By Imre Bártfai
Image Attribute: Donald Trump, DonkeyHotey/flickr (Creative Commons)
There is an old joke: “I knew, I just didn’t guess.” This is how people react when something ugly happens what people should have foreseen. Most of the time people shake off unwelcome knowledge, bitter, uneasy truth. Perhaps America and the American Liberals got rid of the depressing possibility of a Trump victory in such a way: essentially just shaking it off. And it happened.
"People like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in."-wrote Paul Krugman, trying to draw the conclusions.Others just complain, or seek the reasons in people’s stupidity, in ‘angry, white (middle-class) men’, etc.
Thomas Frank seems to have found the right reasons when he wrote that Establishment- Democrats were not playing the winning game: instead of it they invested in an inadequate candidate who represented their unchallenged rule and outdated “ancien regime”-type Liberalism. I wrote in august:
“The Democratic Party cannot use now social anxiety as a driving force in its campaign, and will represent the force of stability, and the established order, which Hillary Clinton may reform or repair to an extent but will never change dramatically. (Robert Reich succinctly put it as such: Hillary is the best president for the system that is, but not for the system what should be.)
So, the final battle will be kind of the struggle of ancien regime and the malcontent horde: not a good omen.”
There are many reasons, and the main reason might be that there is a need for fundamental change in American politics, a change like one which happened during the Great Depression. Obama promised it, but did not deliver it, and Hillary’s promise was just to continue a rational, moderate liberalism with some changes in gender equality, but nothing fundamental, nothing game-changing. And we should not forget the nature of politics too. When I was in politics for two short years, all I learned is that we know so little, and aspire to so much. We must always reflect to our grey zones of knowledge, in order to correct our expectations about politics.
Even the greatest education in political science which I witnessed in others, does not lead to absolute conclusions in politics. Politics is the field of relativity, movement, ambiguity. And it is often irrational. People had the choice between an establishment politician and a maverick adventurer. And they chose the latter, because he was against the (political) establishment.
Donald Trump is himself a billionaire, a member of the elites, and he inherited a lot of wealth. He may be not the perfect poster-boy of American frontier individualism & capitalism but he is the closest to it. His unique trait is his evasive nature, he dares everything, he evades the consequences. Like the heroes of action films he always escapes with his life, and his punchlines are well-timed. Donald Trump is the fundamental irrationality of politics personified. People elected him because they are discontent, and because they want to break free from the hopelessness of status quo in politics.
The grip of financial interest groups on American politics could not be broken. The common people’s fear that advancing technological development and unrestricted global trade will kill their jobs was not eased. Political culture was subjected to the harmful effects of mass culture which altered the rules. The sudden rise of political risks –all of them seemingly unsolvable, like the rise of ISIS, Russian militancy, the Chinese threat- endangered America’s future and undermined people’s belief in the unique stance of America in the global world. Trump promised to “make America great again” and with it, he acknowledged that he does not regard America as a great country anymore. Many voters agreed: they fear to be overtaken in economy or in military might. The idea that there is an American dream in which every citizen can take part, if they work hard enough, is not counted any more in the set of popular American ideas.When people mention it, it is rather ironic than real.
And America, the world-leader, and the flagship of Western liberalism does not lead anymore and she is not on the pedestal. Lastly, even President Duterte, an American ally allowed himself to scorn Obama, in a language which would have been utterly unrealistic a decade before. You could scorn American presidents, but a president of an allied country could scarcely allow himself such a demeanor. With the diminishing stance of America it becomes evident what Robert Kagan wrote : liberal democracy is not natural now, it is not a stage of development which the world cannot cast away, but it is something the glory and power of the United States was keeping on the throne. (Perhaps along with global free trade and individualistic capitalism.) Should the skies get overcast in America these developments will be in grave danger.
What are the challenges ahead for America in the coming years of Donald Trump’s presidency?
America must reform political culture, redefine the relationship between political structures and the people. The divide between elites and commoners destroy nations, undermine common values and finally, liberty. The rise of Trump and the defeat of Clinton showed us how little command the party elites have on the political process and the sentiments of the masses. (Both parties weakened as the result.) In foreign policy the US needs to define how Liberal democracy and its values can be paired with realism. For example, the US has vital interests in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is an ally whose social order and political values differ tremendously from American ones. Such a situation undermined once American relationship with Chang Kai Shek or the Vietnamese leadership, and led to horrible situations. The Wilsonian tradition in American politics can be dangerously idealistic, but on the other hand, a Theodore Rooseveltian liberalism is unpopular among the masses. (Just read any popular article about Kissinger.) America’s place in the world is now highly antinomic: America is still the leader of the Western, liberal world but the costs of such a leadership are hardly tolerable now. (Just as D. Trump daringly expressed.) And unlike in the Cold War, American leadership is not legitimized by a Soviet threat of global magnitude. But resurgent Russia in Eastern Europe endangers the West very much, and as it is a local danger, while –much to my dismay it is not regarded by everyone as problematic as it is.
In Syria and in the Middle East in general the hopes for new Arab democracies failed. The idea that Westerners can help rebels into power and those rebels will create enduring Liberal democracies in Western fashion is now rather obsolete. It is hard enough to correct post -World War One border settlements in these countries which did not reach fixed nationhood and modernity yet. American influence seems to be declining in all parts of the world, even if perhaps not in equal degree. This should be stopped now.
How could America retain her place in the next decades as the beacon of Liberal democracy and as an economic powerhouse, with enough social mobility? How can Liberalism and Western culture survive without closing themselves? (Or sinking in dreadful irrelevancy and mass-culture shallowness?) How can a great power remain realistic while still retaining the powerful idealism of the most glorious times, when US troops liberated Western-Europe or defended South-Korea?
Some people say, Donald Trump can contribute to none of these goals, moreover, he is against these goals. That cannot be decided yet. However, these projects cannot be expected from any president: America herself must realize the pressing issues, and perhaps confronting the uneasy causes of Trump’s victory are the first step into this direction.
About the Author:
Imre Bártfai is a Global Security Analyst - EU & North America with IndraStra Global, Area of Research : US politics, European issues with special regard to Central Europe Location: Budapest, Hungary , Thomson Reuters Researcher ID: N-9214-2015 Twitter Id: @Imre_Bartfai Google+ : +Imre Bártfai
Cite this Article:
Bártfai ,I. "OPINION | The Day After: Trump & America" IndraStra Global 002 No: 11 (2016) 0025, http://www.indrastra.com/2016/11/OPINION-The-Day-After-Trump-America-002-11-2016-0025.html | ISSN 2381-3652
 "Our Unknown Country" http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/opinion/election-night-2016/the-unknown-country
 "Donald Trump is moving to the White House, and liberals put him there" https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/donald-trump-white-house-hillary-clinton-liberals?CMP=tmb_gu
 In his book "The World America made".