Friday, 17 March 2017

Re-Thinking Trump: What’s Left?

Revelling in Contradictions

There are many on the left who are of the view that Donald Trump is merely a distraction from the real political challenges facing the left and liberals; that he is merely a stage-act who may make a few loud noises, but will ultimately prove largely ineffective and harmless in the end, that he will be reined in by the same systemic constraints that – for example – rendered Obama’s promises of change ultimately ineffectual and timid.

Indeed it is true that the problems and challenges facing society are systemic. However, systemic solutions will only be arrived at in the long-term, while in the short-term Trump’s leadership threatens to set the planet back – in real terms – by decades. In particular, reflect on the potential impacts of; climate change denialism, bringing back fossil fuels, smashing environmental regulations, protectionism, isolationism, alienating NATO allies, drawing China into open confrontation, destabilising Mexico and relations with South America, reinforcing Islamophobia and normalising it, the sheer idiocy of committing to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and encouraging the break-up of the European Union. These are not trivial matters that can be put aside in the quest to resolve systemic issues in the long term. There may not be a long term to speak of should this combination of interventions go awry, and there is every likelihood that they will unleash a fair measure of uncertainty and chaos on the world in both the short and medium terms.

Moreover, Trump is the embodiment of the neoliberal consensus; he is – rightly – the focus of attention because his life, character, demeanour and lifestyle epitomises self-interest, self-centredness, the accumulation of wealth, a willingness to bully and walk over people to get his way (i.e. ‘gritty ambition’), as well as a complete and utter disregard for rules, conventions and any form of diplomacy and etiquette.

He is a walking contradiction. He inherited his wealth, yet masquerades as a self-made man, a businessman who built an empire using his own wit and deal-making ability. He is oversensitive to criticism, yet unleashes unrestrained criticism to all and sundry. He spouts bigotry, yet claims to be the least bigoted person of all time. He is clearly sexist and misogynistic yet claims to be the opposite. He represents everything that is wrong about the neoliberal consensus and is a benefactor of it, yet claims to be its greatest detractor; the messiah who will unravel it to the common man’s benefit. Despite his promises to take on the banks that brought on the 2008 financial crisis he has largely staffed his leadership with traditional Wall Street bankers. Despite his promise to bring back the ‘good old days’, when America was great, and the world took its cues from US leadership, the reality is that he is weakening NATO, rubbing allies noses in the dirt, yet currying favour with Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin.

Contradictions follow Trump wherever he goes, and it works to his advantage. He specialises in grey areas. He can say one thing to one audience, and something completely different to another. He can turn any fact on its head. When challenged, all he has to do is wave his hands and create uncertainty about the source, or disparage the source, and he gets away with it. We are his fools, because he has fooled us not once, or twice, but many, many times over. He is an expert charlatan, we are so enamoured, amused and absorbed by his act that we become certain that there must be more to him; that all this cannot merely be the product of an unhinged, incoherent mind; that it is in reality the product of a shrewd genius who never shows his cards until playing the winning hand. Our faith in Trump, is the faith we place in gamblers with a good poker face.

The Power of Disbelief

Trump’s leadership is in part facilitated by a strong sense of disbelief – i.e. amongst his followers, as well as sympathisers – that that his leadership could backfire spectacularly resulting in widespread uncertainty and discontent, not just within the US’s borders but beyond it as well. This sense of disbelief is due to both a reflexive denial of the fears that are generated by uncertainty, as well as a misplaced faith in the prevailing systems of governance.

When fear manifests, it is experienced as an existential threat; one that ushers in the possibility of loss. Different people react differently to fear and uncertainty. Some become paralysed and are rendered incapable of action. Others exert control in order to cope with their feelings of vulnerability in the face of the prospect of emergence. Yet others spiral into neurosis and become paranoid and suspicious. Many turn to metaphysical and esoteric pursuits in order to navigate through the ‘valley of the shadow’ that inevitably arises on everybody’s journey through life. Some, however, enter into a state of denial, and cannot bring themselves to accept that the ground is moving beneath their feet.

Moreover, when the status quo appears so firmly entrenched that no memory of the norm existing as anything other than stable persists, it becomes difficult for people to envision radical change to it. When society ceases to be able to envision itself functioning in any other way than the way it is, and has been for a while, the persistence of normativity takes on all-pervasive proportions. Omnipotence, is not reserved for the Gods and demi-Gods; it is the reality behind every civilisation. It becomes unquestioned, the basis for everything that people experience as their societal reality (i.e. in social, economic and ecological terms). Our place in the world, and the societies we live out our existences in, become irrevocably shaped by it. That is why when change beckons, and becomes imminent, society is often caught unawares and is found wanting in its responses to it.

In simple terms it is the power of disbelief. I think it is more powerful than most human dispositions and reactions in the face of uncertainty, especially when uncertainty is introduced into a system that has been – or appears to have been – stable for long enough for it to be regarded as normative. I’m not sure how many generations it takes for this to consolidate, but it is undeniable that society enters periods of stability that come to govern its notions of what it essentially is and consists of, and what shape and form it takes.

