The Trump world

Revaz Koiava

a research fellow, Caucasus House

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of United States of America. A majority believed that they would never hear these words. But Trump defied pollsters, nearly all of which predicted a Clinton victory, and won the vote on a wave of widespread discontent among Ameriсan voters in rural and Rust Belt[1] states. These voters felt forgotten and abandoned by the political establishment of their country.

What does Trump’s victory mean in pratical terms? To begin with, everybody is hopeful that things are not as bad as they seem and Trump’s presidency will be better than expected. Trump is facing a formiddable task to govern a huge federal bureaucratic machine and a complex structure of law-enforcement and security agencies, and lead the most powerful army in the world. But the American state system is not personified. It cannot be changed by a single person. The power of the Oval Office is not supposed to be used for settling old scores with adversaries, as Trump mused in the closing days of his election campaign, according to an article in the New York Times.

The hallmarks of his campaign included threats to jail Hillary Clinton, sue all the women who dared to accuse him of sexual harassment, castrate the speaker of the House of Representatives, curtail the freedom of press and, according to NYT, to fund a “super PAC” with vengeance as its core mission. He also promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants from USA, tear up free trade agreements, impose religious vetting in the country, and sabotage international plans to combate climate change. Millions of people can be hurt if he follows through with his pledges.

This election campaign has changed the American politics. The American political system has long turned into a sort of entertainment industry and only its in-house rules and the playbook of “established dynastic rituals” acted as a break to prevent the full realisation of its entertaining-tabloid potential. A reality TV star, Donald Trump, whose main duty was to fire people and who can sell his name better than anyone else in the world, discovered and exploited this potential in all its ugly splendor.

Despite the elections being over, the much talked about political crisis has not gone away. It evolved into a new phase. The given paper looks into the crisis of the US political system, the global systemic crisis, and the growing influence of populism in the world. Just Trump’s victory has turned the spotlight on these three phenomena.

The crisis of the American political system
The fact that the American political system has actually shot itself in the foot has stunned political analysts. Never in the history of presidential elections has there been a campaign so thin on details as the 2016 presidential race, which turned in fact into a heated and highly personalized polemic with  frequent outbursts of mutual insults and accusations. Instead of presenting action plans and conceptual program models, both contenders attacked each other’s temperament, character, and personality, claiming that the opponent is unfit to be president and commander in chief.

With the elections in the rear mirror now, problems of the American political class will not disappear. Emotions run so high that the American society is likely to become even more polarized. Despite the election victory, reports about rifts within the Republican party, which sought to distance itself from its candidate instead of supporting him during the presidential campaign, have not faded away. The Democratic party is also in disarray. Although Bernie Sanders officially endorsed Hillary Clinton’s bid for presidency, documents released by Wikileaks in the final days of the election campaign laid bare substantial differences between the two Democratic leaders. America will need to heal its wounds after such divisive elections, though there are quite a few people who might try to reopen them again. The outcome of the vote has frustrated many Americans and their disappointment is unlikely to abate soon.

The election campaign has changed political parties. The Democratic party woke up to an uncomfortable reality: its core voter base it has always viewed as its future hope and support – students, young professionals and the youth in general – have swung to the left and reject any compromise. The voters who say No to growing inequality and Yes to open society and international efforts to combat global warming want an anti-establishment presidential candidate. That said, it is clear that the Democratic party’s decision to nominate Hillary Clinton, a paragon of the establishment, to run for the White House was wrong from the start.

hillaryOpponents of the Democratic party have had a harsh political awakening of their own, despite their candidate’s unexpected victory. The elections demonstrated to the conservatives that their party is alarmingly out of touch with its electorate and showed what can result from its long-running demonization of the state, ecology and civil activism. Donald Trump presented himself as a man of the people the elite was unwilling to hear and promised to make their voice heard on the election day. And the elite was apparently shaken by what it heard. He set the Republican party’s social base against the Republicans themselves, triggering rifts and tensions inside the party.

