Picture the scene. A bar, a crowd, televisions beaming. One-man flashes across the screens, his voice thundering. A consummate actor, he quakes the podium to galvanise and electrify his audience. Make America Great, Again! He captivates the crowds, both in the auditorium and bar. The room waits in shock and awe, bated breath in suspense of the outcome. The Announcement dispels the uncertainty, an island in an ocean of doubt. Donald Trump won, and was voted in President of the United States. A year in this week, what did it all surmount to?
Rewind the clock to a country writhing and pained, uncomfortable in its own skin, bitter and full of anger. A state of being, decades in the making. The American dream, its facade of glittering success, unmasked in a moment. The legacy of Barack Obama, the judicious embodiment of optimism, whose sermon about the “Audacity of Hope” charmed the world, now crumbles under the thumb of exhaustion, of poverty.
Once a beacon of success, the American heartland Ohio, home of the Wright brothers, perhaps captures Mr Trump’s appeal. The Ohio Department of Health reports an increase from 3,050 lethal overdose cases in 2015, to 4,050 in 2016, amid a rising trend of suicides. Trump’s gleaming, glittering golden towers, serve as a sorrowful aide-mémoire to Ohioans of their long-since abandoned American dream. The mirrors tragically antagonistic to the lost factories and idle blue-collar workers.
The ‘outsider’ who promised redemption and salvation to millions of abandoned rust-belt workers. Who would not be taken in by such charisma and dynamism to ‘shake up the establishment’ and ‘drain the swamp’, and bring jobs back to America. Americans were tempted by the forbidden fruit, and hungrily fell to the lure. Deceived, they found themselves lost, further from Eden.
The cabinet has included some of the most affluent and influence businessmen in America. A far cry from a man who promised to be representative of the people, and unreceptive to Washington lobbyists. The truth is a reality TV star and larger than life character who treats public engagements and political diplomacy like business deals. Let this serve as a lesson to the world, illustrating the composition of the financial elite in the West.
Beyond the puritanical class composition, the administration has systematically proven to possess little “practical wisdom” as psychologist Barry Schwartz would put it. “Fire and fury” preceded by “calm before the storm” is the way #45 interprets foreign policy. His trans-oceanic feud with North Korean deuce Kim Jong-Un makes a mockery of diplomacy and temperance that preceded him. “Dotard vs Rocket Man” one could joke, but the laughter echoes run mute when missiles pierce the crystal skies and the thunders of war hammer our door. Commander in Chief entails leader of the American military might, the most influential and powerful role in human history, had become increasingly moralistic before Trump, retreating from all unnecessary conflict zones. Essential qualities to the role are moderation, clarity of thought and firmness of hand. Mr Trump seems to regard these as minutiae. He verbally attacks allies and foes indiscriminately on Twitter and on camera. Not only does this undermine co-operation, but it makes a mockery out of American reputability and invokes uncertainty among the other world leaders.
To exalt NATO, ignore Angela Merkel, and hold hands with Theresa May is all but inconsistent. The overall agenda appears alienated from any true reflection of the multilateral geopolitical present. The world can no longer be seen in solely black and white, as win or lose zero sum game.
Beyond the puritanical class composition, the administration has systematically proven to possess little “practical wisdom”.
His economic policies, on the surface desirable, focused on workers’ welfare and infrastructure investment, have been dismissed by The Economist as “unimaginative, incoherent and insufficient” and crutch forward on Barack Obama’s legacy.
Environmentally orientated stimuli have been scrapped to favour traditional fossil fuels. Rex Tillerson, ex-President of Exxon Mobil was made Secretary of State. Meanwhile, 2017 is predicted to be warmest year on the planet since records began. As Bloomberg reports, renewable energies are becoming increasingly fiscally viable, and jobs in the sector now outpace fossil fuels. It should be a win-win situation. Instead, the President reneged on the Paris Accord — the first deal agreed to by every nation on earth bar America.
The United States will have to make a larger contribution than other states, leading Trump to cry ‘unfairness’. For better or worse, however, the world is in the place it is now largely because of Western policies. The US’ material abundance, built on traditional energies sources, is unequivocally unsustainable. Were developing economies to attain a modicum of similar development, the repercussions for sea level and temperature rise, and the requisite pollution to catch up would be nothing short of catastrophic. To act responsibly is to act with leadership, and a higher toll equates a greater honour. As Uncle Ben said to young Peter Parker, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”
Hence, the election, with its problematic aftermath, may unleash popular fury against the White House, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek has suggested. But how will the masses revolt? And then again, what if it’s too late?
