No one knows yet what Donald Trump will do as president. Optimists predict that, once in the Oval Office, he will be reined in by advisers and bureaucrats or frustrated by Congress; or that he will not have the political energy to carry through the projects that he announced during his campaign – projects that will be open to all sorts of legal challenges and practical obstacles. We can hope. Yet the reality is that a US president’s freedom to appoint advisers, and Supreme Court judges, is pretty generous, by European standards. And Trump has a House and a Senate that not only share his (very) nominal party allegiance but are fully aware of his electoral significance. His patronage will be crucial for the future of many of these politicians.
We have seen elsewhere how extremists have been elected with the optimistic collusion or tolerance of those who believe that such people can be “managed” in office; and we have seen them discover, bitterly and too late, their error. Nor is there any indication that Trump’s energy is in short supply. However limited his grasp of the complex issues that he has opened up, the force of his personality will generate a hectic climate of plans and half-plans, expenditure and public rhetoric, that will be almost as damaging as the projects themselves.
We don’t know. However, we do know what this election has shown about politics in the US – confirming what was already apparent on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, it is to do with the discontent of the disenfranchised and insecure. Yes, conventional politicians of the right and the left have failed to understand this. But that might tempt us to think that there was still a solution available within the politics of a market society, in which ideas are shaped by public demand.
The problem is deeper. Trump’s campaign succeeded in spite of the cast-iron demonstrations of his total indifference to truth (not to mention decency). It has offered not a connected strategy for national reconstruction, but an incoherent series of crowd-pleasing postures; as if Trump’s real aim was not to do anything as president but simply to be president, to be the most important man in the Western world. This election represents a divorce between the electoral process and the business of political decision-making. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre, in which what matters most is the declaration of victory.
As such, it is the most cynical betrayal of those who are disenfranchised. It confirms that they have no part in real political processes; they can only choose their monarch. They have become detached from the work of politics by the erosion of liberties and economic opportunities – one reason why there is such pressure to displace this on to a feverish defence of archaic “freedoms” such as gun ownership, and on to whatever scapegoated minority can be held responsible for unemployment or general insecurity.
The politics of mass democracy has failed. It has been narrowed down to a mechanism for managing large-scale interests in response to explicit and implicit lobbying by fabulously well-resourced commercial and financial concerns (ironically, one of the things that Trump has undertaken to change). The 2008 financial crisis sent a tremor through that world but failed to change its workings. The effect has been a growing assumption that what goes on in public political debate does not represent any voices other than the privileged and self-interested. And so, for significant parts of a population, “theatrical” politics comes to look like the only option: a dramatic articulation of the problems of powerlessness, for which the exact details of economic or social reality are irrelevant. This delivers people into the hands of another kind of dishonest politics: the fact-free manipulation of emotion by populist adventurers.
There is an issue here about education. Yet this can become another hostage to fortune if all it is saying is that a benighted populace should be educated out of false consciousness by those who know better (the “experts” we are now encouraged to hate and mistrust). The learning that matters is the experience of genuine political debate and decision-making at local levels, the experience of identifying challenges, negotiating sustainable solutions, and learning to manage conflict without violent rupture or the demonising of minorities. This is the work that goes on in co-operative practice at every level – in education and industry, and through citizens’ organisations (President Obama’s political nursery), food co-ops, microcredit institutions and voluntary street pastors.
Instead of the chilling, neo-Soviet talk (here as much as in the United States) about something called “The People” and its supposed will, we need better analysis of and investment in local civic activism. And this implies a rethink of party politics as we have received it. The conventional accounts of what is “right” and “left” are fast becoming tribal signals, rather than useful moral categories. The leviathans of the party system will sooner or later have to look at their structures and accountability – not as a step to plebiscite populism, but in terms of what they can do to nurture discussion and decision in the actual communities to which people (not The People) belong.
Naught for our comfort; but at least an opportunity to ask how politics can be set free from the deadly polarity between empty theatrics and corrupt, complacent plutocracy. What will it take to reacquaint people with control over their communities, shared and realistic values, patience with difference and confidence in their capacity for intelligent negotiation? It’s the opposite of what Trump has appealed to. The question is whether the appalling clarity of this opposition can wake us up to work harder for the authentic and humane politics that seems in such short supply.
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world