Russia’s emergence in the epicentre of the campaign gave the story an interesting twist. In American political history, the 2016 presidential poll has become the last chapter in a long path that started in 1992 after the demise of the USSR. No longer facing systemic opposition from Moscow, America rapidly ascended to global dominance, a development that had profound implications for its domestic and foreign policy, which changed fundamentally and, most importantly, became even more intertwined.

The collapse of the Soviet empire provided a tremendous momentum and a higher clout for USA on the international arena. As a result, the country’s foreign policy and internal politics have become closely interconnected, a point vividly illustrated by the 2016 election, when both parties were thrown into a morass by the growing public discontent with global economic processes. There is something symbolical in the fact that the change of paradigms coincided in time with the re-emergence of the Russian factor. It is important to note that the change came about not least because of the efforts of Russia itself.

Francis Fukuyama, who once predicted the end of history (though admitting later that it was a hasty conclusion), describes in one of his latest articles how fascinated he is by the ongoing US election drama. On the one hand, it has revealed a deep crisis; on the other hand, it shows the self healing signs, a vital precondition for the birth of a new system. What is widely referred to as populism today is nothing else but the indication of the increasing social mobilization and a message for the establishment – now is the time for change. And although there has been no adequate response to the clamour yet, there is little doubt that the emergence of a new generation of political leaders is just a matter of time. As to those politicians (both contenders) whose negative rating is almost twice higher than their popularity, they are simply actors of the transitional period.

Fukuyama’s arguments seem plausible. The American political system has many times proved its potential for self-healing and renewal, and the impetus has always come from the society. The social base underwent transformation, while the political superstructure adapted to the new reality, often after going through some major upheavals. The crucial question at the present stage is how hard the adaptartion process will be.

Today we are witnessing the dawn of a new global order. Political events of 2016, including the presidential elections in USA, can be seen as a kind of “seismic precursors” of the imminent change. The world has realised that the old model is largely inefficient. It is hard to predict what the new political system will look like and how it will work until the new leaders get on stage. But one of its first indicators is the growing influence of populism.

The rise of populism
trump-1Bard College professor Ian Buruma describes modern populism as a new class war between the beneficiaries of a globalized world and those who feel left behind. In his words, supporters of Donald Trump in America and of Brexit in Britain are, on the whole, less educated than the “establishment” they oppose. But they could never have gotten as far as they have on their own. The Tea Party in the United States would have been relatively marginal without powerful backers and demagogues. And these are often newly rich men who share their followers’ bitterness.

This was clearly the case in Italy, where former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose background is almost identical to Mr. Trump’s, managed to tap into the dreams and resentments of millions of people. Populist movements in other countries show a similar pattern. In Thailand, the Sino-Thai business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, the son of a nouveau-riche father like Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Trump, ran against Bangkok’s social and political elites, becoming prime minister with the backing of provincial and rural voters, before being ousted in a military coup. In the Netherlands, a newly rich class of real estate moguls backed the right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn and his cruder successor, Geert Wilders.

The newly rich are as important a force in the rise of populism as the poorer and less educated people who feel neglected by the elites. Despite huge inequalities of wealth, they share a deep anger at those whom they suspect of looking down on them. And they are not entirely wrong. No matter how many palaces or yachts new money can acquire, old money will continue to despise them. Likewise, the educated urban class tends to dismiss the voters who supported Brexit or Trump as stupid and ill-bred.

It is this fusion of resentments, felt by the newly rich as much as by the left behind, that drives right-wing populism. In extreme circumstances, this can result in dictatorship, with the tyrants free to indulge bizarre fantasies at the expense of millions under their control. So far, in Europe and the United States, the demagogues can only serve up dreams: taking back our country, making it great again and so on. To prevent such dreams from becoming a political nightmare, something more is needed than technocratic expertise, or calls for civility and moderation. Angry people cannot easily be persuaded by luminous reason. They must be offered an alternative vision.

The problem today, all over the world, is that such an alternative is not readily at hand. The French Revolution happened more than two centuries ago. “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” is only a historic slogan today. But this might be a good time to update it.

