"The real problem is that President Donald J. Trump has proven himself to be a man who will replace foreign policy, national security, domestic tranquility and America’s reputation with manipulative axe-grinding political drama... The Trump era in American history will be every bit as aggressively ugly and stupid as the majority of American voters feared it would be." (Michael Totten in World Affairs)
Michael Totten is a respected, relatively non-ideological, out-spoken political journalist with direct experience of politics in many of the world's hotspots. He has little time for leftwing hysteria and is someone to take seriously. But I think he is talking arrant nonsense in that passage as is most of the public commentariat, even those few without blindingly obvious ideological agendas.
In my previous post to Politicsweb I argued that Trump is a symptom of the massive global wobble precipitated by the Islamist challenge to sharpening ethno-ideological faultlines within the liberal-capitalist-multicultural Western sphere. More specifically, Trump is the "crass...predatory" champion of the outraged, mainly but not exclusively white, traditional centre of American politics in response to the denialism and identity politics running riot (literally) in the USA. Just as the Brexit vote is in the UK and the rise of the Right is in Europe.
The current crisis is not of Trump's making but, ironically enough, rather that of the liberal left's champion, ex-President Obama, and the powerful democratic party-media-big business axis which he represented. That legacy was roundly rejected by a broad swathe of USA voters representing an intolerable affront to the liberal-left bloc. Just how intolerable I will clarify further in due course.
Over the last century or so, given special impetus by the Second World War, the holocaust and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Liberal Democracy, with its commitment to human rights, free market-driven economic growth and cosmopolitanism became the de facto dominant world political model. Serious hold-outs were few enabling Fukuyama to predict the "end of history" in the form of a global liberal democratic order underpinning a progress towards universal prosperity to a still half-sceptical but hopeful global audience.
But despite the confidence of the standard bearers of Liberal Democracy, the cracks were there from the start. Clearly not all shared in the democratic peace and wealth of the West. Within Africa, for example, authoritarian, inept and corrupt political cultures proved resistant to the disciplines and accommodations of Western democracy. The continent remained technologically and economically backward with resultant tribal eruptions and misery and death on a pre-modern scale. As thoroughly documented by Martin Meredith, many Western countries were far from immune to the opportunities provided by weak African states, corrupt rulers and general disorder for personal and state enrichment .
It was even worse in the Middle East. Besides political dysfunctionality and Great Power interference, religion increasingly emerged as a further divisive and destabilising factor. Islam became the substrate for religious fundamentalism and internal conflict. Grandiose and radical movements, often allied to brutal political strategies of indiscriminate terrorism, undermined regional stability and challenged the West for global hegemony under the banner of a sharia-based, global Caliphate.
Elsewhere, in China, North Korea and Russia, other non-democratic political systems continue to pose challenges to Western and, more specifically, American primacy. These trends were exacerbated by the Obama Presidency with its preference for soft power, co-optation and globalism over the deployment of overt military power and nationalisms of all stripes, but especially those bred in the West.
In particular, Obama's rejection of American exceptionalism (and, inter alia, Zionism) further opened the door to a growing constituency in academia and the media focussed mainly on a limitless smorgasbord of 'minority rights' and Western guilt for all manner of internal and global ills.
While much of this could be justified as a necessary corrective to Western and European notions of automatic superiority, the marginalisation of women and non-European ethnicities and cultures and exploitation of weaker vulnerable nations, such arguments powerfully reinforced virulent ethnic and ideological identity politics in an increasing spiral of polarisation.
Victimhood and historical grievances became the much prized currency of political virtue and protected the so-anointed against being held responsible for their predicament or behaviour. Any suggestion to the contrary, no matter how evidence-based or reasonable, would bring upon the head of the dissident a veritable tornado of shaming and naming by hair-trigger social media and much of the mainstream media.
In particular, any assertion that connected Jihadi terror to fundamentalist doctrines arising within the parent religion of Islam, was taken as prima facia evidence of Islamophobia. This mortal sin along with racism, sexism, toxic masculinity and multiple varieties of homophobia, became part of an expanding list supplanting the traditional commandments, hitherto written in stone.
