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Making sense of America's election

We live in an age when the nationalist strongman is ascendant. He takes authoritarian form in places like Russia and China, as well as democratic form in countries such as Japan, India, the Philippines and now the United States.

Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election has shocked both Democratic and Republican mandarins, who were convinced that he would mobilize more people against his candidacy than for it. In fact, this was a change election -- after eight years of a Democratic presidency -- that swept Republicans into power across the board, giving them unified control of the American government's executive and legislative branches. Trump will ride a tidal wave of popular support into the Oval Office, overturning Washington's established order.

American leaders of all stripes need to acknowledge that Trump's message had traction with a substantial portion of the nation -- including many blue-collar Democrats who crossed party lines to support him. Voters were willing to overlook his personal shortcomings, volatile temperament and lack of political experience in favor of his argument that Washington needed an outsider-businessman who could deliver radical change to a troubled nation.

Trump's election is a damning indictment of the alienation of America's political class from the concerns of average voters. A corollary of this trend is people's mistrust of governing institutions, and of political and economic elites. Voters have overcompensated for their sense of grievance and desire for root-and-branch reform by electing a political outsider who has never held elected office.

Trump's election is also a backlash against the legacy of President Barack Obama. Median household incomes grew by 0% during the eight years of his presidency. Political gridlock in Washington intensified, not only because of Republican obstreperousness but because Obama had strained relations with the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill.

Trump's election success was compounded by the discord within a Democratic party that was riven by Senator Bernie Sanders' populist challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. She was unable to mobilize the coalition of minority voters who supported Obama. She also faced serious headwinds caused by her status as an establishment politician -- and the fact that most voters think the country is on the wrong track and wanted a sharp break from the Obama years.

Angry American voters of all persuasions have seen their country's exceptionalism undercut not only at home but abroad. During the Obama years, strongmen in Russia and China secured strategic gains at American expense. The Middle East collapsed into an anarchy that produced the rise of the Islamic State group, making Americans feel more vulnerable to foreign adversaries as well as to home-grown terrorism.

Trump successfully tapped into a deep seam of discontent with the country's apparent drift over the past decade. His argument that "we never win anymore" reflects a conviction that globalization and technological transformation have produced an underside of displaced labor and intensified competition from abroad.

His call to "make America great again" taps into a popular desire for the U.S. to be respected on the global stage. His message that elites have corrupted the country calls for major reform of governing institutions and practices, reconnecting the nation's capital with its heartland through common-sense reforms to spending, taxes and entitlements.

International dimensions

What are the foreign policy consequences of the American elections? Expect a more nationalistic definition of the American self-interest, whether in Asia, Europe or the Middle East. This need not be isolationist -- during the campaign, Trump promised to ramp up military action against IS and to increase defense spending. But he will face a steep learning curve; in a dangerous and more competitive world, America's margin for strategic error is much reduced.

With regard to economic statecraft, Trump did not vow to abandon American trade leadership, but rather to negotiate deals that are more advantageous to the U.S. He has no interest in starting a trade war that would lead markets to collapse, even if he does seek better terms from selected trading partners.

Hopefully, Trump will step back from his loose talk about abandoning American allies, as the gravity of leadership of the free world sinks in. He may be too busy pursuing a revolution in governance at home to do the same thing in foreign policy, instead delegating it to trusted advisors who are more likely to stay the course. But it is simply too soon to tell.

With the re-election of key senators such as John McCain, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio, Congress will continue to be led by Republican internationalists who will not wish to cede American leadership, upend U.S. alliance commitments or throw up protectionist barriers to trade.

Trump could set the tone by doing some early deals with Congress on key priorities, demonstrating that government can devise solutions to national challenges. He could appoint a cabinet of respected senior figures that would reassure the country and the world. He could reach out to Democrats, who will otherwise work concertedly to confound his every move.

New polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that most Americans want to maintain or increase U.S. commitment to its allies, while a majority supports free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Trump has been masterful in running an unorthodox political campaign by tapping into the public mood. Will he be equally responsive in office to public opinion, which remains broadly internationalist and does not want to abandon America's commitment to global leadership of an open economic and political order?

Daniel Twining is a director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former member of the U.S. Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff during the George W. Bush administration.

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