Into the Political Hinterland

Maybe we should have seen this coming.

That's easy to say in hindsight, of course. Then again, Donald Trump's unlikely ascendancy to the Oval Office has all the hallmarks of the Brexit vote that shocked the world only a few months ago. As with that episode, polls in key regions were spectacularly wrong. And most importantly, like with Brexit, millions of the votes for the protest candidate were cast against the status quo and against the politicians representing it rather than explicitly for Trump as a person. This result signals a desire for profound upheaval to an established order that avowedly needs it. America's choice of captain to steer the ship, however, is rather regrettable.

The economist Mark Blyth had estimated a Trump victory at 60% probability. His reasons for doing so are astute, and are worth listening to. In short: job loss, wage decline, and general economic malaise leading to political dissatisfaction. The problem is, there's no certainty (to put it mildly) that any of Trump's promises will be able to remedy those ills, which are an inevitable part of the furniture in a neoliberal world of financial capitalism. Trump's horrifying tax plan alone is an endorsement of – not a departure from – the same trajectory of skyrocketing inequality that we've been on for the last four decades.

The overt racism that his campaign stirred up was not the primary ingredient in his victory, though it seems to have been a significant factor nonetheless seeing that as many as half his supporters are likely more racist than the average person. Racism is by definition nonsensical because it's viscerally motivated, not driven by truth. Slavoj Zizek uses the example of a jealous husband who, despite a complete lack of evidence, suspects that his wife is cheating on him. Even if she is, in fact, cheating on him, his suspicion is still pathological because his opinion isn't informed by evidence, and never was. In exactly the same way, the fear among many Trump supporters that unauthorized Hispanic immigrants are “flooding” into the US does not reflect reality. It's an erroneous perception that's taken on a life of it's own through hearsay and assumption. But even if it was true that illegal immigration was out of control, it still wouldn't justify or even explain the bigotry, because those sentiments have originated independent of the facts. The same can be said of the prejudice toward Muslims and dark-skinned people generally, who have unfortunately been regarded as being at least potentially sympathetic to Islamic terrorism.

As with the proverb of the suspicious husband, it tells us something about the people who believe it without having done their homework. They're victims in their own right, understandably frustrated by declining job prospects in a system that has been leaving working people behind for quite some time. (As a matter of fact, economic disparity is at such heights now that all but the richest 15-20% are going to be left behind). But the toughest part of all is figuring out who or what is to blame for their misfortune, and they're desperately grasping for answers. Tragically, some of that blame has been laid at the feet of Hispanic immigrants who are in the country illegally, even though the US economy actually benefits from immigration, and needs new immigrants to counter the aging trend that's going to wreak havoc over the coming years.

Many accusatory fingers have also been correctly pointed at the American political establishment, but even then the most that the average Trump supporter can say is that he's an “outsider” who's going to “shake up” Washington and “drain the swamp.” That sort of language is at once caustic and ambiguous, suggesting that while people know what they don't want, they don't really have a good idea of what change should look like.

What far too few have realized is that while Trump may technically be a political outsider, his status as a member of the world's wealthiest 0.1% means that it almost certainly doesn't matter. Apart from perhaps the few uber-benevolent and politically woke among the ultra-rich, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the world's oligarchic elite haven't the slightest interest in taking the measures needed to right the ship, and in that sense are no different from the political establishment. In other words, Trump's no outsider – he's in the thick of it, and always has been. The antics he displayed during his circus of an electoral campaign taught us that, to him, becoming president of the United States has largely been a personal vanity affair.

It's disheartening that his election to the highest office in the land proved to be the price of expressing mass disapproval. If there's any silver lining, it's that

  1. The political system's checks and balances will likely prevent him from carrying out some of the things he's promised to do; and
  2. It's much harder to govern than to simply talk about governing, which is all he's had to do so far. Upon assuming office the charade will come to an end when Trump discovers, along with all his supporters, that the problems America faces are far too complex to be solved by one person's ideas, no matter how orange or tremendous that person might be.

Making Donald Trump president is what I call the “Tear the temple down” theory, in that it will disrupt the stagnant Democratic and Republican parties like never before, along with America's political culture, and will hopefully spur a rethink of concepts that too many people take for granted. I wasn't in favour of such a massive experiment, because it risked opening a Pandora's Box of frightening fringe political forces that are becoming more emboldened. But it's the hand America's now been dealt, and there is some potential for this creative destruction to yield positive results down the line.