The meaning of Trump

Mike Berger says history has chosen a crass, vulgar and predatory figure to reverse elitist hegemony and hypocrisy

The Brexit vote in England, the rise of right wing parties across the Western democracies, the unlikely election of Trump, the extravagant vehemence of protesters and the overtly partisan engagement of the established media attest to the unleashing of human passions on a world-wide scale.

Add as backdrop a bloody, global Jihadist movement and other less visible radical ideologies germinating in the wings, a resurgent but bankrupt Russia, the Chinese colossus, rogue states, the meltdown in the Middle East, chronic instability and backwardness of large areas of the world and mix in surging scientific-technological advances plus other explosive ingredients and we have the ingredients of reality TV on steroids.

We're still in Scene 1, Act 1 of a likely long-running drama series which may come to haunt our waking moments for an indeterminate time. This is a very short preview based what I know now - which is not very much.

The most conspicuous recent event is the rise of a militant, totalitarian Islamist movement and the consequent meltdown of many of the authoritarian dysfunctional states in the Middle East. This regional cataclysm has in turn generated a tsunami of refugees and 'economic migrants' which has activated pre-existing ideological and multiple identity fault lines in the West, hitherto stabilised by reasonable economic prosperity, the multiple distractions of Western style capitalism and the genius of democracy.

In an insightful article the political theorist, Walter Russell Mead, points out what he calls the rise of "Jacksonian Populism" in response to decades of identity politics promoted by elites. In their (the liberal elite) eagerness to embrace immigrants, 50 flavours of sexual orientation and other minority concerns and communities, the traditional white American heartland, especially the working-middle class, correctly felt slighted and marginalised. Trump was their answer despite any distaste they may have felt for his own values and behaviour.

Very similar dynamics are in play throughout the Western world as seen in the rise of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, Norbert Hofer and other nationalist politicians in Europe, to the point where a resurgent right poses a potential electoral threat to the established left-wing social democratic hegemony.

This is very mixed news in many respects. For some of us who broadly support liberal-progressive values, their recent excesses have made the rise of conservative opposition not wholly unwelcome. The hegemony of the 'liberal-left' within academia and, parenthetically, much of the mainstream media has been thoroughly documented by the moral philosopher, Jonathan Haidt, and his colleagues. Although Haidt's work focussed on the USA, the same trends prevail across much of the West. The echo chamber thereby created has distorted sociological and psychological research and has liberated 'progressive' political ideas from any reality constraints.

We see those dynamics being played out in the South African context where outright demagogues, intent on self-aggrandisement, camouflage their personal motivations (possibly from themselves) with a pastiche of slogans ironically taken from the same fashionable overseas sources they vilify. Our local Fallist movement relies on these memes to advance their agendas and to disarm or intimidate their opponents.

Since much of South Africa, again notably within academia and the media, is in thrall to the binary theology of 'colonial white oppression-black liberation', it lacks the moral and intellectual foundations to challenge the most ludicrous assertions. Even Prof Crowe, who bravely and effectively challenged Dr Price's capitulation to Fallist extremism and outsight criminality, is undermining his position with unconvincing efforts to pass himself off as a working class whitey at least in sympathy with Fallist ideology despite the unacceptability of their actions.

We are a species unduly susceptible to the persuasive powers of conformity and celebrity, moral shaming and guilt and tribal loyalties. Interactions between these emotional poles along with self-interested calculations can create potent and unpredictable dynamics. Established democracies are uniquely designed, via cumulative political evolutionary processes, to contain and regulate these primal human motivations and the conflicts they can generate.

The tribal-ideological faultlines in the USA and to some extent Europe have been sharpening for some decades now. The recent radical onslaught from within Islam has simply stressed them beyond accommodation and we're seeing the resultant tremors. Whether these can be sufficiently de-stressed to avoid a major political earthquake is uncertain. From all signs, the ideological war between the Trump/Brexiteers camp and the liberal establishment is in full flood and shows no sign of abating.

Big media in full attack mode is inciting a no-holds barred resistance to Trump. Many claim he is a uniquely polarising figure and is partly responsible for the onslaught. While true, it is irrelevant. Even allowing for media spin, Trump hardly fits the noble hero mould. Crass, vulgar, direct, predatory - he is what history has selected to reverse many decades of elitist hegemony and hypocrisy. For those who like their history served up a la Hollywood he is the perfect villain.

Left alone, it is possible that democratic norms and institutions would contain the battle within bearable limits and a new quasi-equilibrium would be achieved with wider political legitimacy and more realistic social norms. But of course, neither the Trump election nor the broader wave of Western instability is taking place in isolation.

There is little doubt that even within the broad Western domain of influence, the USA drama is already resonating with and amplifying faultlines across the UK, Europe and elsewhere. At the fringes, in developing nations like South Africa, various groupings will continue to opportunistically surf the ideological ripples liberated from the epicentre in search of moral high ground. But such reverberations are minor in the larger global context.

Within South and Central America, across Asia and the Middle East, in the Russian, Chinese and North Korean spheres of influence, friends and adversaries alike will be watching events unfold across the West with keen interest and either trepidation or expectancy depending on their relationship with the West and the USA specifically. Undoubtedly, these internal strains offer a new, perhaps only temporary, lease of life to the Jihadist movement.

While the various possible outcomes cannot be predicted, it seems unlikely that the current heightened levels of tension and conflict will be speedily resolved. But they may be contained and kept within bearable limits while new domestic and international configurations take shape. At the most optimistic the new dispensations will usher in a period of stability and security.

It seems equally possible that the global system will destabilise further and that long-deferred and unresolved contradictions will now have to be reckoned with. Based on his hypothesis of Secular Cycles, the historian, Peter Turchin, has predicted a significant rise in instability around this time. Futurists like James Martin talk of the "canyon" which will confront humanity in the course of this century and, to paraphrase Deon Mayer, speaking through one of his protagonists in his crime novel, "Trackers", once humanity invented agriculture we set off inexorably on the long march towards chaos.

The global system is too interactive and complex and our collection of tribal instincts are too powerful and complicated to accurately plot outcomes, but prophecies of doom are too easy. And humans, when faced with the stark prospect of their own oblivion, have demonstrated the ability to make the adjustments necessary for survival.

In the meantime, despite our own problems, South Africa at the periphery seems a slightly less anxious place than the once safe, stable, prosperous Western epicentre. But to cross this great divide wholly unscathed, is perhaps a bridge too far.

Mike Berger