People who choose not to follow the news, domestically and globally, are missing out on the finest reality show in town. You have powerful personalities that are virtual caricatures of good and evil, with advantage swinging back and forth daily. Revelations come fast and furious as we sit on the edges of our seats, immersed in the intrigue, ready to cheer on our champions and relishing each body blow landed – just as we wince and shudder with each counter-punch. The reason it is so riveting is we are in unchartered territory and the stakes could not be higher, with outcomes potentially so binary. In the US, the battle is literally raging for the soul of the country, with far-reaching consequences.
Asked the other day if I could come up with any silver lining or glimmer of hope stemming from the Trump insurgency, my answer was as follows. Leveraging a topic we have covered before, the “world” tends to trend for decades in a direction before some catalyst precipitates a reversal. The post-war period presaged decades of social liberalisation, increased tolerance, outward looking politics and relative peace between major powers. Nationalism gave way to internationalism. Someone like Trump – and the voters that marked their X with eyes wide open – reflects just such a reversal. Historically, shifts towards nationalism, bigotry, authoritarianism and assaults on institutions have seldom ended well. Frankly, they have tended to end rather catastrophically. It took the Second World War to reverse the trends of the 1930’s. But memories of horror tend to be short – a couple of generations typically does the trick.
So, which bit is positive? Well, it’s just possible that Trump himself could provide the antidote. Not in spite of his policies, beliefs or personality but because of them. If it weren’t for the fact that I am not a great believer in a God that engages in the minutiae of national politics, you could almost argue that Trump was heaven-sent. It is hard to imagine a public figure (let alone the traditional leader of the free world) more vilified for being ill-informed, intellectually challenged, morally-bereft, inarticulate and just plain repulsive. If regressive politics and moral bankruptcy were to have a champion, who better than a person perceived by so many to be so odious that he is virtually guaranteed to produce the most coordinated, focussed and violent backlash. Trump actually has an extraordinary talent for uniting people – his opponents.
A far more dangerous force would have been someone with the charm, wit and ability to connect with a broad swathe of society, someone with whom people could identify and relate. A beguiling figure capable of using pseudo-logic to twist perverse arguments into something plausible, channelling fear, anger and hatred to sanitise the grubby truth. Someone with the cunning, experience and discipline not to make repeated miss-steps, who could work with and within the system, insidiously modifying the national psyche. That would indeed be a person to fear.
Be grateful then for a Trump who cannot help but offend and who is accused of lacking the knowledge, ability, temperament and management skills to get his plans implemented. A Trump who is held up as being clumsily incapable of managing his thin skin and overcoming impulse. It is hard to conceive of a president that has ever been more despised or ridiculed internationally, particularly in civilised corners of the world, where worrying signs of regressive identity politics are emerging. For many people, Trump may simply represent the antithesis of everything they want to see happen in their own countries. These are the same people who are increasingly showing more appetite for mobilising against all that he represents, either at the ballot box or on the streets. To them, he heralds a stark warning of the risks of populism, of casting “protest votes” and of plain apathy.
At a stretch, this may be playing out already; Emmanuel Macron’s trouncing of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front in France, Angela Merkel’s ascendency to de-facto moral leader of the West, Theresa May’s humiliating reversal as a proxy for a vote on Brexit, the remarkable global solidarity around the Paris Accord on climate change, the anti-protectionist backlash and pro-free trade agenda being championed by China. All of which has left the US increasingly isolated on the world stage, ceding global leadership to friends and rivals alike. Donald, by being Donald, is his own worst enemy.
Trump may be an inadvertent force for good simply because so many people around the world may want to have as little in common with him as possible. Perversely, by being such an imperfect champion of so many imperfect causes, he provides the perfect foil for progressive, forward-looking leaders. There, then, is my silver lining. However, the risks remain non-trivial. The tinder is dry and crisis requires a steady hand on the tiller, along with wisdom and judgement. The peril is obvious.