Thus inevitable changes in public morality occasioned by the technological and ideological 'advances' of modernity took on the weight of revealed religion in the eyes of their increasingly self-righteous, even fanatical, adherents. The religious (that is, faith-based and dogmatic) dynamic of liberal-left politics went unrecognised because their prophets were decidedly secular in nature and because their arguments were couched in terms of self-evident 'rights'. But as in all religions, divine or secular, morality is permeated by politics.
It thus became possible for the liberal-left to deny the obvious threat posed by mass migration of alien cultures into the West. This despite the fact that Jihadi leaders have openly used the flood of refugees to penetrate the defences of the democracies and well-documented failures to integrate Western norms regarding the treatment of women, for instance, into the culture of significant segments of the new migrants. Appeals to basic self-preservation or publicly available evidence are countered by the simple device of a powerful image or a heart-rending story of personal suffering or, even better, by demonising the dissident.
In an ironic twist, so common in Politics, many of the naive idealists manning the ramparts of the Western left are uncomprehendingly offering themselves (and the rest of us) as martyrs to their secularised faith. The absurdity of their self-sacrifice on behalf of a foreign belief system that holds them and their fervent ideals in contempt is lost on them.
If political commentators were familiar with modern evolutionary disciplines within social and moral psychology and in the dynamics of group behaviour, none of this would seem unduly surprising.
To put it bluntly, the ideological-political conflict within the nominally secular Western democracies differs little in its psychological underpinnings and dynamics from the tribal warfare of pre-historic humanity or the religion-based wars of the early-middle Christian era. Public celebrities within the academic-media axis have emerged as the shamans and high priests of the modern age, exhorting their followers to increasing moral fervour and vigilance.
Of course, context has changed considerably which helps shape the form and directions of such essentially tribal-religious modern conflicts. Instead of bloody ambushes in ancient forests or massed battles accompanied by equally massive casualties, most modern battles within democracies take place in the public space monitored by the media and regulated by the institutions of democracy.
This still offers ample scope for virulent conflict using the law, media images and spin, economic boycotts, celebrity endorsements or ridicule, staged theatrics and riots and a host of other devices. The intensity, skill and potential destructiveness of ritualised political conflict should not be underestimated.
In the recent election the Clinton camp mustered the support of the entire Democratic Party-media-academia-entertainment industry-big money axis to fight Trump. Hillary raised over $1.1 billion mainly from major corporate donors, deployed $100 million to finance a battle-hardened battalion of over 100 social media warriors, coordinated strategy and headlines with her MSM pals, conducted carefully shielded black ops projects to demonise Trump supporters as racists or crazies, paid ex-journalists to dig up any dirt they could find on their candidate and shamelessly used ethnic minorities and women to vilify her opponent.
She had the full endorsement and power of President Obama and the First Lady, Michelle, a formidable public figure in her own right. To get some idea of where the political establishment stood on the contest, Hillary won the District of Columbia by 93% to Trump's 4%. Considering the sheer weight of skill, power, money and influence brought to bear on the outcome, the national triumph of the crass outsider, Trump, can only be regarded as a remarkable testament to the resilience of the American democratic system and the emotive power behind the rebellion.
No sympathy need be wasted on Trump. He has clearly demonstrated that he is a street brawler willing to use any effective strategy to push his agenda. In fact much of the current political battle in the USA is about style and symbolism rather than substance. Trump represents the image of America the new urban liberal elite wish to shed and it is that realisation that has fuelled much of Trump's grass-roots mid-American support.
Obama was made in heaven to rally the new Americans to the liberal-left cause which accounts for his soaring popularity ratings despite the Democratic P arty shambles across the heartland of the 'old' America.
But, in the last analysis, only one battle has been won by a diverse group of marginalised constituencies within the American and Western collectives, but not the war. Contrary to rightwing fantasies and leftwing nightmares, the Trump Presidency is unlikely to usher in either a rapid reversal of Obama-era policies which irked and frightened the former or the rise of an authoritarian fascist right with which the Left mobilises its constituents. There are at least two good reasons:
Firstly, the American constitution provides a well-organised political party many ways of resisting Presidential executive power. Within the Left there is considerable legal and political expertise backed by financial muscle to do just that. And, secondly, the Left has enormous support right across the new elites within the West sphere, which they are already using with ruthless efficiency to resist Trump at every turn.
