Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Century of the Trump?

The ‘Trumpification’ of politics is not difficult to understand. It is a product of an undeniable global trend that has seen the bureaucracies and leadership styles of late 20th Century politicians lose touch with the societies they are meant to serve in the 21st Century. This in turn has opened up opportunities for right and left wing exploitation of the yawning gap between power and people in democratic societies.

The ‘Trumpification’ of global politics is nothing new. The soundbyte politics of the 1990s has met new media and reality television, and led to the creation of a superficial political discourse that aims to capture and hold the short attention spans of 21st Century citizens. It achieves this by gross oversimplification and the capture of political territory through the use of one-dimensional sloganeering and surface level analysis (think George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi). In the quest to “keep it short”, the finer details are lost. Yet it is precisely these details that are so important to consider when undertaking political decision-making.

It appears as though the primary reaction to the globalisation, is to send society’s groups scrambling back into their enclosures. Instead of becoming more at ease with the broader world they appear to feel threatened by it instead. Opening up to a brave new world has – understandably – proved difficult for many societies and groups across the world. Change is always difficult to navigate despite how inevitable it may seem, or may actually be. 

The changes in 21st Century societies across the world are taking place in a climate of economic and resource uncertainty. Since the 2008 financial collapse, the world and many regions have struggled to grow and improve living standards in their composite countries at the rates and magnitudes they would ideally have hoped for. Urbanisation and the primacy of the city in modern economies – where the city acts as a fast-growing attractor for goods, services and industries, as well as the main site of hyperfinancialisation – has also impacted on the viability and survivability of secondary and smaller towns, as well as rural areas.

Some of the key threats that change promises to deliver in this century consist of the conflicts that emerge with respect to the following: economic and technological change, migration, resource scarcity and economic sustainability, global climate change, urbanisation, the changing nature of war and terror, socio-cultural changes with respect to identity as well as values and beliefs, as well as the nature of work and unemployment.

With respect to the projected changes in work and unemployment, in particular, it is important to clarify; the jobs of white and blue collar workers are shrinking and are under threat. This threat extends significantly into a range of occupations that lie outside of automation (i.e. in manufacturing and industry), extending to the development of products and the provision of services (e.g. media, software development, data capture and processing, modelling and simulation, etc.). The internet, artificial intelligence and robotics are bringing about sea changes in economies and employment throughout the world.

The inequalities between classes, races, genders etc. – i.e. whether social or economic status, or political power – have deepened in many parts of the world. These inequalities are the product of systemic weaknesses in the economic modalities of modern democracies, yet they have been exacerbated by the post-2008 global financial crisis, which has lingered on for eight years now. Despite the late 20th Century promise of a neoliberal paradise that would yield economic prosperity into perpetuity, the global political, economic and environmental outlook for the 21st Century appears dire.

On the social and cultural fronts, urbanisation and migration in an increasingly globalised world has placed many traditional and homogeneous communities, groups and societies under pressure to absorb migrants from various parts of the world, and to assimilate their values, norms, beliefs and behaviours into their places and societies. The rise of right wing parties in electorates across the EU has, in large part, been driven by fears of immigration. The “threat to our way of life” narrative is one that people across the world can easily lapse into (or fall prey to) when they feel that the social arrangements, norms, values, beliefs and behaviours that they are accustomed to, and which have become convention, encounter change. Yet these changes are inescapable in the era of globalisation, and are not bounded by space and co-location; even the virtual world presents a serious threat to existing “ways of life” in many parts of the world.  

At its very outset, this century appears belaboured by serious, even intractable challenges. When political and economic insecurity meet socio-cultural insecurity, the results can be potentially explosive.

This has opened up the space for populist politics to thrive. Instead of greater, techno-assured security and stability, the citizens of the 21st Century find themselves working harder for less. They are less able to maintain the living standards their parents were able to. Youth unemployment is skyrocketing in many parts of both the developed and developing world. General unemployment is also a major challenge for countries that have struggled to grow. Economic insecurity, and uncertainty over the future is occurring in a political environment where leaderships have lost touch with their electorates and are failing to respond to their main concerns. As a result, the space is easily captured by those who know best how to exploit this insecurity and uncertainty for political and economic gain.

Yet there is a duality to the potential that resides in these changing arrangements; on the one hand they can create and innovate new socio-economic, political and environmental trajectories, while on the other they can lead to loss of social cohesion, suspicion, increased conflict and a retreat into the safety of groups or the private realm. Leaders who can successfully exploit the fear of change, such as Trump, don’t spend much time on communicating their bold new vision. They are populists, who are more concerned with rallying the crowds against others, than providing the bold leadership that is required in order to navigate the complexity of the futures they face, and their role in creating a new future that is better for all. “Strength in diversity” is not their motto!

Yet Trump himself may only be a precursor of things to come. He may not be the worst, nor the most powerful; he may – in the end – only become known for being a precedent to what follows in the politics of the remaining eight decades of this century. By capturing the most powerful office in the world, he would have demonstrated what can be achieved through adopting this style of politicking in 21st Century society.

Successful leaders spawn copy-cats; and the more successful they are or appear to be, the more copycats they spawn. Recently, the rise of the populist hard-man Rodrigo Duterte to the presidential office of the Philippines, illustrated that the Trump-model of appealing to the electorate with tough talk can work wonders. The current Hindu nationalist president of India Narendra Modi also has a history as a hard man, but his ticket to the presidency was on a prosperity narrative; he was a man who could “get things done”. The rise of the right in Europe, particularly in France, the Netherlands and Austria, are in large part based on anti-immigrant and Islamophobic messaging (i.e. the “way of life” narrative).  

