Which President, Which America?

What the Election Campaign Reveals About the US Political System

01/11/2016 | 18:30 - 20:00 | DGAP Berlin | Invitation only


Category: United States of America, Transatlantic Relations

Jürgen Trittin, Daniela Schwarzer, James D. Bindenagel and Josef Braml offered their perspectives at a panel discussion hosted by DGAP and Inforadio (rbb).

© DGAP/Dirk Enters

The world’s most important job application process ends on November 8. More matters than who moves into the White House, however. The campaign has polarized US politics like no other and put anti-establishment sentiment on display. Will compromise be more difficult in the future? Where will US foreign policy be heading after the election?

The panel was moderated by Dietmar Ringel of Inforadio (rbb) and aired on Inforadio 93.1 on Sunday, November 6, 2016, at 11:05 am. Click here to hear the program (in German).


Jürgen Trittin, Member of Bundestag’s Foreign Relations Committee for the party Alliance ‘90/The Greens.

Daniela Schwarzer, Otto Wolff-Director of the DGAP’s Research Institute.

James D. Bindenagel, Henry-Kissinger-Professor at the Center for International Security and Governance of the University of Bonn

Josef Braml, Editor-in-Chief of the DGAP Yearbook.

From Scandal to Scandal

Can Trump win? “It is unlikely, but possible,” answered James Bindenagel. Swing states could decide the election by small margins. Trump, despite his slip-ups, has given a voice to people angered by economic hardship and worried about identity. “He engages in conspiracy theory,” emphasized Daniela Schwarzer; for example, allegations that Donna Brazile provided questions to Clinton in advance of a TV primary debate play into his narrative. Jürgen Trittin raised the question “by which standards do we measure politics?” Trittin saw the allegations made against Clinton as of little substance, while Trump’s misdeeds were evident. According to Josef Braml, all boundaries have been removed regarding the role of sex in the scandals. After e-mails of close Clinton aide Huma Abedin were found on the computer of her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, who has been stained by a “sexting” scandal, the damage of that scandal would now extend to Clinton as well. “Such things become blurred in the electorate’s perception,” Braml stressed.

Polarization and Moneyed Interests

“Brutal rhetoric, polarization, veering to the far-left and the far-right,” Schwarzer has observed all these phenomena, hinting not only at Trump but also at Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders. Thanks to his anti-establishment rhetoric, Trump profited from a Republican base that no longer identified with Washington elites in the primaries. As for Bernie Sanders, Trittin actually sees the politician as someone who, by German standards, would be well-suited to the Seeheimer Kreis (which might be seen as the SPD’s more conservative wing). Trump, on the other hand “simply spews hatred.” He is the outcome of a Republican party already put on the path of self-destruction by the Tea Party movement and its increasing inability to compromise.

“Money in politics is the central problem,” Braml noted. The Tea Party is the project of billionaire interests. Trump was able to profit from his personal wealth and the impression of independence it created, according to Braml. Bindenagel’s thinking on Trump centers on his persona as a TV star and his ability to attract media coverage at no cost to himself.

What Comes After the Elections?

Money is also flowing into congressional races “in order for there to be no state that can raise taxes or regulate,” Braml said. Even if Clinton wins, one will have to expect gridlock on domestic legislation. As for foreign policy, the next president would enjoy comparative freedom. For Braml it was unclear if either of the candidates would continue Obama’s balanced foreign policy approach. Trittin emphasized that the Bundestag’s parties are united in preferring Clinton, even if one could expect her to take a harder line on Syria and Ukraine. “Such tones can definitely be heard in the Clinton camp,” Schwarzer concurred. However, Clinton would be more focused on Europe and would therefore consider the consequences of her actions on the Western alliance to a far greater extent than one could expect of Trump.

“In foreign policy, Trump would be the beginning of an era of uncertainty,” stated Trittin. After the likely failure of his domestic plans, Trittin warned that Trump could attempt to gain legitimacy through aggressive foreign policy. “He is unable to be diplomatic,” added Bindenagel. Neither participant saw a “taming” of Trump by his advisors as a likely scenario. Bindenagel explained that many Republican foreign policy experts had already denounced Trump. The members of his advisory circle are thus completely uncertain. Braml noted parallels with the isolationist vision once put forward by Charles Lindbergh and Trump’s foreign policy course.

Bindenagel commented that Clinton could ignore the isolationist tones in Trump’s campaign if she won, since public opinion would still favor a global role for the US. He expected a crisis if Trump contests the election results but noted that such an appeal has no chance of success. For her part, Schwarzer, expressed concern about “the divided media,” which she views as contributing to polarization. The election campaign broadened the spectrum of political positions that could be taken publically. In all, these developments are going to make compromise even more difficult after the election. For Braml, the US role as a liberal hegemon is no longer certain – not after Trump and Sanders pushed Clinton into taking a more critical stance toward globalization during the campaign.

Obama’s Legacy in the Election Campaign

All the panelists considered Obama’s legacy in positive terms. Trittin stressed that the US had managed the financial crisis in a better way than the eurozone had. Obama also moved the country away from George W. Bush’s unilateralist course. “Those disappointed by Obama do not understand how big the problems were that he inherited from his predecessor,” as Braml put it. Schwarzer noted that the contributions of Barack and Michelle Obama to Hillary Clinton’s campaign had had a positive effect, even if some of Obama’s projects were controversial. Bindenagel described Michelle Obama’s role in the campaign as potentially decisive. Her authenticity and warmth was said to “humanize” Clinton, who has often been perceived as rather cold and calculating.

Prospects for Reform

Trittin cautioned against European self-righteousness when commenting on US political culture. Right-wing populism could also gain traction in many European countries, he noted. Nevertheless he identified a need for the US political system to increase its ability to reach compromise. Bindenagel emphasized the importance of putting an end to the practice of “gerrymandering” – manipulating the boundaries of US congressional districts. Braml saw hope in the prospect of a new appointment to the Supreme Court that may finally reduce the influence of money in politics after this election.

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