The unthinkable is only unthinkable until it happens. Then, like the sacking of Rome, it can seem historically inevitable. So it is with the global political earthquake that is the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. If he is true to his campaign pledges, which were many and reckless, Mr Trump’s win will herald America’s most stunning reversal of political and economic orthodoxy since the New Deal in the 1930s, but with the reverse effect. It halts the ailing progressive narrative about modern America and the 21st-century world in its tracks. It signals a seismic rupture in the American-dominated global liberal economic and political order that had seemed to command the 21st century after communism collapsed and China’s economy soared.
In that sense, the Trump triumph has echoes of the increasingly alarming general rightward shift in the politics of other post-industrial western democracies, to which progressives have again produced inadequate responses. The parallel with Britain’s Brexit vote is obvious and real. So, perhaps, is the further boost that the Trump triumph may hand to nationalists in many parts of Europe. The result will be lamented by liberals across America and beyond. But it will be cheered in Moscow and Damascus, which will be emboldened. This is not a good week to be a Latvian or a Ukrainian, and a dire one to be a Syrian oppositionist. This result is also a generational challenge to progressive politics to find the radical and credible message that eludes them in so many countries, not just in America.
President Trump is the shock heard round the world. Now that he has won, the instant explanations have already started to flood in: that the mobilisation (or not) of this or that demographic was decisive; that he tapped the angry anti-establishment mood; that he spoke for millions who felt abandoned by the prosperous and progressive; that American nativism was always far stronger than liberals wanted to think; that he was a celebrity candidate for the celebrity-obsessed age; that he rode the tiger of post-truth politics; that making America great again was a cut-through message in a militaristic and imperial nation; that white men (and many white women) had had it with political correctness; that misogyny swung it; that the mainstream media failed to call him out; that it is a verdict on the Barack Obama years; that Mrs Clinton was always the wrong candidate; that there was racist dirty work in the voting system; that it was the Russians that won it for him.
None of these explanations is irrelevant. All of them have something to say. But beware of instant certainties. As with Brexit, in the immediate aftermath of a huge upset, a period of careful evidence-gathering and reflection is in order. This is not to diminish the immense seriousness of what happened on Tuesday. Nor is it to understate the anxieties about what lies ahead as Mr Obama steps back and Mr Trump takes over.
Four particular fears now stand out. The first is the unleashing of an unbridled conservative agenda in Washington, now that the Republicans control the White House and Capitol Hill together for the first time in 90 years. Mr Trump and the congressional Republicans have differences; he is more prepared to use the power of government than many of them are. But they have a clear path now towards reshaping the supreme court and dozens of lower-tier judicial benches in their own image. The effect on race, gender and sexual-equality issues is likely to outlast Mr Trump’s period in office. The culture wars will reopen. Abortion rights are threatened.
The second is the impact of this result on race in America more widely. Mr Trump campaigned against migrants and against Muslims, insulted black and Latino Americans, launched ads that some saw as covertly antisemitic, and was cheered to victory by every white racist in the land. His voters will want him to deliver. Every action he takes in this area threatens to divide and inflame. After a half century of uneven but undeniable racial progress in America, the consequences of every attempt to turn back the clock could be dire.
The third fear is whether Mr Trump has any economic plan that will deliver for some of the poor communities that gave him their votes so solidly. Mr Trump connected with the anger that many poor and white voters feel. But what can he do about it? What do most congressional Republicans care about it? He can try to put up all the protectionist walls he likes. But it seems difficult to see how he can bring old mines, mills and factories back to life. A lot of Americans feel left behind and let down. But Mr Trump is playing with fire if, in the end, it becomes clear that he has used their anxieties to advance himself and his own urban rich class yet again.
The final fear, though, is for the world. Mr Trump’s win means uncertainty about America’s future strategy in a world that has long relied on the United States for stability. But Mr Trump’s capacity to destabilise is almost limitless. His military, diplomatic, security, environmental and trade policies all have the capacity to change the world for the worse. Americans have done a very dangerous thing this week. Because of what they have done we all face dark, uncertain and fearful times.