History would insinuate Mr Trump may in fact be another “Jimmy Carter” of the Republican Party. Politics, notably US politics, has a cyclical tendency. One party, or more broadly political ideology, occupies centre stage in the role of government in a periodic cycle before running its course and allowing for new forces to disrupt and change the tone. 20th century history is an example of this. In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt swept into power to initiate one of the most shape shifting periods in US history, introducing legislation, and policy, and an overarching vision, which affected generations to come. FDR’s New Deal, as it came to be known, was the main political philosophy in The States until another President interrupted its sprint: Ronald Reagan, winning in 1980, on a campaign run by the battle cry “government is not the solution, government is the problem” rejected FDR’s ideal and steered American society to different shores. Jimmy Carter, whose presidency had preceded Mr Reagan’s in 1976, is now accounted as the last New Deal President, a commandant whose political beliefs and credo clashed with the demands of the populace, and despite holding key institutions, was in fact furthering the demise of his own party.
Consequently, some have applied this transitive property to Mr Trump’s presidency: He arrives as a Republican President in a moment when the Republican Party dominates all spheres of influence in the American Olympus. The House of Representatives; the Senate; the Supreme Court; the Presidency; most gubernatorial seats; evidence says, the GOP holds iron-fist control over institutional power and appears reluctant to let go. However, it seems that a layer of rust could be filling its grip.
It has been a year, yet the policies promised to and cherished by Mr Trump’s base have seen little fruition. The health care issue has become a farce, with GOP representatives so thirstily seeking to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act that they have left everyone with a dry palate. Proposals were rejected by health organisation from the entire political spectrum and have proven incompetently construed. Congress struggles to pass an agreeable budget. Meanwhile, the “Mexican-repelling” border wall is still a Fata Morgana. Trump's “Muslim ban” remains a thorn in his side as they were shut down by the judiciary and vocal citizen action in impressive numbers (175,000 took to airports and streets) in spontaneous protest against official enforcement.
Mr Trump ran an excellent campaign. His grandiose style and baritone provocations enthralled the hearts of millions and one must give him credit for that. But will he be remembered as the golden entertainer cheering the end of an era? This writer suggests caution. Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere. The political response which allowed for simplicity in the face of complexity, and encouraged demagoguery, has come as a result of the deterioration of the capitalistic system and the erosion of its response nerves. The 2008 Great Recession and the 2015 Refugee Crisis are now banners hoisted as a reminder of the awkward weakness of the current political strata.
Democratic values and institutions, chanted as superior and basically an inevitable societal evolution since the 1990s, following the USSR’s collapse, have proven more fragile than anticipated. Victor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, having bashfully won power with 53% of the popular vote, and party securing 2/3 of Parliament; has subsequently ripped apart the Hungarian constitution. In its place, Orban has drafted a new constitution which keeps in line with what we may label “constitutional authoritarianism”.
President Erdogan in Turkey thanked PM Orban for the lesson, and (with popular support) enacted constitutional changes himself. Both these modifications follow a pattern: they reduce the independence of the judiciary; they reign in the free media from its “fourth estate” role; and, invariably lead towards monarchic views of the democratic premiership. They are also the first stepping stone toward the fanaticism of fascism. Then, are Hungary, Turkey and the United States, fascist domains? Perhaps not yet. But there are worrying indications that the underlying fundamentals of the countries are at stake.
Undoubtedly, President Trump personifies the nativist, misogynistic, militaristic and brash underbelly of a nation allowed to wallow in its darker elements, one lost in rhetoric. One would be hard pressed to see desirable solutions emerging from realist nation state postulating. Although it may be expedient to turn a blind eye in our relatively prosperous countries, we should never desist in this fight for the preservation of democratic values, nor take them for granted.
