This is just a collection of thoughts that have occurred to me over the previous week since Donald Trump became President Elect of the United States of America. Half ideas and considerations that have either occurred as the result of conversations, reading or reflection. None of them are fully formed into things worth writing a whole blog post about but I thought I’d record them here for consideration and to look back on over the course of his Presidency to see how relevant they were:
- It’s interesting to look at the 2013 Republican autopsy dealing with Mitt Romney’s failure in the 2012 Presidential election. The report made recommendations for how the party could evolve to deal with the changing demographics of the country and its own record of two Presidential defeats in a row. The document basically served as a “What not to do” guide for Trump who, although he underperformed Romney’s overall numbers, outperformed his result by winning the Presidency. There are two ways to look at this – one is that the report simply underestimated the effect of playing heavily to a base of white working class voters, a tactic that clearly paid off, the other is a more long term view that the shifting demographics of America mean that Trump’s plan was basically good for one election, maybe two, and that by playing to the audience he has he may have damned the Republican party beyond his Presidency.
- Daesh’s entire propaganda and recruitment strategy, whether it’s targeting mujahideen from the Arab world or Sunnis from further afield, is based on the idea that there is a war between Islam and the rest of the world. The US electorate just legitimised that view. When a Muslim American kid gets bullied at school because of his or her faith and then targeted for recruitment to extremism, how do you convince them that the rhetoric of us versus them is invalid when their own President endorses it?
- Thucydides is worth re examining in the absence of interlinked global economies. The Trump trade plan is essentially a reversal of a globalisation process that no one has had the transparency to stand up and defend or admit it’s flaws (See my blog post – https://chubbywordsmith.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/the-anti-free-trade-backlash/ – SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION). While the idea that international trade necessarily prevents war has been proven untrue time and time again there is some truth to Toby Ziegler’s rant (found in that earlier blog post and always worth going back to) that it does, generally have that effect. The geopolitical relationship between the US and China was destined for war according to Thucydidean theory but the fact that we had created a kind of mutually assured economic destruction through US bonds and Chinese exports meant that we had a kind of workaround. Trump may be on the verge of dismantling that safety feature.
- Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation are the industries of the future. Perhaps the single biggest disaster of a Trump presidency and of the wave of isolationist populism more generally is that the norms and institutions of the international community are being undermined and weakened at the very moment we needed them to outperform themselves to rise to the challenge of fighting climate change. It doesn’t mean the battle for emissions reductions stops, it just means the already low chances of victory just got several orders of magnitude smaller. So adaptation and mitigation are our best hope of limiting deaths, resource wars and climate migration. To succeed we will need the private sector and civil society to step up to the challenge that the Westphalian nation state system was always bound to lack the requisite tools for.
- For all the discussion of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate that could have won this election – an argument I don’t think holds water when it’s really examined – there’s surprisingly little discussion of the candidate who I think hindsight shows us would have really had the best chance of beating Trump. Joe Biden. The Sanders supporters will understandably get the chance to present their candidate in a very favourable light but a basically meaningless hypothetical head to head that showed him beating Trump in primary season doesn’t mask the fact that he was a 75 year old senator with an ineffective record who publicly declared himself a socialist and had a Jewish heritage that the alt right would have hated him for and Trump would have dog-whistled to hell. Biden, on the other hand, could have represented the continuation of the Obama administration that Clinton never quite managed to define herself as. And for an outgoing President with an approval rating of 57% that was probably a winning brand. Not to mention the fact that he was born in Pennsylvania, he has a considerably more favourable public image than Hillary Clinton and appeals to working class white voters in a way the Democrats palpably failed to do this election. I accept Biden’s explanation at the time that he genuinely did put a good amount of thought into running and simply came to the conclusion that it wasn’t an option he wanted to take. I also maintain that Hillary Clinton was far and away the best nominee available to the Democrats and would have made a fine President, but while we’re playing hindsight top trumps (pun intended) Sanders shouldn’t get a look in over Biden.
- The comparisons between Trump and Hitler have been frequent and, I believe, a particularly counter productive and ill thought out form of hyperbole, though Trump does quite remind me of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s pseudo-Hitler in his famous allegory of nineteen thirties Germany. Nonetheless, Trump doesn’t fit the fascist dictator mould. The militarism of fascism juxtaposes with the isolationism of Trump in a way that doesn’t favour the analogies under any close inspection. I tend to think that Niall Ferguson’s recent comparison to the populism of the late nineteenth century is a more accurate parallel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmdxYTyrI-E). That’s not to say Trump isn’t supported by fascists. I think it’s clear that a not insignificant section of his base falls into that category. It’s just probably not accurate to look at Trump as a fascistic leader. With that being said it really is worth looking at this (http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty/nico.v/Research/Highway_to_Hitler.pdf) paper out of UCLA on Nazi use of public infrastructure to build public support not only as a comparison with Trump’s spending plans but also as a warning to states that have adopted more austerity measures than the US in reaction to 2008’s financial crisis (like the UK for example). A UKIP or even a more extreme far right group of genuine fascists could potentially do very well on a platform of violent racism combined with lavish public spending plans.
- So much of the “Why did Trump happen?” and “Why didn’t we see this coming?” rhetoric misses a key point. We DID see this coming. Trump consistently polled within a few percentage points of Clinton, including a period just before the DNC when he could legitimately have claimed to be ahead. The five and six point gap we saw around the time of the debates was the exception to the rule and the fact that Clinton won the popular vote means most of the national polling might well be able to say it was within margin of error. State level polling had bigger misses, sure, and there are multiple reasons why that happened but the point remains that everyone assumed that for most of the race Clinton would have a marginal electoral victory and she ended up with a marginal electoral defeat. Granted, in majoritarian democracies that difference makes all the difference in terms of what comes next but it doesn’t actually change the way we should view the electorate. In the same way that a narrow victory for Brexit would have been a huge immediate relief but still meant the country was roughly divided between liberal internationalists and economically illiterate fucksticks, so the Trump victory doesn’t really reflect much better on the State of US politics than if a few hundred thousand votes in a few key states had gone the other way
- When Oxfam said in 2014 that extreme inequality was the single biggest issue threatening the world today they were talking about the record global levels of disparity and income wealth. Drawing on the research Thomas Piketty presented in what I think will go down as one of the most prescient books in decades, Capital in the Twenty First Century, the fear was that the rich-poor divide would create unrest in sub Saharan Africa and other parts of the Global South. In fact, it is in the developed world that it is proving the most disruptive, with populations willing to risk security and stability in order to protest the inequity of post globalisation growth.
- There will be a number of world leaders who view Trump’s election favourably. Unfortunately the list only confirms the idea that the regressive human rights abusers of the world have scored a victory. Putin, Kim Jong Un and Robert Mugabe don’t make many people’s lists of progressive, enlightened heads of state. The happiest amongst them, though, may well be Bashar Al Assad. With Trump’s understanding of the incredibly complex and multi polar Syrian civil was essentially being “ISIS bad” it seems easy to predict an arrangement in which Russia co-operates in the military defeat of Daesh and then the US vacate the arena, leaving Iranian and Russian forces tip the balance and wrest back control from various rebel militias in a prolonged and even bloodier battle than we’ve already seen. Saudi influence will wane with America’s withdrawal from the stage, as will Sunni power in Iraq and Syria more generally and what that means for power balances in the region is so unpredictable as to be genuinely terrifying.