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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.


Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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What would a Trump presidency mean for the rest of the world?

It would be wrong to hope that either domestic or international checks and balances will constrain Trump abroad. Geopolitically, the result would be unpredictable – at best.

The conventional wisdom about Donald Trump runs something like this. Trump is a buffoon. His solutions to world problems are not policies at all, but merely a set of contrarian reflexes. They will soon be ­exposed in the next televised presidential debate against his rival Hillary Clinton, who put in a strong performance during the first round. He is, critics say, a mere pied piper whose “deplorable” followers suffer from false consciousness about their true economic interest. Trump’s election would be a disaster, the argument runs, but his policies will soon prove impracticable.

The conventional view is wrong. Although his personal behaviour is often clownish or boorish, and he has shown astonishing ignorance of some important international issues, Trump has a perfectly coherent world-view and strategy which are rooted in certain established American traditions, even if these are now largely defunct. Most of his followers know exactly what they are voting for and they are right to believe that he will deliver, or at least attempt to do so. As for the idea that a Trump presidency would be a disaster, that is completely wide of the mark. It is actually much worse than most people think. President Trump has the potential to be an unmitigated catastrophe – if not for the United States, then certainly for the rest of the world.

Far from taking a leap in the dark, Trump supporters know that they will be voting for a clearly defined package of domestic and foreign-political measures. With Trump, in ways that are not really true of his predecessors, or of Hillary Clinton, the two spheres cannot be usefully separated. He stands for the protection of American jobs at home, and therefore for a restrictive trade policy abroad. He wants to get tough on terrorism by having recourse to torture, in both the United States and the rest of the world. He wants to increase military spending. He wants to “put America first” and increase investment in schools and infrastructure in the United States, and therefore eschews “nation-building” abroad.

We should not assume that this is just rhetoric. First, because Trump has been saying all this, or much of it, for years in his writings and in off-the cuff statements. He is no mere opportunist. Second, because we know from scholarly analysis of recent campaigns, such as the one carried out by the former White House adviser and political scientist Steven Schrage, that presidential policies often quite closely track those advanced during the campaign. Third, because Trump emerges from the confluence of two long-dormant but now resurgent American political traditions: the blunt, early-19th-century appeal of Andrew Jackson to the “common man” and the protectionist isolationism that produced the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and the Charles Lindbergh of the 1930s.

When contemplating Trump, critics often focus on his domestic consequences. They foresee an empowering of white supremacist discourses and a surge in hate crimes, especially against Muslims. These are reasonable fears, but the threat Trump poses to politics within the United States is probably overstated. There will certainly be an increase in racial tension and other forms of unpleasantness, but American society is resilient, diverse and fundamentally decent, even if some of it is currently trying to prove the opposite. The US is not seriously at risk of lapsing into the kind of populist authoritarianism we see in many other parts of the world. Moreover, the nature of the American constitution is such that Trump will be very constrained in what he can do at home: by Congress, by the courts and various other checks and balances.

There are far fewer impediments, however, to presidential power in foreign policy. As so much of Trump’s domestic programme depends on what he does abroad, the rest of the world will be much more exposed to a Trump presidency than the Americans themselves.

Trump’s impact on the world will initially be a matter of style. He has shown himself to be misogynistic, vindictive, xenophobic and unafraid to trample on the feelings of veterans or the bereaved. This would be neither here nor there – tastes differ, after all – were it not that Trump’s personality will translate internationally into an instinctive rapport with other “outspoken” leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. In the event of disagreement between them and Trump, we might expect a degree of vituperation on both sides in ways that are not compatible with the long-established dignity of the presidency of the United States.

Style will soon become substance. At best, a Trump presidency will lead to the “Berlusconification” of international politics, which will become extended reality-TV events, at least in so far as they relate to the United States. More seriously, his antics will empower and encourage a coarsening of the discourse between states and about world problems. Here, the contrast with Presidents George W Bush and especially Barack Obama, whatever one thinks of their policies, could not be sharper.

Trump’s style will matter in international politics for another reason. First, despite all his rhetoric about deal-making, where his business experience is considerable – and he has sometimes shown a capacity to compromise – he seems to have a very limited and belligerent idea of what constitutes a successful diplomatic negotiation. Rejecting notions of “win-win”, Trump views a political “deal” as the imposition of his will on the other side. “In the end,” he writes of one successful transaction in his bestselling book The Art of the Deal, “we won by wearing everyone else down.” It is therefore no surprise that he cleaves to an essentially mercantilist view of world trade in which, say, Japan’s gain is America’s loss. Given his severe anger management issues, the great danger is that a clever adversary will get under his skin, provoke outbursts, and either make a laughing stock of the greatest power on Earth or precipitate a confrontation.

