Nigel Cameron / May 2016
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The lucky winner of American presidential elections has a second job that goes along with the first. Alongside the responsibilities set out in the constitution, he or she becomes chair of the “free world.” It can be galling to the citizens of other nations that they don’t get a vote, because who gets this double job will have a big impact on their lives as well as those of Americans.
The rise and rise of Donald John Trump, Sr., has the Republican elites on the ropes, and the rest of us biting our nails. First he’s a joke, then an outsider, then suddenly the presumptive nominee. The party’s brightest presidential hopes - governors, senators, some with huge war chests, have one by one have been left in the dust. Through easy racism and cheap misogyny, a casual disregard of political violence, and a score of cringe-worthy gaffes, Trump has just kept moving. It seems to make no sense.
Yet if our anxiety is focused on this one man, it will never make any sense. Because the core problem is not a nomination process spinning out of control in the hands of a wily candidate. It’s not even the issues he has made his own as he has skillfully caught the anxieties of many millions of non-elite Americans: The economic crisis of the middle class, the legacy of too much war, immigration angst, resurgent Islamist terror.
What needs to grasp our attention front and centre is the steady erosion of the confidence of the American people in the institutions of American democracy. For the one poll that really matters this election season is being universally ignored. How many Americans have real confidence in Congress? That number, in steady decline over many years, is now down to 7%. And the situation has turned critical. (Confidence in car salesmen, in the same poll, is at 8%. Truly. Can’t make this up.) After a steady decline during many decades, the sinews that connect the governed and those who govern have finally snapped, and we have entered a situation best described as revolutionary. When a revolution breaks out, pretty much anything can happen. Trump is in that “anything” category.
As the satirical magazine The Onion headlined one recent election, “Americans bravely go to the polls, despite threat of electing Congress.” And we know at least some of the reasons. The influence of money on elections. The influence of lobbyists, left, right, and corporate. Revolving doors that mock accountability. Prison for little crimes, Wall Street bonuses for great. And the baseline fact that a careerist political class has evolved that the people perceive to have its own entrenched interests - interests that transcend the parties and take the voters for granted.
But the hubris of the American political class has accustomed them to these fundamental threats to the healthy operation of democracy. They have “baked” them into their sense of normalcy. They have had no fear of a meltdown, which is why they are now in such panic. As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently put it with a sigh, “This is an outsider year.” But former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich was closer to the mark when he said that the people want someone to go to Washington and “kick over the kitchen table.” Yet, as that 7% confidence vote suggests, what’s actually happening goes even further. The people want to take a wrecking-ball to the whole place.
Because the sinews of trust that join the governed and those who govern have finally snapped. At the root of democracy lies trust – the people’s trust in those who are elected, and in the institutions in which they serve. When that trust breaks down it leads to disillusion, to apathy – and then, frighteningly, to the seeds of revolution.
Of course, as we know, while the rise of Donald Trump has caught everyone’s attention, the United States is not alone in confronting a crisis in democracy. Here in Europe we have plenty of our own examples. The National Front under Marine Le Pen is again a rising threat in France. The German far right could threaten the once rock-solid government of Angela Merkel. In the UK, the rise of UKIP (the “United Kingdom Independence Party”) may yet result in pulling the country out of the EU if next month’s Brexit vote goes their way. Then we have the pirate parties. And so on. Across the liberal democracies, long-term dominance by broad-based parties of center-right and center-left is under insurgent challenge. (And in several of the newer democracies, of course, “strongman” leadership is becoming almost the norm).
And Trump is just the latest in a string of surprises in the United States, all of them deriving from that same collapse of trust between the citizens and those who represent them. Remember the startling rise of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement? These twin developments seemed at opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet together they illustrated the dawn of what some of us have been calling “exopolitics” - a new politics outside politics that has little to do with the parties that dominate Washington. The United States has seen a spate of related developments. There were huge Washington rallies hosted by cable TV stars Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck. There was the “No Labels” movement, a huge effort to launch a third-party presidential candidate. The energy of the people, blocked by the sclerotic self-interest of the standard political channels, is finding fresh outlets beyond their control. It’s why millennials are breaking massively for self-described socialist Bernie Sanders in his insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. And it’s why grassroots Republicans care little for Trump’s character failings and ignorance. They want a wrecking-ball, and they have found one. And, make no mistake, if Trump fails this time, the seismic forces powering the insurgency will regroup next time around some other maverick leader.
Meanwhile, the practical implications of a President Trump, while hard to predict in detail (partly as he keeps changing his mind), are stunning. He has promised a hard-headed and disruptive approach to negotiating trade deals, threatening huge tariffs on many imports and also condign punishments for U.S. companies who shift jobs overseas. He has repeatedly stated that nations defended by American power need to pay their way – a threat that goes well beyond addressing the embarrassment of the NATO 2% commitment that most NATO members blithely ignore. While the constitution limits the freedom of presidents in domestic policy, since Congress holds thee purse-strings, it grants them a good deal of latitude in representing the country around the world. Europe, together with America’s allies round the globe, need to wake up and anticipate a very different tone from the White House with dramatic implications for the world order.
And, for what it’s worth, I think he’s going to win.