U.S. Presidential Election 2016: Implications for Transatlantic Relations

James D. Bindenagel

University of Bonn

James D. Bindenagel is a retired U.S. Ambassador, Henry-Kissinger-Professor (Emeritus) at Bonn University, and Senior Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He has published: Germany: From Peace to Power? Can Germany Lead in Europe without Dominating it? (2020) and International Sicherheit im 21. Jahrhundert, Deutschlands Verantwortung (2015), both published by V&R Bonn for Bonn University.

November 8 is Election Day in America.  The U.S. has not one national election, but fifty state elections with 135 million voters, 538 Electors in the Electoral College.  270 Electors’ votes are needed to win.

Hillary Clinton’s lead in the national polls has dropped from 12 points to 6 and now to 2 in the last days. Swing states are decisive and if the voting is close a majority in the Electoral College can be determined by just a few hundred thousand votes, not millions.  Can Donald Trump win? Yes, it is possible.

Fundamentally, getting out the vote is key to winning. Hillary Clinton has a strong, traditional ground game to mobilize as many voters as possible. Donald Trump relies on his media stardom, social media, and the anger of the disadvantaged, the disinherited, the demoralized, those lost from globalization, digitalization, and technological change. The elites neglect of these voters’ views and the impact of these tectonic changes on lives has stoked the fires of Trump’s populism.  Will that be enough to win?

The Republican

This was always a presidential election for the Republicans to lose.  After a two-term Democrat and an 8-year campaign against the president and with a Democratic candidate hated by the Republicans, the call for change is powerful.  Can Donald Trump still win?  Three key points indicate Trump’s chances.

One, Donald Trump’s answer to the third debate moderator Chris Wallace question: “Will you accept the result of this election?” was “I’ll look at it at the time.”  Trump’s attack was against the centuries-old basis of American democracy and our peaceful transition of power. That comment demonstrated what is at stake in the U.S. presidential election on November 8, 2016.

Two, after Trump’s own statements in a 2005 video about sexually assaulting women hit a sensitive nerve, Hillary Clinton moved 11 points ahead of Trump in a CNN/Wall Street Journal poll. As a result of Trump’s attack on women and others, traditional conservatives have dropped endorsements of their presidential candidate.

Three, President Abraham Lincoln said that you can fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.  Donald Trump is working on fooling enough people some of the time in order to win.  Can he? Here is his case.

Donald Trump, the son of a wealthy real estate business man and a real estate salesman as well as former beauty pageant owner, led an aggressive campaign on the path to winning the Republican Party presidential nomination. Donald Trump’s media stardom brought him into millions of homes as the star in the TV show “The Apprentice.” His media savvy brought him billions of dollars in free TV time.  His use of social media should motivate his base to vote and bring new voters to tip his bid to win in the battleground states.

Trump has cleverly tapped the white working class, white evangelicals, voters without college degrees, and voters who have lost a sense of connectedness to their communities and country.  He honed his television celebrity and dominated the news with Twitter messages and outrageous statements that drove TV ratings and income. He defies political correctness as an outsider, establishing himself as a successful businessman rather than a politician.

He tapped into anger over eroding middle class income, loss of identity, anti-establishment fervor, along with anger against Wall Street for greater disparity of income, banks recklessly gambling financially, causing economic recession, and Obama’s perceived weak leadership to fight wars.  Trump stoked the fires of fear of immigrants and Muslims, insulting the military, the handicapped, women, and others.

He shamelessly tapped partisan divisions especially driven by the GOP against Obama, deep discontent in the public borne of two inconclusive and expensive wars, a Great Recession with sluggish growth, and fears of lost identity by White Americans. This excursion may help explain Trump’s Mexican Wall, his attacks against Latinos, Muslims, women, and others as his way to align with the discontented to protect their group(s).  Calling the discontented racist or intolerant falls on deaf ears since they do not consider themselves as such.  Consequently, the debate falls into the pit and truth, lies, facts do not matter.

The Trump phenomenon has roots in his authoritarianism.  He pushed the public’s authoritarian button with his wild emphasis on charges that a tolerant American society has robbed the discontented of jobs, religion, guns, community, and identity.  He has pumped up those fearful of the open society and fanned parochialism with discrimination, intolerance, and promises of a “return to greatness.”  If one adds his enablers who choose to collaborate with him in the hopeless hope they can control him, they, too, share responsibility for the embarrassing, deplorable politics of this presidential election campaign.

America’s international leadership has been damaged by the Trump candidature.  His rejection of NATO’s Article 5 guarantee, his call to renegotiate trade treaties, his support for isolationism, his demands to ban Muslim immigration, his plan to erect a wall against Mexico, his rejection of the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are all deeply disturbing.  He misunderstands the fundamentals of non-proliferation, and encourages Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons. He remains a dangerous candidate to lead the United States. He refuses to recognize the legitimacy of American democracy.

The Democrat

Hillary Clinton, the first women to be nominated for president, is a lawyer as well as former First Lady, Senator, Presidential Candidate, and Secretary of State. She has high negatives in the public, but has fought back in the face of several Trump challenges. She has myriad policies in her platform on economic growth, health care, ISIS terrorism, trade, status of women, and respect for human dignity.

In foreign policy, Secretary Clinton is more interventionist than President Obama and many in the Democratic Party. She advocated military action to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and voted for the war in Iraq, although she later said it was a mistake. Clinton is a “smart power” advocate and believes in using diplomacy and development in the pursuit of American interests. Unfortunately, the campaign has had little substantive debate.  In the long term the rising GOP isolationism connects with the Bernie Sanders Democrats.

Democrats are divided between progressives and moderates and have begun to consolidate a winning political message of good governance and facts. She leads in national polls by some 12 points and is competitive in the key swing states. She needs to win Millennials and all those in the Obama coalition for her victory.

Clinton needs Senator Sander’s voters, who have not come to her. Sanders also touched the anger of the anti-establishment voters who reject Clinton’s establishment stand on the unequal distribution of productivity gains to the top 1 percent of income earners and other elite positions from a lifetime in politics.

She is counting on the ground game to get out the vote.

The Vote and Afterward

Voter turnout will be decisive. Clinton is pursuing a traditional get-out-the-vote “ground game.”  Trump is relying on his entertainment media fame from years of appearing in millions of homes on television and on social media messages to motivate his voters.

Donald Trump will not cede the right to contest the outcome of the presidential election and refuses to state he will unconditionally accept the results of the election. As Frank Rich of the New York Times reports, in a Bloomberg Politics poll conducted a week before the election, only 24 percent of Republicans said that, if Trump loses in November, he should be not be the face of the Republican Party. The GOP will have to decide if it wants to preside over the demise of democracy and governance in the U.S.

The campaign’s October surprise was the video of Trump’s sexual escapades, his rejection of American democracy, and his claim the election is rigged. The second October surprise was the announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the FBI found more emails that could be relevant to the Bureau’s closed Clinton emails investigation, which unleashed a firestorm in the last days of the election campaign.

Although the Democrats had a lead in polls, the ABC poll issued on November 2 showed Trump ahead of Clinton by 15.  Even if Trump is expected to lose the election, this second “October Surprise” has the potential to be a game changer.  Trump’s sexual escapades may have demotivated some of his base to vote and sealed his loss to Clinton.  He needs to find a way to break through the apparent ceiling of his support and win undecided or other voters to reach 270 electoral votes.

Also at stake are the Senate races in the swing states—Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania—which are running neck-on-neck. In order to govern, Clinton will need the Senate majority and reasonable Republican House members to pass legislation.

Implications for the U.S. and Europe—Populism versus the Establishment

Beyond the disruption in American politics, even Donald Trump’s defeat will not hinder the unraveling of the liberal international order.  Elites must address the impact of globalization, digitalization, and technology change on the middle class in developed countries. Political elites have failed to master the tectonic shifts that Trump has tapped. Sadly, the impact of these shifts that have become identity politics of conflicts over gender, race, religion, and the environment.


If we dig deeper, we can find globalization trends that feed Trump’s campaign. While globalization has lifted third world countries out of poverty, it has cost jobs in developed nations.  Globalization that undermines borders and sanctity of sovereignty (movement of labor, manufacturing, e.g., EU.)  These findings are confirmed by Economists Branko Milanovic und Christoph Lakner who have shown where the winners and losers of these globalization changes are found.  They are not where one would usually find them.  Developing countries are winners, especially Asia, and developed countries middle class are among the losers feeding Trump’s campaign.


Along with globalization, digitalization compresses time and space, undermining national government control/governance.  The rise of opulence, rents, and cost of living is charged to globalization (or the EU in the case of Brexit.) It unleashes hostility to immigration and foments racism.

Technological Change:

Technology advances eliminate jobs, change culture. “Losers” are the less educated who have lost access to well-paying jobs with minimal skills. Fareed Zakaria notes in Foreign Affairs the impact of driverless cars pioneered by Google and others.  More than 3 million Americans are professional truck drivers who stand to lose their jobs.

Identity Politics:

Underlying this dynamic is a trend where voters’ values, religion, identity are threatened.  This trend encourages a call for more security (borders closed), more control or authority, political discipline or in other words, authoritarianism.  This trend is cast as a call for patriotism/nationalism that binds the government to protect its citizens as they share norms, history, and identity against the immigrants.

Most things worth doing are not easy. After the U.S. election, the task of defending liberal international values and maintaining transatlantic unity will certainly become more difficult. Donald Trump’s populist appeal, based on fear, hate, and discrimination, undermines the rule of law, while promoting intolerance, racism, sexism, and social inequality has counterparts in Europe.

Such underlying causes are leading to the unraveling of our representative democracy. Michael Baroni writing in the American Interest posits a dynamic where there is a collision between an irresistible force and immoveable object.  That is, discontent has confronted partisan divisions. The discontent includes the inconclusive and costly Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the failure of bi-partisan cooperation to address jobs, infrastructure, health care, and other issues.

Next up are the French and German elections in 2017.  In Europe the same elites neglect of voters’ views and the impact of these tectonic changes on lives stokes the fires of populism.  Who will win the votes of the disadvantaged, the disinherited, the demoralized, the lost from globalization, digitalization, and technological change? Yes, the populism America is now experiencing is also present in Europe.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.