Published On: Mon, Oct 3rd, 2016

Should St. Maarten be worried about Trump?

arjen-albertsYes, St. Maarten should be worried about Trump, but not for the reasons you think

As the saying goes; if the US sneezes, St. Maarten catches a cold. Our economy is inextricably linked to that of the United States, home to most of our tourist visitors and provider of the majority of our imported goods. Even our culture has become increasingly influenced by signals from the north, not only because of American visitors and investors, but also by way of the mass media, starting with cable TV in the nineties and of course the internet in the 21st century. History buffs will remember that D.J. van Romondt appealed to the US in 1917 to annex St. Maarten along with their acquisition of the Virgin Islands from Denmark. St. Maarten however is not alone in its fascination with the US.

The US remains the world’s dominant economic and military power, and plays the role of vanguard of freedom and democracy in the world. The entire world therefore follows the American presidential elections with interest and sometimes anxiety. In living memory, presidential elections have always been between candidates from each of the two dominant parties that were recognizable and identifiable as representatives of their liberal or conservative ideologies. Moreover, by and large, each candidate was always acceptable to the entire electorate in the sense of being ‘presidential’. This means that ideology aside, you would in fact entrust the other party’s candidate with the keys to the nuclear arsenal, even if you would never vote for him (or her).

Today is different. The US now presents us with a spectacle that is unique in postwar history. While Hillary Clinton stands firmly in her party’s establishment and tradition, some might even say dynasty, Donald Trump has no such ties. While Trump’s candidacy announcement was at first met with hilarity and even scorn (how short is our memory) he quickly and decisively bushwhacked his way through the Republican primaries, leaving the GOP’s establishment baffled, dazed and out of breath. The self-proclaimed business expert and showman quickly dispatched the rest of the – admittedly ramshackle – field of Republican contenders. By the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late to stop him.

So here we are, observing the last lap of a US presidential race between one viable candidate and one that has no discernible program, no consistent overall ideology or even positions on important issues, and most scary of all, not the temperament or level-headedness to be anywhere near the most powerful political office in the world. What started out as an entertaining sideshow quickly turned into a nightmare scenario; what if Trump would win?

With about five weeks until election day, it is extremely unlikely that Trump will actually succeed. His path to victory, improbable at best, has been further narrowed by his abysmal performance at the first of three presidential debates. Right now, there is simply not enough time left. Trump’s character and temperament will not change, but more importantly, he will not suddenly acquire the knowledge, credibility or powers of persuasion to win any debate, or sway any additional voters.

So if Trump won’t win, why should we be worried? The problem is, something has fundamentally changed in American politics, and it is a reflection of the unraveling fabric of society. Our direct worry is not a Trump presidency. Our worry should be that over 40% of the electorate of our most important economic partner consider Trump an excellent candidate for president, and support him with great enthusiasm. An enthusiasm based on questionable emotions, completely fact-free lines of reasoning and a blind faith in an unstable showman. Although Clinton will win the presidency based on her advantage in most swing states, the popular vote will turn out to be uncomfortably close. It probably will be nowhere near a landslide. And with such a glaring difference in the quality of candidates, Hillary’s victory should be just that, an overwhelming landslide.

Our worry should be about Trump’s popularity, and the fundamental rift in US society it represents. Over the past decade, the US political landscape has become so polarized, that regardless of the candidates brought forward, each party can count on about 45% of the voting electorate. Independents or swing voters have become an endangered species. Consequently, it has become all about voter turnout. If nobody is to be swayed one way or the other, you can only win by bringing out more voters than the competition; a truth that has been understood perfectly by the Obama campaign on two different occasions, and used to great effect. The result was an overall turnout in 2008 that was the highest since 1968. But against McCain or against Romney, Obama’s victory was no landslide. In spite of the current president’s stellar charisma, his eloquence and his command of policy content, he was not able to generate a tectonic shift like Ronald Reagan in the eighties, Nixon in the seventies or Johnson in the sixties. The American political landscape today is deeply divided and the country is increasingly disunited. Everyone sticks to their guns.

The division and discontent in American society has not come overnight. It is the consequence of what has been called ‘the war on the middle class’ that started in the eighties under the Reagan presidency. Tax cuts for the rich combined with deregulation would regenerate the economy by way of ‘trickle down economics’. Consensus among economists now is that trickle down was a pipe dream. In reality, permanent damage was done by dismantling the very institutions that offered Americans security and a way up in society. Chief among those was quality, affordable tertiary education, something that is now out of reach for most Americans. In this way, the very essence of the American dream has gradually been eroded. After a brief recovery during the Bill Clinton years, real median income in the US nosedived from 2001 to 2011, the death blow of course being the financial crisis of 2008. But it is not just stagnant or declining income that frustrates Americans. It is not even the loss of jobs per se. It is first and foremost the betrayal of the American dream, the evaporating opportunities of the current generation and lack of prospects for next generations to attain a better life.

St. Maarten needs the American middle class. It is this demographic that brings us affluent tourists in large numbers. We may strive for diversification of our economy, we may aim for upgrading of our tourism product and the targeting of niche markets. But for the foreseeable future, St. Maarten is a mass tourism destination, and our products and services are geared towards the American middle class. For this reason, St. Maarten needs a US president that starts to unify the country and to open perspectives for the entire population to find a way forward in life. This means creating jobs and lifting real disposable income – including the part spent on vacations – and restoring consumer confidence in general. St. Maarten needs a US president that restores the American dream, so that happier, more affluent tourists will visit our shores. And that president’s name is not Donald Trump.

Arjen Alberts, Msc
Economist & Political Scientist