Second, Trump favours a particularly intuitive style of decision-making. He has gone on record as saying that people “are surprised by how quickly I make big decisions, but I’ve learned to trust my instincts and not to overthink things”. Of course, it is true that international politics often requires leaders to make speedy decisions, yet it is deeply worrying to think what Trump’s instincts will lead to when he has the proverbial finger on the button. This problem has already been commented on by a phalanx of Republican national security experts, none of whom thinks he should be entrusted with the nuclear codes.

No reliance should be placed here on the restraining force of his advisers, or of the bureaucracy in the US state and defence departments. Trump has already signalled that he will not listen. When asked a few months ago to identify those he consulted most often on foreign affairs, he replied: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” The foreign policy “team” he has produced during the campaign is the weakest and most obscure that anybody has encountered in living memory.



The essence of Donald Trump’s vision for the world is the revival of American national greatness. He wants to “make America great again”. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he says. His slogan “America First” is an unashamed borrowing from the isolationist platform of the 1920s and 1930s.

By contrast with every single Democratic and Republican president since the Second World War, including George Bush, Jr, Trump rejects the international liberal order. In office, this will be reflected in his opposition to global human rights initiatives, whether that be the banning of torture, or collective action to help Syrian refugees (whom he sees not as victims but as an Islamist national security threat). He will ride roughshod over human rights sensitivities when building his wall with Mexico. On the environment, Trump is likely to abrogate the Paris accord on greenhouse-gas emissions and to press ahead with work on the disputed Keystone oil pipeline between Canada and the US, as well as other projects.

He may well also play fast and loose with the national debt, having suggested that he may not repay it or the interest in full. “I’ve borrowed knowing that you can pay back with discounts,” he explains, adding that “I would borrow knowing that if the economy crashed you could make a deal”. But he may find that his ability to bounce back no fewer than four times from business bankruptcy may not be a transferable skill.

The other area in which Trump plans to tear up the international rulebook, and here the parallels with his opposition to gun control are evident, is the field of nuclear non-proliferation. He has repeatedly welcomed the idea of a Saudi, or South Korean, or Japanese nuclear bomb. The thinking is that this will achieve a balance of terror, which will keep the peace better than costly American intervention.

Cumulatively, all this will cause considerable disruption. It will unravel many of the webs of international society carefully woven over the past six decades or so. It may well make the Korean Peninsula or the Gulf even more unsafe. It will certainly make life unpleasant for Mexico. And it will lead to the end of the United States acting as the world’s policeman. The US will step up the number of global snatch-squads in the war on terror, certainly, but will cease to exercise a general superintendence over the defence of democracy and human rights. No Iraqs, perhaps, but also no interventions in Bosnia or Kosovo. The worst, however, is yet to come.

At the heart of Trump’s revolt against the liberal order, undoubtedly, is economics. Reviving the national economy is essential to his vision of making America great again. Central to that project is a revision of the terms of trade. Trump is convinced that the US is getting a raw deal, not only from its enemies, but also – and most importantly – from its friends. He might well overturn the North American Free Trade Agreement, will probably disavow the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and is most unlikely to go through with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, assuming it is not killed off first on the other side of the Atlantic. He would not be above leaving the World Trade Organisation altogether. Above all, Trump will take on China, which he accuses – with considerable justice – of currency manipulation and sharp practices. At the very least, he will instruct the US ­department of commerce to take cases against China and he may well embark on a full-scale trade war.

If Trump’s grand strategy will begin with economics and trade, it will not end there. His measures will unleash their own, essentially geopolitical dynamic. At the moment, the Chinese are contemplating the prospect of a Trump presidency with remarkable insouciance. They seem to regard him as one of their own, a man who will not bother them with human rights sermons, and with whom they can do business. In some ways they are right: he is one of them. That, however, is the problem. Trump shares their ­zero-sum view of the world, and he explicitly intends to prevail at their expense.




Nobody has ever looked inside the “black box” of an all-out trade confrontation between China and the United States. Even if one thinks – as this author does – that some form of reckoning with China is necessary, Trump is surely the man temperamentally least suited to lead it. His strategy may revive American manufacturing, but modern supply chains are such that China is inextricably stitched into the US industrial ecosystem in ways that could defy safe unravelling. Yet one thing is clear: China, which holds a huge chunk of the US federal debt, will bitterly resist any attempt to repudiate it. Moreover, if unplugged from the US market, particularly at a time of falling European demand, China will face vast economic dislocation and consequent internal unrest. One way or the other, the reaction to any such measures by the Americans will be violent, with a countdown to conflict comparable only to the one triggered by Franklin D Roosevelt’s decision in 1941 to freeze all Japanese assets in the US and impose an oil embargo on Japan.