This sense of disbelief is characteristic of our age, and has become a default reaction to the drastic changes and challenges that are unfolding across the globe today. Whether we consider global climate change, global economic uncertainty, global environmental degradation, or the rate and nature of change in technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence and new service offerings; it is clear that society’s reactions to uncertainty are mixed. Both excitement and fear prevail, depending on whether these changes are potentially useful or harmful. Uncertainty may open up opportunities for innovation, but it also introduces a fair amount of fear to society.

Likewise, there are many in the US who have great difficulty living in the world they live in today. Irreversibly globalised, cosmopolitan and interconnected, and with structural changes affecting how power is distributed and wielded in society, the 21st Century world undermines the very basis of their existence. They are unable to connect with the very same societies that they once were themselves normative within, when people in society thought like them, spoke like them and acted like them. They were validated by the communities and societies they lived in because it mirrored their values, belief systems, norms and lifestyles to a great extent. Increased diversity and globalisation – i.e. social, economic and cultural – manifests in all spheres of life, affecting jobs, family life, religion, community identity and individual identity. It has destabilised their worlds. And such is the power of disbelief that they believe they can reverse it and return to the status quo of old. Such a complex thing as society and its globalisation, however, cannot be reversed, no matter how strong the sentiment or nostalgia for mid to late 20th Century norms may be. Even if societies were ethnically ‘cleansed’ of minorities and different cultural groups, it cannot return to a by-gone age that was defined by a completely different set of local and global circumstances.

They may be under the misconception that stripping the political realm of the liberal consensus that supposedly serves as the enabler and engine of globalisation, will magically return society to its former state. Both this ‘former state’ and the ‘liberal consensus’ are ill-defined in this imaginary, however, as they have to be in order to render the fantastical plausible. To be clear, there is no going back. There is no return to a world of old. Rather, a new reality is being ushered in, and that is what is not being acknowledged.

How Trump Supporters View Trump

In the US, the choice of conservative candidate and now president Donald Trump, caught the majority of commentators and pundits by surprise. They are still in shock, struggling to understand how what appeared to be an outlandish fantasy has now become daily reality. Why did Trump supporters buy his act? Why did they look past his complete lack of political acumen; his wear-it-on-your-sleeve misogyny, racism and xenophobia; his refusal to make his tax returns public in full; his blatant exaggeration about his abilities as a businessperson; his contradictory statements and lies; his narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, and his patent inability to articulate a coherent paragraph when asked to speak off-the-cuff?

Indeed, how did Trump attract voters who had once voted for Barack Obama? How did he convinced them that the “change has come to America” slogan would actually be realised under his leadership? What on earth did they see that others didn’t?

To his supporters, Trump is a survivor, and that – in my view – is what holds more water and captures more sentiment, than purely viewing his life and himself as a symbol of success. And they attribute his tenacity and success as a survivor to his unique ability to read and understand people. He is thought of as being able to read the people around or across the table from him, and as person who possesses a strong intuition for how to gauge peoples’ intentions, and get his way with them.

The Art of the Deal – Trump’s official ‘autobiography’ (it was ghost-written) – created the sense of mystique around Donald Trump’s unique abilities. It set the tone for his appearance and success on reality television show ‘The Apprentice’. As an entertainer, he is a natural, and possesses the ability to insert theatrics into any scenario.

When it comes to Trump, it is not about what he is, but about what he represents in the deeper psyche of society. He is a strong-man, but business-styled. This captures the imagination of traditional communities and society and gives him legitimacy. The self-styled deal-maker who drives a hard bargain, and isn’t afraid to bull-doze over people for entertainment (albeit entertainment that masquerades as business) represents, first and foremost, a continuity with the past, in particular; the past of the late 20th Century. His supporters support him – in part – because they wish to establish an old world order; one that mirrors the period spanning the 1950’s to the 1990’s.

This is what links social conservatives that reside within both the left and the right, and possesses a message that can stir them into action in the political realm. Left and conservative/right wing views of economics are also similar. They have both become critical of “unfettered capitalism” – the belief that free markets self-regulate to yield the best outcomes for society as a whole (i.e. social, economic, environmental) – and they have both become critical of big government.

Profound disillusionment with the practical outcomes of centrist governments, which tend to produce the similar outcomes for their citizenry, has in part contributed to the polarisation between left and right, despite the shared profound political terrain they mutually occupy. Moreover, the increasing uncertainty – in terms of work, security and the future value of society as a human project; one that, in the 21st Century, spans from the globe from the community to the global – has resulted in a crisis that manifests primarily in the private realm, irrespective of their political orientation or ideology.

Trump, however, is bringing back the unfettered capitalism of the pre-2008 era. He is likely to de-regulate controls over businesses more drastically than ever before. He is also a bully who easily takes offense, and cannot stand to be seen to be weakened in any way. He walks all over conventions with contempt. He has blatantly disregarded all diplomatic norms, and thumbs his nose at any expectation of etiquette. He attacks when cornered, and spares nobody his wrath whom he feels has wronged him; he does not rise above any slight, no matter how insignificant. He now has command of the largest and most powerful military and nuclear arsenal in the world.

