President Trump: to laugh or cry? Many of us may find it difficult to take Donald Trump seriously, and many of us, including myself, may be seriously fearful at the thought of him being president of the USA. But we need to try and push the emotions to one side and think seriously; in particular, we need to take the force that’s propelling him and others to popular acclaim, and now power, very seriously. This force is born of a fast growing dissatisfaction and frustration with the current system; a political and economic system that is simply not delivering the expected goods to most people – only to the few. The problem is, however, that the solutions being put forward by Trump and similar ‘politicians’ across the world will not work – in fact, in all probability, they will make the situation much worse!
The system that is failing us, the political and economic system that is dominant in both the UK and US (but is quickly spreading its contagion across the world), is basically one that believes that we are all motivated by self-interest. It argues that if we allow that self-interest to have free reign, that if we remove as many barriers and regulations to free trade as possible, that if we open up as many of our services to free trade as possible, the result will be good for everyone. The argument is that such a system is needed to drive economic growth, and that even though this wealth will initially be in the accounts of a relatively few businesses and business people this wealth will trickle down to the benefit of everyone. This trickle down is just not happening. The rich few are getting richer, whilst the rest of us are at best staying the same – and at worst getting progressively poorer. Even Trump appears to acknowledge this, despite the personal wealth his family has acquired as a result of it.
This failure of the system to work for the benefit of the many is compounded by two related processes. First, the flames of the supposed self-interest fire, the single most important phenomenon that drives the system, are fanned by advertising and marketing. In order to be good consumers we need a constant array of new goods to desire; to paraphrase Neal Lawson, we need to be persuaded to buy things “we didn’t know we needed, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know.” We are sold a vision of happiness that never materialises. The result is a feeling of despondency and failure. Second, the fuel of this fire, the raw materials and energy used to make the goods we don’t need and can’t afford, are creating global problems that are are slowly making our suffering worse. Global migration, both economic and the fleeing of war and conflict, is a particularly poignant example.
So, how do populist politicians such as Trump and Farrage respond? What they don’t do is offer a carefully worded critique of the system. No, they have judged that this is not what is required. They seem to believe that when people feel let down and frustrated, when they feel hurt and insulted, they do not want rational arguments, they want to feel good. They do not want to be told that what they have invested so much of their lives in striving for is nothing but a fantasy. No, they want to feel safe and secure, they want to feel in control of the situations they find themselves in. This has led to two over-arching motifs: making their county great again, and taking back control.
Trump’s most used phrase, a phrase that has obviously resonated with a great many electors, concerns ‘making their country great again’. This notion was not so dominant during the EU referendum, but it was definitely there lurking in the shadows. Whilst out canvassing I had many people respond that they wanted to put the ‘Great’ back in Britain, that they mourned the time when the UK was powerful and dominant, a time before we joined the EU. This is an understandable reaction. Greatness equates to strength and power, and at times of economic uncertainty these are very reassuring qualities. The problem, however, is that it is not possible for all nations to be great, to be strong and powerful. These are relative terms. You can only be great or strong or powerful in relation to another. If we all have these qualities we are just average, normal, and have no advantage. But of course things don’t stop there. If others aspire to greatness along with us we all find methods of proving our greatness, a process that leads to competition and aggression. And the overarching irony of this is that it just makes the original situation, the situation that we tried to overcome through ‘greatness’, worse. What the problems we face require, both on a national and international level, is the exact opposite – co-operation!
The dominant theme during the EU referendum was that of ‘taking back control’. In many ways this is a very similar response to the above. At times of uncertainty what could be more natural than the thought of ‘taking control’ of your situation. The devil in the detail, however, is the implication that our control has been taken away from us, and that the culprits of this theft (immigrants taking our jobs, houses and hospital beds; a ‘political elite’ who only have their own self-interest at heart) need to be punished. Part of the problem here is the unavoidable fact that life just is, to a degree, uncertain – that there exists an inherent uncertainty that we just need to come to terms with. If we do want to ensure that our voice is heard the obvious solution is not to blame others, but simply to demand a political system that ensures that the actual views of the people are represented in government – some form of proportional representation.
But, despite all the cool reason, I am still fearful. And my biggest fear by far is that, because Donald Trump is a human-made climate change denier and has vowed to start using vast amounts of American coal to drive American industry, that the all the hard work of so many people to limit global temperature rises will be destroyed; that, in terms of global climate change, we will all be stampeding at full speed towards a very tall cliff. What the hell are we going to do?