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21st January 2017

Presidential pondering: A philosophical analysis

What are the real reasons that made the American public choose Trump to be their commander-in-chief, and what does it mean for the United States?

Obama’s 2008 election was probably the first time so many of the millennial generation followed politics in any detail. Personally, the momentous campaign drew me in from the start. America’s financial instability just prior to Obama taking office had enormous implications to the functioning of the world economy; the American middle-class family was under threat and the working-class family faced virtually insurmountable odds to recovery.

But the Obama campaign rallied around the idealism of hope, the spirit of American perseverance and the brave inclusive responsibility that was required. What followed was, undoubtedly, eight years of mature and consequential governing, whether you feel Obama’s administration was a net benefit or a net loss (I happen to take the prior view).

These lessons from the grafting experience of holding a government together in one of America’s most turbulent periods in national politics were taken on board and fully accepted by the Hillary Clinton campaign. But this acceptance turned out to be of less relevance than analysts and academics had suggested. Indeed, Clinton was the perfect opponent for Trump who, much like the Leave campaign in the UK, managed to galvanise the ‘left behind’ — a significant group of the electorate that felt ignored by the political establishment.

As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s old thesis goes: “Behind every fascism is a failed revolution.” Without descending (or ascending, as the case may be) into an indulgent adaptation of Hegelian political philosophy, it is certainly an apt diagnosis of the clutch moment in politics we are experiencing.

The radical centre that stand for what now seem like banally accepted liberal values are completely and explicitly serving the interest of a Western neo-liberal capitalism. As Tariq Ali describes them, they have become victims of their own success in perpetuating their established power.

Much like the 1930s, moderate orthodoxy has not provided satisfying answers to the economic problems (as well as fears of security and war) that have lingered even after a recovery from crisis. What remains from the rubble is a direct confrontation between two radicalisms – in this case, it is Trump’s authoritarian American exceptionalism versus a Sanders-esque, 21st century ethical socialism. On one hand, we have a strongman who subverts established public morality as an unapologetically vulgar and arrogant businessman, and on the other, a long-time campaigner of social rights movements. The only similarity between them is that they challenge the lethargic stupor of political elites, as figures of the Leave campaign did in the UK right, and Corbyn did on the UK left.

Hence, this dichotomy is not limited to the US election. But it is also not limited to the current political climate: similar scenarios have occurred since Plato’s time. In fact, Plato’s Republic brings to light the contradiction in democracy that is evident in the post-truth populism we are now seeing (there is an argument that all political theories run into contradictions after they have been accepted as default ‘truths’ for a while).

In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates asserts that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than a democracy.” His argument was centred on the values that democracy purports — equality and freedom. As democracy grows and more freedom and equality is achieved in all sectors of society but economic inequality remains, it runs the risk of repealing itself. Every kind of inequality that is left in this gradually liberalising society is despised, and elites are treated as suspect and conspiratorial.

This is fertile ground for a tyrant-in-waiting to mobilise a cult following and offer up himself as the sole solution. This is where the autocracy and rule-by-decree begins. People can ‘rest easy’ knowing that there is a powerhead that will rejuvenate the nation. They no longer have to worry about the state of democracy, because it has turned in on itself.

Fact and truth become subservient to national interest and rhetoric and the appearance of power takes precedence over diplomacy and long-term politicking. Most importantly, with Trump, the façade of ‘draining the swamp’ is more impactful than the fact that, during his oath of office, he was virtually hand-in-hand with the elites of the Republican Party and transnational corporations. If this does not remind you of Orwell’s Animal Farm, it is time to read it again.

In an attempt to be terse, Trump is repulsive. But it is these indictments to a political system that should act as motivation to change it. If the state of politics were eternally blissful, there would be no reason for anybody to feel righteous indignation or interest in playing a part in changing it for the better. This is why one can envisage a counter-attack from the millions of Sanders supporters, who would do a good job to provide a vision for people that will see that Trump is a fraud when he cannot deliver on the high expectations he continues to provide for himself.

Further suggestive of the possibility of a pendulum swing in US politics is this analysis by Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times during inauguration week: “Voters are fickle and promiscuous, suffering an eight-year itch for a fling with someone who is the opposite of their last infatuation. Sick of Bill Clinton, we turned to a Texas governor who was utterly different. Eight years later, weary of George W. Bush, we elected his polar opposite, a liberal black law professor. And now we’ve elected Obama’s antipode.” Perhaps Trump’s antipode awaits…

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