Another arena where Trump will give the kaleidoscope an almighty kick is Europe. His hostility to the European Union – the principal instrument of the continental order hitherto strongly supported by the United States – is well documented. This will add yet another problem to the long list already confronting Brussels and the national governments. As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump will encourage the European “deplorables”: Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Jobbik in Hungary and the French Front National. His xenophobia and authoritarian personality will chime with them; his protectionism may even resonate on the European left. He will therefore be much less isolated in Europe than many like to think.

Worse still, the example of a wall with Mexico may well inspire similar endeavours in Europe – in the Balkans and the Mediterranean (where some barrier is necessary to defend the external boundary of the Schengen passportless travel zone), but also in central Europe and perhaps even within the core of the EU, thus destroying free movement of people on mainland Europe. The period from 1989 to 2016 may become known as “the interwall era”. The walls will go up across Europe and we may not see them brought down again in our lifetime.

But the deadliest threat to European security is Trump’s attitude to Nato. He has repeatedly questioned whether the United States should continue to protect Europe, most of which fails to pay its agreed contribution to the common defence. Here – unlike in the cases of South Korea and Japan, which largely pay their way on defence – he has a point. It is negated, however, by his undisguised admiration for Putin, the single greatest threat to the stability of the European order. One of Trump’s top military ­advisers, Michael T Flynn, a retired general, is a Russia enthusiast. One of his most trusted former confidants, Paul Manafort, served as a long-term political consultant to the disgraced ex-president of Ukraine and Russian stooge Viktor Yanukovych. One of his few named foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, also has close links to Russia.

Everything points to a President Trump lifting sanctions on Putin before time and recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He is also highly likely to undermine the value of Nato’s Article 5 guarantee of collective defence, which will place the Baltic and Black Sea states and Poland in the firing line. Yet he seems oblivious to this danger, largely because he does not take Russia seriously in economic terms. It is one of the many failings of his foreign policy, and a surprising one, given his general belligerence, that he
does not take other factors, such as ideology or raw military power, much into account.

Geopolitically, the results of all this are entirely unpredictable and could lead to a different global strategic balance. In effect, Europe will be left on its own to stand against Russia and defend Western values worldwide. Putin may be emboldened to take risks, in Ukraine, in eastern and northern Europe, and elsewhere. On the other hand, he may prefer to explore a strategic partnership with Trump. That will surely begin with a joint effort to support the Assad regime in Syria, and probably develop into an alliance against China. In that case, we will be in a genuinely tripolar or even quadripolar world, in which the relationship between the Russo-American alliance, the British-European confederation and the other Eastern dictatorship, China, will be one of unstable equidistance.




Finally, it would be wrong to hope that either domestic or international checks and balances will constrain Trump abroad. The executive will be bound to obey most of his orders in theory and probably all of them in practice. It is true that the military, the CIA and law-enforcement officers might, as the former National Security Agency and CIA director Michael Hayden has suggested, refuse to follow an “illegal” order. It is also possible that Congress might hold up international trade measures in so far as they relate to treaties. The EU may even be so appalled that it rallies in the face of Trump.

Yet this is wishful thinking. Crucial questions, such as whether to deliver on a Nato Article 5 guarantee in Europe, are matters to be decided by the executive alone, and for good reason. Moreover, Trump will have much of the United States behind him in making his initial foreign policy moves. Demand that the Europeans “pay up” for their own defence? Why not? Beat up on China’s protectionism? What’s not to like? As for Isis, even Homeland’s Peter Quinn thinks that the solution is to “pound Raqqa into a parking lot”. It would take superhuman moral and political courage to stop Trump early on. And with Europe, the idea that it will show resolve in the face of an external threat is, sadly, a sign of the triumph of hope over experience. Many Europeans, in fact, will cheer him on. At home and abroad, Trump will the harvest low-hanging fruit first, and then invest the capital gained in riskier enterprises. When he does really overstep the mark, it will be too late.

There is a very thin silver lining in all of this, at least for Britain: Trump is a known enthusiast for the United Kingdom. He has come out strongly against Scottish independence. He will almost certainly favour London over Brussels in trade matters. Above all, with him in the White House, Theresa May will be the only grown-up left among the major military powers of the West. The EU will almost certainly try to compensate for the loss of an interlocutor in Washington by moving closer to London. Britain will probably also benefit from an outflow of American “creatives” after a Trump victory – at least, of those for whom Canada isn’t far away enough. Britain may well also attract talent from around the world that would otherwise have gone to Silicon Valley or other centres of innovation in the United States.

In short, President Trump is likely to deliver a severe shock to both the US and the rest of the world. Although at home there are clear limits to what he can achieve, there are far fewer constraints abroad. There is little doubt, therefore, that the Americans, and probably the British, will survive Trump. The question is: will the rest of us?

Brendan Simms is an NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph