Donald Trump was the least qualified presidential candidate in US history. He had no record of public or military service and was ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout the campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a bully and a narcissist. Rather than seek to mask these defects, he gloried in them. Many of the Republican Party’s most senior figures refused to endorse him.
And yet he won. Mr Trump, a disliked candidate, was able to defeat an even more loathed opponent: Hillary Clinton. The Democrat showed resilience and tenacity as well as grace under pressure. In an anti-establishment age, however, her familiarity and background counted against her. As a former first lady, she was hindered not only by her own flaws but those of her husband, Bill Clinton.
Mrs Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state reinforced her untrustworthy image. Her closeness to Wall Street undermined her promise to support the economically marginalised. The lack of enthusiasm that some of her party’s voters – the so-called Obama Democrats – felt for her candidacy testified to her weaknesses. After Barack Obama, the election of the first female president would have been a cheering, momentous occasion. Yet Mrs Clinton simply lacked the popular appeal to win.
Mr Trump overcame his lack of support among women overall, ethnic minorities and students by winning the support of the white working class. His economic populism and vow to “make America great again” resonated with those long alienated by both of the main parties. His triumph was enabled by many of the same forces that carried the Leave campaign to victory in the UK’s EU referendum.
The US faces the most unexpected and dangerous presidency in its history. Mr Trump’s victory will embolden misogynists, racists and Islamophobes. The free world will soon be led by a man who rejects many of its essential tenets. Liberals’ faith in progress has been undermined, stunningly. As in the 1930s after the Great Depression, the 2008 financial crisis has resurrected the forces of reaction. History is not linear, but cyclical and discontinuous.
Unlike Mrs Clinton, Mr Trump lacks any foreign affairs experience. He is an isolationist and protectionist. If the president-elect fulfils his campaign rhetoric, the US will retreat from its role as guarantor of the post-Cold War
liberal order. Mr Trump’s disavowal of Nato’s doctrine of collective defence will empower a revanchist Russia. Many in the world will tremble at his victory – the Baltic states and Poland have more reason than most. Vladimir Putin, whom Mr Trump admires, now has every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires.
The next US president has little interest in achieving a peaceful settlement in Syria, the site of the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Throughout President Bashar al-Assad’s bombardment of Aleppo, he has voiced no criticism of the regime. Syria’s wretched masses will find no welcome in Mr Trump’s America.
Many of the hopeful advances that were made under President Obama will be reversed. His successor, a climate-change denier, has threatened to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and to end funding for UN global warming programmes. He rejects the international prohibition of torture and derides human rights.
Mr Trump’s influence on domestic policy will be no less deleterious. Aided by a Republican Congress, he will repeal President Obama’s health-care reforms, deport the 11 million undocumented migrants in the US and, he claims, construct a wall along the Mexican border.
Donald Trump’s victory will gladden the hearts of many reactionaries. In France, Marine Le Pen will seek to emulate his achievement in next year’s presidential election. Against the forces of populism, liberalism has too often proved feeble. If they are to recover, Mr Trump’s vanquished opponents must not merely condemn his rise, but understand it.
In the US, as elsewhere, the centre left has become disconnected from the working-class voters whom it purports to champion. History shows that populists and authoritarians invariably fail, the victim of their own hubris and contradictions. Yet they can do profound damage. In these turbulent new times, Mr Trump’s election is the darkest moment yet. There may be many more to follow.