LESSONS OF NOVEMBER
Several days have passed since New York real-estate tycoon Donald J. Trump became a new President-Elect of the United States. The high drama of his election has generated a great deal of hype, hysteria, anxiety, and even re-enactments of apocalypse replete with car torches, broken windows and looted stores. The liberals are in despair and the Democrats are in disarray, scrambling for answers that may explain their demise and searching for policies that may lead them out of their current conundrum—needless to say, all without much success.
Explanations for the phenomenon of Donald Trump are a mix of pseudo sociology combined with statistical voodoo practices. They stitch together a narrative that is trivial and wrong. It tells the all-too-familiar story about the rapidly advancing society on the march toward a bright technological future and some less fortunate members of our society who have either failed to anticipate changes or have few means to cope with them. It is a familiar story of the downtrodden whose response to the rapidly changing conditions reaches into reactionary values of sexism, racism, and xenophobia.
As it is, this narrative spewed from the pages of major liberal publications and news media has ignored some obvious facts: that supporters of Donald Trump are not all white and not all poor, that many of them have gainful employments and are not necessarily intolerant toward minorities, women or foreigners. Why are these misperceptions and misrepresentations? These are generally not intentional distortions of reality designed for political manipulation. They are, what one could call, honest mistakes–acts of self-deception—that provide intellectual comfort and gratification but not much else. They give one the narcissistic pleasure of observing one’s own image projected on reality wrapped in an aura of knowledge and intellectual respectability.
These misrepresentations would be harmless and even amusing had they not concealed the dangers of intellectual laziness and smug arrogance. And these qualities are neither harmless nor amusing. They create an illusion of mental safety and intellectual invulnerability amidst the danger of our tumultuous world. This world will not leave such laziness and arrogance unpunished. It will exact a price in pain, suffering, and human lives.
So, what lessons one can draw from the experience of the last several months? What insights are there to be derived from the high drama of the political theater of this season?
The view that the support for Donald Trump is reactionary in nature and that it comes primarily from those who are increasingly losing their place in modern society appears to be very simplistic and largely wrong. This is not to say that there is no racism, misogyny, or xenophobia among the supporters of Donald Trump. They are a very diverse group that represents well a good cross-section of American society. Therefore, one can find among them everything one can find in our society. However, Trump’s supporters also include doctors, bankers, business owners, lawyers, teachers, students, members of minority groups, and representatives of many other segments of our diverse society. These are modern people many of whom are educated, informed, and technologically savvy. Therefore, Trump’s support must be coming from a different source than what liberal pundits and media indicate. These generally examine the Trump phenomenon through the old lens of social and political analysis that belongs to the 19th, not 21st century.
The modern civilization has experienced unprecedented changes that affected all groups of the population. Communication and information technology has expanded enormously the universe of the average American. Americans are better informed and are more connected to each other and the rest of the world through global networks than ever before. Robot, computers, and automata are rapidly changing our economy and production. They replace humans in performing routine monotonous physical or mental tasks. The competitive edge in modern economy comes increasingly from creativity and knowledge. These developments have had profound effects on broad segments of American population. Trump’s supporters are certainly not an exception in this regard; they are certainly part of the rule.
One of the effects of these changes is the increasing role of networks and non-hierarchical interactions in our society. These changes have also brought new awareness of autonomy, agency, and empowerment; as well as new forms of activism. This activism increasingly focuses on what sociologists and political scientists have described as “the deficit of democracy.” It is largely anti-hierarchical and anti-establishment in its ethos and politics. Anti-establishment attitudes dominated the Arab Spring, the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, the Occupy Wall Street campaign and many other protests movements that we have been able to observe over the last decade.
