, and for a man without political or military experience.
In his campaign, Mr Trump skilfully exploited what has become known as post-factual politics. This is the practice whereby someone in, or running for, high office, speaks untruths, draws factually incorrect conclusions, makes assertions, provides no policy details, and has no consistent philosophy.
The inference was that US voter anger and sentiment existed to be rendered not into practical alternatives, but used to drive a belief that the individual, in this case Mr Trump, has the ability and knows best how to transform the lives of voters.
Since his election victory Mr Trump has been emollient.
The first test of his intentions, however, will come in his choice of cabinet and senior advisers. But of much greater significance will be hearing how the President-elect intends to meet his domestic agenda, the area where his supporters expect rapid change, and the consequent impact his approach may have on US external trade policy.
For him the strong recovery of the US economy and the US national interest is paramount. If he is to deliver, he must focus not just on building infrastructure, but on finding ways that create higher value employment. He will also have to create low-skilled jobs in the old and dying economy of the rust belt in ways that make economic sense at a time when other nations are moving to automation and robotics.
This suggests that an early priority for Mr Trump will be to protect the US economy through a repudiation of the world trade system, if it does not accept his thinking, and to perhaps bring about some form of economic confrontation with China.
If the new President is true to his word, and the Republican establishment, the US’ traditional allies, and realpolitik do not restrain him, his policy will be isolationist and protectionist, and unburdened by ideology. His words would also appear to mean the rewinding of economic history and that US foreign, security and trade policy will have to change accordingly.
Judging from what Mr Trump has said previously, he sees little value in trying to change other countries’ systems. For him relationships are about winning, and extracting the maximum economic value for the US. As an aggressive deal maker, he places value on strong authoritarian leadership, a huge defence budget and the decisive use of military might only when absolutely necessary. He is adamant that others countries will in one way or another have to pay their way if they expect US support.
If a Trump presidency were to be consistent with the approach that he outlined during his campaign, one can see many practical problems emerging for the Caribbean and Latin America.
His stated intention to make Mexico pay the United States to secure its borders from flows of illegal Hispanic migrants appears likely to pose the most immediate challenge. If it happens, it may cause hemispheric groupings like the Organisation of American States (OAS) or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to have to take a position, potentially pitting the rest of the hemisphere against the US.
Mr Trump has also in recent months been highly critical of Venezuela and Cuba. He has made clear, in Cuba’s case, that he would want a transactional relationship. He intends, he said, to “make it rough …. until a really good deal can be made for the Cuban people and for the United States.” “We have to make a deal that’s good for the Cuban people and I would make sure that the deal is either made, or I’d have nothing to do with them,” he told a Miami radio station just a few days before being elected. It is a proposition Havana is unlikely to respond well to.
If true to his word, within days of taking office, he will, by executive action, attempt to tear up the recently ratified global agreement on climate change, a text of existential importance to the Caribbean. It will be a decision that will require the region to react.
He has also said that he will abandon existing trade deals. If he is genuinely intent on doing this, it is not hard to see his administration making demands for access for US goods and services on the basis of reciprocity. It is also possible that tax penalties would be levied on those US manufacturers who have offshored their manufacturing or assembly plants into locations like the Caribbean to take advantage of a more favourable tax environment. One might also imagine a Trump Administration expressing concern about China’s growing and central role in investment to access the US market in manufacturing and services in the Caribbean region.
Translated into Caribbean terms, other aspects of his professed approach may mean his administration will require the Caribbean to fully meet the costs of its own security; for example, guaranteeing the safety of US visitors. More positively, however, Mr Trump understands tourism and real estate development, and it may be that this will be the positive optic through which he and his administration comes to view the Caribbean.
Earlier this year, this column observed that the election of a President Trump would have clear implications for the Caribbean. It noted that the region has become used to the global status quo that has emerged since the Second World War, the rules driven trade system at the WTO, multilateral treaties, and organisations such as the UN that have given even the smallest countries a global voice, based on a recognised need for consensus.
It is worth repeating that if the US President-elect is intent on delivering even a part of his stated policy, the Caribbean is ill-prepared to address his brand of twenty-first century politics.