Mar 2016
Fri, 18 Mar 2016

US Election – A House Divided

Article by Freya Zemek
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On the eve of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made the now famous remark, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In 2016, eight months out from the presidential election, it is eerie how much that quote resonates with the social and political landscape of the US today. For the competition to ‘Make America Great Again’ has mostly served to make America greatly divided. This has manifested itself in the spate of violent outbursts at Donald Trump rallies across the country in recent days.

This begs the question: how can businesses, or foreign states for that matter, transact with an entity that is so bitterly at odds with itself? After all, it stands to reason that this environment may not inspire the confidence of foreign investors, notwithstanding the more favourable economic conditions in the US, relative to the rest of the world. We can see this already in the economic reform agendas of the current contenders.  Firstly in the Republican camp, Donald Trump has continued to notch up victories in caucuses across the country, making him the likely Republican presidential candidate come November. What Donald Trump’s ascension amounts to is an unambiguous rejection of the GOP establishment by many white voters. Economically, Trump has positioned himself as the champion of the white American worker, with incendiary comments proposing to increase tariffs on Chinese manufactured goods.

Meanwhile on the Democratic side, with the gravitational pull of Senator Bernie Sanders towards the left, frontrunner Hillary Clinton has become more outspoken on addressing income inequality, an issue which plays a key role in shaping the growing divide and disillusionment in American politics and society.

Trump Clinton

The implications of this protracted infighting are significant for Australian foreign policy. For instance, the perception that American jobs are more vulnerable under a free trade regime has gained currency among the general public in the US. This is a dynamic which Donald Trump has capitalised on, with rhetoric portraying Americans as “innocent victims of free trade”. Even Hillary Clinton, who previously championed free trade in her role as Secretary of State, has retreated behind protectionist lines to accord with populist sentiment. Without strong advocacy from business stakeholders in support of ratification, this rhetorical shift away from free trade threatens to stall passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), especially if it is not voted on until after President Obama leaves office.

On foreign policy issues beyond trade, Hillary Clinton’s position is already well established, and Australia’s relationship with the US would likely deepen with a Clinton White House. Trump, however, is a dark horse. His foreign policy platforms articulated thus far on the campaign trail have lacked the credible authority and coherence lent by advisers, making it hard to tell what factors – beyond populist anger – are truly driving his agenda. Despite it being difficult at times to separate the signal from the noise in Trump’s campaign, there is no mistaking his hard-line approach to friend and foe alike.

After Tuesday’s series of victories by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, particularly in crucial swing states such as Florida and North Carolina, it may look increasingly like a two-horse race between Trump and Clinton. Yet underpinning this picture is a fragmented body politic within the United States. Rest assured, this race is far from over.