Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for liberal values

Democracy is changing, and not for the better, but those who believe in liberal values, tolerance and protecting the environment can learn from this setback and fight back

Wednesday 09 November 2016 19:52 GMT
Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States
Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States

Something big has changed in democracy. The Brexit referendum vote in the UK was not a one-off. Donald Trump’s victory is part of a revolution sweeping through the developed world. The Austrian, French and German elections will present the next fronts, with Norbert Hofer, Marine Le Pen and Alternative for Germany poised further to disrupt the established order.

The result of the United States presidential election was not the one The Independent wanted. The new politics is unpredictable. Just as in the referendum in June, millions of people who do not usually vote turned out to vote against the liberal establishment. The US opinion polls, normally pretty accurate, were taken by surprise, and for the second time in five months we were treated to an unwelcome overnight shock.

Many things about Mr Trump are deeply worrying for those who cleave to liberal, internationalist and green values. In the election campaign he did the opposite of appealing to Lincoln’s better angels of Americans’ nature. His victory is a setback for the cause of equal rights for women and minorities, and a setback for tolerance. The consequences for free trade are alarming, as are those for steadiness in international relations. And the prospects for further progress in dealing with climate change are dismal.

We were disappointed, therefore, by Theresa May’s stiffly formal congratulations for Mr Trump. It was perfectly proper for her to look forward to working with the President-elect, “to ensure the security and prosperity of our nations in the years ahead”, but we rather admired Angela Merkel’s more pointed message. The German Chancellor said: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”

That is more like it. At least Ms Merkel shows some fight in the face of adversity. Her statement is a good guide to how proponents of the great and noble cause of liberal values should respond to Mr Trump’s election.

Once we have got over the shock of the unexpected, there are some important truths to cling to. Hillary Clinton did not lose badly. She won more votes than her opponent (Mr Trump may offer change but one of the things he will not reform is the antiquated US electoral college system). Although the Brexit-Trump phenomenon is powerful and new, it does not mean that centrist liberal politics is dead.

However, if centrist liberalism is to survive it must learn some deep lessons and renew itself. The wrong response to defeat is to blame the American voters for their stupidity or prejudice, just as the wrong response to the Brexit vote was to deride Leavers for not knowing what they were doing and to assume that they would soon realise their mistake.

Another insufficient response would be for those who disagree with the (narrow) winners to wait with relish for the empty promises of change to trigger the backlash. Mr Trump will not be able to satisfy the incoherent demands of his voters, just as leaving the EU will not solve many of the problems of those who voted for Brexit.

That said, a successful and confident liberalism has to understand why the voters behaved the way they did – and not simply to make a show of listening but to work out how to make a better life for the millions of people who feel left behind.

The Independent believes that, with the right leadership, liberalism can win again, but it must deal honestly and straightforwardly with the question of immigration, and it must speak in a language that everyone can understand.

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