It has been an education to witness the major American, European and British media covertly inviting political leaders of nominal opponents like Russia, Iran and China to attack the USA President. The selective focus, the relentless spin and the expert deployment of propaganda techniques to delegitimise Trump has been a lesson in Machiavellianism.
In all likelihood, the combined use of legal instruments, the leftwing dominance of the MSM and Trumpsian clumsiness will preclude any rapid reversal of established policies and cultural trends within the USA.
It's worth emphasizing the intensity and scope of the liberal-left fight-back. James Kirchick, American author and journalist, writes "The aforementioned false accounts of actual and threatened violence against minorities are all examples of confirmation bias in which well-meaning, liberal anti-Trump journalists report on something that they want to be true or that is emotionally true for them but is factually false". A brave admission by a liberal American commentator but laughably short of the mark.
The tone of the relentless media assault is better captured by David Frum's 8000 word rant in The Atlantic headed "How to build an Autocracy", which he ends with "We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American."
To capture the full flavour of the term "echo chamber" here are some other recent headings: from The Economist: " America’s system of checks and balances might struggle to contain a despot". From Der Spiegel "Is Donald Trump in the process of transforming the United States into an autocracy? His first weeks in office make it look as though that is his aim. The president is hewing closely to the ideas of his chief strategist, making Stephen Bannon the most dangerous man in America." And Der Spiegel again "The United States president is becoming a danger to the world. It is time for Germany and Europe to prepare their political and economic defenses." From The New Republic "Never Believe the Republicans’ B.S. Ever Again"
From this limited sampling of the media, a glimpse into the intensity of the conflict between the two broad ideological camps and their allies within the USA and other Western democracies is clear. Hopefully, one day serious and impartial historians will clarify the role of money, prejudice and propaganda in creating this crisis currently being attributed to Trump alone by the warriors of the Left.
David Hines, British author and screenwriter, writes on Peter Turchin's blog "If it happens, political violence isn't going to start from nowhere. The Left and the Right are going to start with the resources, capabilities, and techniques they currently have. It's not fun and it's not pretty... if political violence begins in earnest in the United States the Left and Right will have very different capabilities. A lone perpetrator can pull off a bombing, for example, or property damage, but not a riot. Accordingly, the Left has many more options and a much greater amount of tactical flexibility than does the Right. The Left also excels at allowing its people, especially its radicals, to rise, which creates a much deeper activist and leadership bench. Putting it bluntly: assassinating prominent Righties would adversely impact their movement. Assassinating prominent Lefties would not."
Is this over the top? Possibly, but an Irish cultural magazine has already published a cover depicting a sniper rifle trained on Trump's head. Undoubtedly the internal war will continue based on symbolism and elitist political ambition as much as on substance. This is taking place within a fraught and complex global order threatened by a genuinely totalitarian and tenacious Islamist movement rooted in religious zealotry precipitating massive regional instability across the MENA region. The additional pressure of mass migration and the ambitions of other global powers have resulted in a complex interactive global network with multiple unpredictable feedbacks.
In such situations, the actions of ideological extremists, ambitious activists and black swan events can precipitate disproportionate system responses. A Western consensus is breaking down and with it the stabilising influence of widely shared values and norms is vulnerable to the tides of tribal passions, individual ambitions and random or deliberate acts of social disruption.
Political prophecy is a mug's game but the next few decades are likely to be decisive in setting the stage for the future of a global humanity tightly enmeshed in each other's fantasies and destinies.
So no, it is not Trump's fault. This wave has been a long time brewing and Trump is a symptom not a primary cause. Whether the international system can contain the current dynamics within bearable limits while a new equilibrium is found is questionable. But a reasonably peaceful resolution will not be achieved by moral hysterics and secular zealotry directed towards perceived apostates. It may just be achieved by a smidgeon of humility, detachment and cold intelligence, not much in evidence in the media and the public punditry.