The anti-establishment appeal has been and continues to be very prominent during this political season. Donald Trump has capitalized on this appeal and used it in his campaign to route the Republican establishment and then the broader coalition of both the Democratic and Republican political elites opposed to him. The anti-establishment mood was also prominent among the supporters of Senator Sanders who was able to mount an impressive campaign and presented a serious challenge to the Democratic Party establishment. Those who supported Sanders viewed him as someone who was much closer to the American people than mainstream Democratic politicians. In many ways Sanders well earned this perception. Unlike other Democratic politicians, Sanders frequents town hall meetings in Vermont, crisscrossing his state to talk to his constituents. Sanders also self-consciously relied in his campaign on small contributions from supporters and avoided the PAC money, thus appearing to be much more dependent on his supporters than other candidates. Unfortunately, Sanders never developed that non-hierarchical aspect of his campaign sufficiently well and ultimately succumbed to pressures from the Democratic hierarchy.
So, what conclusions can one draw from the experience of the current political season? How will this new situation play out in American politics? And, most importantly, what should be the progressive agenda in the wake of the election of Donald Trump?
First, this analysis suggests that it is the mainstream American politicians who are conservative, if not reactionary, not the people of America. They emphasize old approaches and tired dogmas that the American people have rejected. The American people may not know what they want, they may not have a clear idea of where to go, but they know very well what they do not want; and they do not want a status quo. One can only agree with them.
If the current trends will continue—and there is no reason to believe that they should not—we can expect more pressure to reconfigure the relationship between hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions, between the leaders and the led in our politics and society. Political benefits will accrue to those who will respond positively to these pressures and find an adequate answer to the challenges they present.
Donald Trump is unlikely to ride the wave of popular discontent for too long. He is too much of an elite himself, too close to oligarchies and too little aware of the true nature of the social upheaval that has brought him to power. Yes, to his credit, Trump should be commended on his intuitive capacity to grasp the potential of the current upheaval, but good intuition is no substitute for clear understanding of the forces that have brought him to power; and the lack of understanding can only have one outcome—loss of control. Ultimately, Donald Trump can experiment and take risks but he is not equipped for developing new policies and creating a new political culture fit for the 21st century and our new social, economic, and political environment.
There are no indications that he understands and will be able to develop a new model for building enduring political support. Without the solution to the problem of the relationship between hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions in our society, his popular appeal will start waning once his traditional policies of cutting taxes and creating business incentives will start failing; and this failure is only a question of when, not if. A short article is not the place to examine in detail Trump’s proposed economic policies, which are contradictory, to say the least. Suffice it to say, that his plan for simultaneous tax cuts and public spending is likely to have only short-term, and I mean very short-term, benefits, not lasting effects.
The pressures of technological innovations will continue. It will continue to pose a threat not just to blue-collar jobs but also to many white-color lines of employments, such as doctors or lawyers. Trump has no insights or anticipation regarding these developments, and there is nothing in his plan that addresses these issues in any way. When his popularity starts waning, there will be little to prop up his presidency, other than personal appeal—a very fickle and extremely unreliable factor. Trump will quickly learn how tenuous is his connection to the momentous forces that have brought him to power. His one-time supporters will see him as much part of the establishment as they see mainstream politicians today. They will leave him and their departure will expose Trump to political perils of being unpopular.
Trump’s demise will undoubtedly create opportunities for the Democrats but these opportunities will not offer a free ride. The Democrats will still have to address the main problem that has brought them down in this election—the problem of hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions, the need to create a new political model fit for the 21st century and the new conditions created by the progress of our civilization. If they fail to do so, they will not be able to gain anything from the demise of Donald Trump. And another failure by the Democrats will only leave the people more disillusioned in and frustrated with the Democratic Party. Without a clear and coherent political direction, this disillusionment and frustration will only result in spontaneous outbursts driven by anger and fear that will only lead to more instability and violence.
The sooner the main problem regarding the new direction becomes the subject of open and broad discussions the better it will be for this country and the rest of the world, the more likely the people and politicians be better prepared for next elections when the same political and social problems are likely to re-emerge. If this does not happen and we are not prepared, the consequences will be direr and the resulting political turmoil will be far more destructive than it is today.