Donald Trump and a World of Distrust

Janine R. Wedel, anthropologist and professor at George Mason University, argues that a crisis of public confidence in civic institutions including governments, legislatures, courts, and the media – is a central factor in the rise of Donald Trump and figures like him around the world. And so long as the crisis persists, such leaders will continue to resonate with voters, regardless of electoral outcomes.

According to Mrs. Wedel, the crisis is not new. A 2007 study, commissioned for a United Nations forum, showed a “pervasive” pattern: over the last four decades, nearly all of the so-called developed, industrialized democracies have been experiencing a decrease in the public trust in government. In the 1990s, even countries long known for strong civic trust, such as Sweden and Norway, recorded a decline.

In the United States, Gallup’s latest survey of “confidence in institutions” shows double-digit percentage declines in trust since the 1970s (or the earliest available measurement) for 12 of 17 institutions, including banks, Congress, the presidency, schools, the press, and churches; of the remaining institutions, confidence increased modestly for four, and significantly for just one: the military. Devaluation of the civil institutions is usually linked to the gradual rise of the neo-liberal paradigm since the 1970s.

There are similarities to some alarming trends in the US, Europe, and elsewhere today. According to a major study by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton last year, the mortality rate for middle-aged, less-educated white men in the US has been surging, in what some observers have called a wave of “despair deaths.”

At the same time, American millennials (those born between 1982 and 2004) are postponing marriage and home or car purchases, with many telling pollsters that the postponement will be permanent. They are residing with their parents at rates not seen since 1940, and many of them make a living  through temporary jobs that provide neither benefits nor job security. As a result, a growing number of people are identifying as outsiders. Doors that were once open to them have been shut, and their faith in public institutions to represent their interests has significantly eroded. Many look to anti-establishment movements and figures, such as Trump, for salvation.

trump2The same tendency is apparent in the anti-elite, anti-system rage that has erupted across Europe, reflected in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum; the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party’s continued rise; far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the French presidential campaign; and the Austrian elections this year, where for the first time since World War II no “establishment” candidates made it to the final ballot.

In the US, as the 2016 presidential campaign got underway, many voters clearly believed – not without reason – that the system was “rigged.” But democracy and distrust can be a dangerous compound, because people confronting complex political and economic issues do not always direct their anger at the proper target.

Profound economic and technological changes in recent decades – together with privatization, deregulation, digitization, and financialization – have further empowered elites and enabled them to hone their use of political influencing via think tanks and philanthropies; shadow lobbying, workarounds that subvert standard processes; the media; campaign finance; and stints in “public service” to advance their interests. This “new corruption,” though usually technically legal, is virtually nontransparent – and thus highly corrosive of public trust.

This, along with widening income inequality, helps explain how voters can be swayed by a candidate like Trump, especially when they live, as many increasingly do, in their own information universes. Facebook and Twitter algorithms confirm a group’s biases and screen out contrary viewpoints – and even facts. The digital age has created an insularity that, ironically, is not unlike that fostered under communism.

Globalization has blurred traditional divisions between domestic and foreign policy. This phenomenon is not new, but it has reached a new level today. The current system of international relations, which was formed more than two decades ago, is under attack from two directions nowadays. Non-western countries, which played no part in its development, and societies of those major powers, where people feel abandoned and neglected by the elites, perceive this system as unfair. The rise of populists, eurosceptics, left and right wing radicals in USA and Europe indicates that citizens of these countries cannot see where they are being led by the political elite.

It can be said that the “global disorder” is caused by trepartite resentment. Elites of the major powers, western societies and big non-western players are all frustrated and angry. For some time their discontent was kept below the surface, but in the second decade of the XXI century quantity has transformed, in many respects, into quality. It can be assumed that in 2016 not a single country among major world players is fully satisfied with the existing political and economic status-quo.

According to Mrs. Wedel, trust is the lifeblood of a thriving society, and much of the West needs an emergency transfusion. But its political systems will remain on life support until their entrenched elites feel sufficiently vulnerable to stop ignoring the needs of those who have been left behind. If they don’t, this political system will be doomed to collapse.

 

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[1] The informal but widely used term “belt” usually refers to US states with similar characteristics.

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