A ‘President Trump’ and the Caribbean

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An opinion piece by David Jessop for Trinidad’s Express.

In the last few years the world has seen the emergence of what has become known as post-factual politics. This is the practice whereby some running for high office speak untruths, draw factually incorrect conclusions and provide no policy detail.

Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, has skilfully used such an approach to translate voter anger against economic globalisation, elites and as migration, to facilitate his hoped for rise to power.

It is a tactic not dissimilar to that taken by those who, without any clear alternative or plan, encouraged the UK electorate to vote to leave the European Union. It is also reflected, for example, in the remarks of President Putin, President Erdogan in Turkey, or President Assad in Syria who reject fact as simply the mistaken perception of others.

The inference is that rationality is dying, that democracies and voter anger are there to be rendered not into practical alternatives, but used to drive a belief that an individual somehow has the ability to transform the life of voters because they say they know best.

This has implications for the Caribbean. The region has become used to the global status quo that emerged from the second world war, independence, the cold war, the rules driven trade system at the WTO, multilateral treaties, and organisations such as the UN that have given even the smallest countries a global voice, based on a recognised need for consensus.

Now, in a cry of rage, huge numbers in the Republican Party in the US have chosen as their candidate a man whose approach is so low on detail and high on ego that it requires voters to trust him alone to make them feel great again.

This has enabled Mr Trump, only months before the US electorate decide on who will assume one of the most powerful positions in the world, to continue to make assertions about what he would do as President, without any substantive explanation on how his ideas are to be achieved, or their likely consequences.

In Mr Trump’s dark acceptance speech at his party’s convention, and in his earlier remarks, it is, however, possible to see common themes when it comes to US foreign, security and trade policy.

He sees no value in trying to change other countries’ systems. For him relationships are about winning, and extracting the maximum value for the US. As an aggressive deal maker, he places value on strong authoritarian leadership, a huge defence budget and the decisive use of military might only when absolutely necessary. He is adamant that others countries will in one or another way have to pay their way if they expect US support. For him the strong recovery of the US economy and the US national interest is paramount. He will, he says, break with the World Trade Organisation if it does not accept his thinking. He will abandon existing trade deals. His policy will be isolationist and protectionist, and not burdened by ideology.

If a Trump presidency were to be consistent in this approach one can see many practical problems emerging for the Caribbean. For example, if nations like Mexico are to pay to secure the United States from flows of its or other nations migrants, his administration may well also require the Caribbean to fully meet the costs of its own security; guaranteeing the safety of US visitors on the basis that through them and investment the US is already contributing enough to the Caribbean economy and its development.

In short Mr Trump’s approach may have significant strategic implications for the Caribbean, not least because his views do not accord with the way that the region has previously tried to manage its relations with the US.

For the countries of Caricom, the implication is that what little influence they may still have in Washington could disappear entirely unless they ally themselves with much stronger regional, hemispheric or international partners. It suggests that only Cuba and perhaps the Dominican Republic will be able to find ways to exert leverage in a Trump Washington.

In the US and Europe, visceral voter anger is resulting in the rise of new types of politician and political parties, notionally anti-elite, desiring to be seen as authentic and somehow able to restore the past. Should Mr Trump win, the Caribbean is ill prepared to address his brand of 21st century politics.

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