End of American Exceptionalism?

11/21/2016 01:15 pm ET

New York - "I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run," Alexis de Tocqueville, the eminent 19th century French sociologist, once warned.

For centuries, Americans stood proud and tall among nations, viewing their country as a city upon a hill, a land of milk and honey. To be fair, there was always some ground for such exuding collective self-confidence.

After all, America hosted the modern world's first democracy and successful anti-imperialist struggle. And overtime, it became the world's biggest industrial powerhouse, financial center, and the ultimate source of popular culture. America went from particular, a British colony in North America, into a global icon, the Rome of its age.

In the 19th century, when it gained enough power to challenge the Old World, and take upon its own colonies, it focused more on trade (domination) rather than actual (military) conquest. When it conquered nations such as the Philippines, its only formal colony in Asia, it made sure, after an initial phase of utter savagery akin to its Europeans kin, to showcase the most benevolent form of Western imperialist experimentation.

No wonder then, by the mid-20th century, the Philippines, a former backwater within the Spanish imperium, would rise to the top of the development ladder among Asian nations, just behind Japan -- Asia's first industrialized nation. When America, during the First World War, finally decided to take the mantle of global leadership, as allied states such as Britain and France desperately called for assistance from without the European theatre, it focused more on shared responsibility and collective security rather than blind hegemonic pursuit.

By the end of the Second World War, Washington essentially underwrote the global order, anchored by inter-governmental organizations that provided (and continue to) public international goods, not to mention the American navy that guarded the global sea lines of communication.

By the end of Cold War, with the counter-balancing presence of Soviet Union gone, hubris began to sit in. America became the hyperpower lording over the world. But despite all its overseas misadventures, and its broken promises of benign and effective global leadership, it managed to maintain robust democratic institutions and a booming economy at home.

The past decade, however, has seen the obliteration of America's seeming economic invincibility, thanks to the 2008 Great Recession, and its claim to being a beacon of freedom and democracy, thanks to the 2016 elections. Hundred of years from now, people will likely look back at recent events as the point that marked the end of Pax Americana.

An Insane Election

Deja Vu. That is the best way I can describe what I have experienced throughout the past few days. Donald Trump, the billionaire celebrity, pulled off nothing short of contemporary history's greatest electoral upset.

Few saw it coming, since pre-election polls consistently suggested a comfortable victory for his rival, Hillary Clinton, arguably the most experienced and well-funded presidential candidate ever.

In fact, months before the Election Day, I had an uneasy feeling that Trump could very well be the next leader of the so-called "free world". That is why when I got an invitation to speak at Columbia University in November, I made sure to arrive (from the Philippines) a bit earlier so I could observe the elections -- the most important in the world -- more directly.

On the night of election, I watched the town-by-town breakdown of votes on a giant screen in the Times Square. It was a lively night, and there was a lot of excitement in the air. But halfway though, with around 49 percent of total votes reflected in the partial and unofficial count, it began to dawn upon many of us in the Square that Clinton was in serious trouble.

In the Democratic-leaning New York, that was bad news. I began to detect liminal tears in the eyes of some. Dread on the face of others. Few were even angry. One cynically suggested he needed drinks to let off some steam.

Meanwhile, stock markets were in turmoil, while troubled Americans, who viewed the prospect of a Trump presidency nothing short of disaster, overwhelmed the Canadian immigration website with inquiries. It didn't take long before the server crashed.

It was a bewildering turn of events. Just hours before, (democrat) friends were quipping that Clinton's victory party -- a foregone conclusion -- will be in the Trump Tower. It was a cheeky prospect, but it was way off the mark.

Clinton, who enjoyed the endorsement of almost all major newspapers and celebrities, not to mention the popular incumbent, Barack Obama, had abysmal performance in many swing states, particularly Wisconsin and Michigan, which have largely leaned towards Democrats in recent memory.

In Latino-heavy state of Florida, she wasn't doing any better. From North Carolina to Iowa, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, numbers suggested a huge backlash against the incumbent party.

For me, it was clear: Trump pulled of the unthinkable. But was it? After all, the past year has seen one major unexpected event, what Nassim Taleb calls "black swans', after the other hitting the global headlines. From Britain's exit from the European Union, to Rodrigo Duterte's overwhelming election victory, it is clear that we have entered the age of popular backlash.

The American Caudillo

After more than a year of extremely vicious and polarizing elections, America has finally elected its 45th president. The real estate tycoon was against nothing short of almost the entirety of the political establishment and mainstream media. And yet, come Election Day, he pulled of a massive victory.

Grievance politics is now the name of the game, as disaffected populations across the world rise against the establishment in one country after the other. And this has provided a unique opportunity for demagogues and populists to mobilize support with astonishing success. In fact, I won't be surprised if Marie Le Pen, the controversial far-right French politician, will become her country's next president in coming months.

Trump partly won on the back of a wave of disaffected blue-collar, rural-based white Americans, who felt betrayed by the pro-globalization establishment. Over the past few decades, they saw their jobs disappearing, just to be relocated to emerging markets such as China or Vietnam or India.

They have seen a broadly Caucasian nation transformed into an increasingly diverse global melting pot. They have seen their conservative values challenged by progressive liberalism, as ethnic and gender minorities gained increasing legal protection against discrimination and marginalization.

Trump also won, because his chief rival struggled to inspire, to mobilize Obama's coalition constituency, namely the youth and African-Americans. Despite his disparaging comments against Latinos and African-America, Trump managed to do better than his Republican predecessors, particularly Mitt Romney, among minority groups.

Without a doubt, Trump's victory was at least partly built on tapping into fears and nativist impulses of a certain section of the American society. And this is why his election victory is unlikely to heal divisions within the country. Over the past few days, anti-Trump protests have spread across the country.

There is a genuine sense of anxiety, especially among some minority groups, about what a Trump presidency could mean in terms of race relations, foreign policy, and state services. One night, while passing through the 5th Avenue, I heard groups of young voters chanting: "We...reject...president elect." Others were eager to emphasize that Trump only won the Electoral College vote, but lost the popular vote to his rival.

Despite efforts by Obama, Clinton and the Democratic establishment to unify the country after a vicious election campaign, it seems America is headed for long-term political uncertainty. And given the country's outsized role as the anchor of the international order, this will have a cascading effect on the rest of humanity.

After a vicious election, and the ascent of strongman in Trump's person, it is unlikely that America will ever be the same again. In the view of many, at least across Asia, the country has ossified into a Third World democracy, immaturely electing a novice, a seeming bigot, and a hubristic strongman into the world's most important office.

The 'indispensable' nation doesn't look very exceptional anymore. It seems as vulnerable as any other nation to bouts of xenophobia, protectionism, and demagoguery. Welcome to the club of 'normal' nations.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on ABS-CBN.

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