All these inclinations are embodied by Trump. It is almost as if they have recombined in his leadership style to yield a scary new precedent; one that effectively targets all outsiders, whether they belong to a religion, nationality, racial group, country, gender, or any other convenient label; one that looks inwardly to preserve what is familiar to a particular group. Populist charm, reality-television dramatism and cheap publicity stunts are the tactical basis of Trump’s politics. There is no strategy to speak of, only tactics, as this allows him to pivot with fluidity. It fits in easily to contemporary culture, where the attention span of voters has been whittled down so that they can absorb only simple narratives, grand rhetoric and conjured and manipulated ‘evidence’ or ‘facts’.

All this bodes ill for the future of global politics.  As a lesson in sobriety, it is worth considering what self-serving, attention seeking leaders do when the going gets rough. The recent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a case in point. The lead campaigners for the “leave” campaign, UKIP head Nigel Farage and pretender to the throne of the conservative party – Boris Johnson – both took every opportunity to make grand proclamations as to the independence and importance of Britain; it’s history of ‘running the world’ as evidence of its ability to operate independently, and that the EU needed the UK more than the UK needed it. They easily and comfortably slipped into their roles as over-the-top grand contrarians, who could spin and bluster anything to suit their argument. Both were not above peddling fictions as facts in order to win over the public.

Yet now that the realities of “Brexit” have dawned, and the political mess they made has landed on the doorsteps of both the UK and the EU, they have ducked out the back door. Nigel Farage grandly proclaimed that his life ambition had now been fulfilled and that there was nothing left for him to do. Boris remained silent after the vote for a prolonged period. When the landscape of contestation became apparent, and he was effectively betrayed by his “leave” campaign compatriot Michael Gove (who unexpectedly announced his candidacy for prime minister), he declared that he was not the man for the job of managing Britain’s transition out of the EU.

It is reminiscent of an earlier, much more telling disaster in global politics; the Iraq war. George Bush and Tony Blair’s war to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction has resulted in the rapid expansion and reach of extremist terror that groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL. As was the case then, when the dust cleared and the enormity of the destruction and folly became apparent, they simply washed their hands of the debacle, blamed everybody else, and sauntered off into the sunset. The mess was left to the leaders that followed and the next generation(s) to clean up, and that is currently the reality that is underway; we are living in a world where the oppressors of yesteryear and today are being asked to settle their debts.   

When self-serving, attention-seeking leaders create a mess they do not take responsibility for cleaning it up. They pass the buck on to the next leader, or the next generation. In short, they are so self-consumed that it is easy for them to take a large crap on your doorstep and move on casually to the site of their next mess without a care in the world. They explain away their errors by denying them, blaming others, or through creating diversions. They cannot see themselves as failures; they are in deep denial about their capabilities and their limitations. They are governed by hubris and are prone to cognitive dissonance. They are not leaders, they are pied pipers who charismatically lead society into turmoil, fuelled by foolish and capricious decisions, all propped up by prejudice, recklessness and an outsized dose of pride.

Casting diversity and regional cooperation as a threat, building walls to keep migrants and refugees out, and labelling minority groups and ‘outsiders’ as “rapists” and “murderers” – or terrorists, in the case of Muslims – is hardly likely to bring about the kind of societies and the kind of world that is necessary for a better global future. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the end of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994 have become powerful symbols of the folly and human tragedy of divisions, and the necessity for an approach towards diversity and globalisation that recognises our common humanity as a starting point. The politics of division has only one objective; to divide and conquer. And in this kind of politics, even the supporters are divided and conquered, even though they remain oblivious to it.

Right now, the world needs the kind of leadership that can face up to the serious challenges that we face as a global community, as well as the challenges of local communities, which overlap and cannot be separated. When considering the multidimensional nature of the changes that are projected in the 21st Century, it is not difficult to imagine that the transitions that societies and economies need to undergo may be problematic, even painful. What the world needs now, are visionary leaders who can navigate an unprecedented and complex global future that manifests at the local level in myriad ways, exerting pressures but also opening up opportunities to do things differently. More of the same leadership style of the late 20th Century is hardly likely to make a significant difference.

The political establishments of the 20th Century are under threat everywhere around the world in the 21st Century. The winds of change are blowing. Yet there is great uncertainty as to where these winds will lead us. It appears as though the democratic process – in many parts of the world – is proving to be more of a popularity contest than a political contest. Democracy is fast becoming a reality television show characterised by fickle groundswells rather than truly sustainable grassroots political mobilization. Now is the time to get the politics right, or the planet may embark upon a series of half-baked and ill-informed political and economic trajectories for the next few decades. If the Trump phenomenon proves to be a catalyst for rapid reproduction of similar-styled politics in democracies around the world, we may be living in a century where things get much worse before they get better.

We live in a fragile world. History shows how easily we can bring about ruin and destruction, and how long and painful the processes of recovery are. It is time for widespread grassroots political mobilization that can help constitute the kind of political spaces of action that can respond to the challenges societies around the world face, and empower people to take constructive political action to improve their futures, as well as that of their neighbours. The changes that the 21st Century have brought are irreversible. There is no going back, and anybody who professes grand returns to “greatness” and “independence” are selling the public a fantasy. It’s time to move forward, and a significantly profound political vision is required; one that can help realise a better future for all. Let’s get on with it!


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