The US elections – a rude awakening in Europe


The election of Donald Trump as the future 45th US President took place on 9 November, 27 years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Does it herald a comparable cataclysm in world politics?

Like the British referendum in June, the US election came as a rude awakening to many in Europe. There was much talk in the corridors of Brussels of 2016 as an “annus horribilis”. As with Brexit, the US election was an expression of rejection of the political establishment and the ruling elites resulting from deep divisions in society and political polarisation – pitting Republicans against Democrats, whites against blacks, Hispanics against Anglos, urban versus rural communities, the young versus the old, dividing Americans with and without higher education, and even pitting men against women. Polarisation occurred on issues relating to immigration, taxes, the minimum wage, free trade agreements, climate change and abortion.

Trump used these hot topics in his election rhetoric to seize on associated anti-establishment feelings, and the political, social and economic marginalisation of many voters formed the keystone of his campaign. Although the USA’s economic power and the number of jobs had grown during the years of Obama’s presidency, the distribution of wealth remained unequal and the numbers of the “working poor” had increased. Trump promoted a protectionist trade policy, a xenophobic migration policy extending to active deportation and an isolationist climate policy that even promised to pull America out of treaties already concluded. It remains to be seen how far he will implement these ideas once he is President.

Europe’s right-wing populists celebrated the election result. Marine Le Pen was enthusiastic in her congratulations to Trump and saw his victory as a good omen for her own ambitions for the French presidency. Nigel Farage talked of 2016 as the year of “two major political revolutions”. Geert Wilders tweeted: “The [American] people are taking their country back”, which begs the question: who from?

Fear is spreading among Muslims, Latinos and undocumented immigrants – if Trump is serious about the statements made during his election campaign, they risk being deported. Despite all the fears associated with Trump’s election, today’s America cannot be compared to the Weimar Republic of the 1930s, but we have to wait and see how far the checks-and-balances system is able to place limits on President Trump’s ambitions.

The voting behaviour of the Catholics made a substantial contribution to Trump’s victory: 52% voted for him, while only 45% voted for Hillary Clinton. A crucial factor behind these figures seems to have been the issue of abortion. Among white evangelicals, who make up 26% of the electorate, as many as 81% had voted for Trump.

When it comes to the Catholic Church, one can wonder whether she did enough to counter Trump’s scapegoat rhetoric, and if she could not have done more to step forward to speak on behalf of the people who had been marginalised by globalisation. Shortly after the elections, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio, remarked at the autumn plenary assembly of the US Bishops’ Conference on 12 November: “The Pope is more prophetic than the Catholic bishops here today.

At the very least, the Catholic Church could play an important role in the essential post-election reconciliation process. As the largest individual religious community in the US, it represents around a quarter of the whole US population, and is made up of roughly the same numbers of Republicans, Democrats, Hispanics, blacks, whites and people from all levels of education and social classes. True to Pope Francis’ metaphor of the Church as a field hospital after a battle, she could make a valuable contribution towards healing the country’s wounds.


Martin Maier SJ