Yet the power of disbelief, fuelled by our preoccupation with the spectacle that Donald Trump’s politics is constituted of, renders us incapable of picturing how desperately badly his presidency may ultimately turn out. What is certain is that Donald Trump will be running for president while he is president, on every platform, at every turn, relentlessly and unreservedly, with vigour and relish … because that’s what he does best and about all he can do. He is, by his own admission, not a politician. He’s not actually interested in being a president. It’s just not that exciting. When he’s done he’ll move on to another reality TV show and will be ensured the highest television ratings – an issue that he seems to be obsessed with – and leave the mess behind for everyone else to clear up.

A Contradictory Politics

What we are currently left with, however, is a contradictory politics; one that has significant broader implications for the world. Those who have grown weary of the impacts of the 21st Century upon their lives are turning to unconventional leaders who have profoundly different messages for the public than the leaders who have come before them in respect of; immigrants, those of different religions and cultures, as well as the prevailing political establishment. Although they sometimes rail against global capitalism, it is unclear whether they will indeed fundamentally reshape it. That territory traditionally belongs to the left, and while there is significant discontent on the left, and a rejuvenation of sorts in the making, it is indisputably the right who have made the most drastic moves (here I am referring to Brexit, a possible ‘Frexit’ and other EU country departures from the EU, and the US pulling out of regional and global trade agreements under Donald Trump).

So it appears, that while the left have been making loud anti-globalisation noises for a while now, ironically it is the right who appear to be taking action against it. Ironic, because the current project of economic globalisation – in particular – is a project that was initiated by the right. It was Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who ushered in a new global consensus and took actions locally (e.g. smashing to unions) to ensure that it would flourish. The impression we are left with is that the right takes action while the left talks about it endlessly. Indeed, the right are attacking their own project with more vigour than the left, seeking to dismantle it in the same blunt fashion that they constructed it. This, it appears, is what constitutes progress to the right.

What is unclear, however, is whether the leaders on the right are merely paying lip-service to the concerns of their constituencies, or whether they intend to take meaningful action to resolve them. Trump’s actions thus far, proves confusing in this regard. His Wall Street friendly appointments, consisting largely of the prevailing elite, make it difficult to believe that he will bring about the kinds of changes (i.e. to the economy, welfare services, medical care, etc.) that ordinary working people desperately need in order to stabilise their household budgets. His isolationism, which promises a full retreat from the US’s international responsibilities, involving budgetary cuts on foreign spending, threatens to feed and catalyse the very same global terrorist forces that the US is so deeply concerned about. Moreover, his protectionist warnings towards US allies weakens NATO in the face of Russian military expansion, North Korean belligerence and ISIS and Al-Qaeda expansion. Short term exhibitionism and the projection of hard power, it seems, trumps the need to ensure long term stability around the world. It is entirely unclear who the winners and losers will be under the Trump administration; instead of increased reliability and stability, daily uncertainty reigns over what the US president will do next, and why.

Meanwhile, on the left there is confusion and a profound tension between old and new left thinking; one that mirrors the generational divide and their respective priorities closely. Old left, traditionally well-organised, drawing on a strong trade union base, exists in a state of tension with respect to emerging new left priorities such as identity (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation), radical new models of democratic organisation and participation, environmental degradation and climate change, as well as new economic models for society and new conceptions of the nation state. While the struggle for the heart of the left ensues, the right has captured the profound vacuum that exists in the space of action. The question is, for how long?

‘Democrazy’, it seems, has become a reality, but it’s the best we have for now. It is a system that allows for equally radical changes to occur on the right as on the left, as it is primarily about allowing power to change hands peacefully. Donald Trump may currently be the arch-nemesis of the left and the liberal centre, for all that he stands for and represents, but his success at the polls should provide serious food for thought for them. It should not be brushed aside as anomalous or trivial. Right wing populism is enjoying a global resurgence both in the East (e.g. India, Philippines) as well as in the West (e.g. Western Europe, the UK and the US). The long-term implications of this resurgence remains unclear.

The notion that what is occurring is merely a correction or a swing of the pendulum from one side to the other is undermined by a single critical factor; that the leaders that have emerged in these spaces share similar traits as insensitive, opportunistic, can-do hard-cases that are willing to flout all conventions, norms, and even laws, in order to create influence and secure power. Donald Trump is simply the most powerful of these leaders, and it is sure to embolden other leaders of a similar ilk. It might be that there is further replication of the Trump phenomenon across the world. And it is not just the ‘liberal consensus’ that is under threat. The left may soon be facing an all-out onslaught if it isn’t able to adequately grasp why a leader like Donald Trump was elected. The rules of the game may be changing more rapidly than it appreciates and it may come undone by seeking out simple diagnoses and prescriptions for its current set-backs. The fragmented left needs to consolidate, reflect deeply and innovate in order to counter the global swing to the right. What’s left (pun intended) after Trump, may ultimately prove more important than ever for the trajectory that the 21st Century world takes.        

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