How goes the POTUS’ pledged reforms? Approval remains high (83 percent, Gallup) among Republicans, despite the dreary 6% confidence among Democrats. What of the elected representatives? Their stances have been dubious. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Noam Chomsky called the modern republican party the “most dangerous organisation on the planet”. Although hyperbolic — members of the GOP have proven themselves worthy of more consideration. Only a handful of politicians, such as senior Rep. Senator John McCain, the veteran, who sensationally opposed Trump on the Obama Care repeal alongside two congresswomen, have stood their ground. The moral compass of the majority appears confused. More burning questions fire the tongue. How can a political party be so openly anti-gay in 2017? How can they support a man whose campaign began as a response to immigrants seeking better life conditions, and characterised as “rapists”? How can they allege to espouse the narrative of Christian teachings yet speak so maliciously and derogatorily toward women complaining against the President’s past advances? Or simply for the rape victims forced to bear the child seed of their perpetrators’ inflictions?
Undoubtedly, President Trump personifies the nativist, misogynistic, militaristic and brash underbelly of a nation allowed to wallow in its darker elements, one lost in rhetoric.
To these questions there are answers, reasons, explanations. Truthfully, Mr Trump may just be the tip of the iceberg, the avant-garde of a “movement like you’ve never seen” as the man himself put it. Perhaps instead, a wild religiosity à la “The Handmaid's Tale” is the best response to a 21st century on the verge of a systemic meltdown. Intra-national cultural clashes seem to be a unique feature of tolerant societies, where justice is not divine and phantom, but tangible and human. Yet what is just and desirable blurs the line of what is arbitrary.
History teaches us of witch-hunts, long since discredited heresies, and false idols: could it be that the “moral clarity” (G.W. Bush) mentioned in earlier social codes has become lost. Thus, paving the way for a demagogue like Donald Trump to “tell it like it is” to the extent that he is unafraid of inciting division by his partisan stances.
Meanwhile, the democrats vainly attempted to build bridges and console the mistaken identities between peoples. Trump, whether knowingly or not, managed to tap into the perennial endemic prejudice and xenophobia within human nature, espousing instead a credo of belonging to a glorious nation that was ‘under threat from all sides’.
It appears that appealing to Pinker’s ‘better angels of our nature’ falters when the dust settles on an America divided by economic inequality. The Great Recession that emerged from profligacy in finance since Nixon took the greenback off the gold standard led to 10 years of Quantitative Easing programmes that inflated asset prices for niches of American society. What was left behind with falling real wages since 1976 and offshoring of manufacturing was a disenfranchised and dependent rust belt of the bygone American industrial age, resentful and full of hatred for the establishment.
Cass Sunstein, from Harvard Law School, offers hope. He reminds us of the value of serendipity. The word’s definition captures only its meaning in part: as Sunstein explains, to avoid the trap of network bubbles bursting in anger, we ought to value more the randomness of information given to us daily. All forms of social interactions, with special reference to the contemporary online platforms, create the basis for “echo chambers” and the replication of sub-cultures distancing each group progressively. The 2016 US election is a fine example of this phenomenon. The two parts of the electorate pushing either major candidate created a political sub-culture among themselves in which they reiterated the same notions and concepts ad nauseam. The outcome was a vision of “hyper-polarisation”, namely the widening of a gap between the population’s ideological spectrum. Incidentally, conversing with other like-minded individuals results in the reinforcement of certain held beliefs, including those of extreme or antagonistic tendency.
Hence, Sunstein reminds us of the value of irritability, of disagreement. To confront opposing views is frustrating and we ought to celebrate that sense of annoyance one may experience when faced with differing opinions. It challenges presumptions and expands the intellectual vista, setting the stage for the emulsion of values and ideas, the cement of pluralist democracies. As Albert Einstein taught: “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size”.
Then again, maybe things are not entirely as they seem. As above, Mr Trump is failing to implement many of his policies, and overall, is experiencing dramatically low approval ratings for a leader still fresh from the shower of campaign-trail applause. Grass-root activity is ballooning. The nationalist avalanche predicted in the Western elections in 2017 did not take root, despite the corporatist agenda and xenophobic platforms presented by the likes of Marine Le Pen and Front Nationale. Deaf and uncaring, the world continues to improve on statistical measures with a global trajectory signalling less crime, war disease, and more wealth per capita. In politics and in business, certainty is power.
A politician cannot doubt themselves or their agenda, for voters sway too readily. However, moral absolutism risks verging into dangerous dogmatic complacency rather than confidence. To find the path we must dare take the first step into the unknown. Donald Trump’s first year of presidency has shown the grandeur and depravity of humanity, its misery and its genius. Brace yourselves, there’s three more to go. TMM