Last Thursday’s historic British referendum to exit the European Union will set the tone for how democratic societies can successfully calibrate the widening gap between progress and poverty. This is the first time the post-modern world has the ability to substantially redefine how international institutions can work to better reflect identity and notions of sovereignty while balancing a rules based world order. Nationalism may be on the rise, but it will not supersede the development of new international models that will emerge in a post-Brexit (and post-Obama) era.
People all across the globe (U.S, Middle East, and Europe) will reconstruct new social, political, and religious identities in parallel with the emergence of a new international system. This is very normal in times of economic uncertainty where the traditional paradigms of political order are deemed dysfunctional.
What makes it seem so chaotic at the moment is that we are currently in the phase of figuring out how to put the pieces together. Modernity has a new face and it is allowing people to reflect on who and what they want to be as the world continues to grow smaller due to new revolutions in globalization (such as the emerging industries of robotics and software manufacturing). Future trends in trade will continue to lean heavily in favor of a post-Industrial economic order. This is the time for people to decide if they want to assert or avert their interests in accordance with global trends.
After Brexit, people are decidedly anxious over the U.S Presidential elections in November and how this relates to the rapid rise of Donald Trump.
Traditional media sources and main stage political actors were systematically confident that voters would chose to remain in the EU due to what they understood as common sense political and security collaborations with other European nations. Whether blissfully misunderstood or intentionally ignored, what has come to pass is the people’s democratic rally to let their leaders know that the institutions the political elite built for themselves are not working for the common masses.
All Eyes on U.S Politics
Democrats are internally divided between championing the American political establishment (Hillary Clinton) and setting the staging ground for the progressive faction (Bernie Sanders) to build a unified power bloc within the Democratic Party. The Republican Party has already imploded and reached a point of no return. Donald Trump has risen to political stardom by understanding the vapid political culture of Middle America. Most Americans hold no ideological persuasion and have been wholly inactive in politics. In such a young and prosperous country, most people felt no need to be engaged in civic battles.
Trump understands this very well and ties his image to the politically dormant (and now economically disaffected) masses. The rise of Donald Trump on the national stage is indicative of a new stage in American politics: post-ideology America.
Trump represents nothing and everything at the same time. This is no accident. He took advantage of the power void that has been manifesting in the Republican Party since President Obama took office in 2009. The failures of the neo-conservative faction under the tutelage of George Bush allowed the Conservative and Libertarian factions (as seen through the rise and fall of the Tea Party) to try their hand at re-structuring the party. Unfortunately, they chose to build political power through obstructionism, never fortified a post-Bush political platform, and objectified the Obama presidency as illegitimate. This led to the creation of a power void in the social and political role of the American presidency.
We cannot label an entire political grouping of people and a Democratic president (most importantly our first black president) as un-American for eight years and not have caused major damage to the social contract that we hold to one another. If we want to understand the political turmoil of our times we must look inwardly at ourselves. Understand that the American political system is not broken and the Constitution still remains the bedrock of this nation. The United States is still a Republic; it is democracy as symbolized through the American people that is in jeopardy.
Donald Trump has masterfully used the polarization of American politics to his advantage. The emergence of a new stage in the culture wars (abortion, guns, minority rights) will only lead to a more incendiary environment. Anger and confusion will continue to dominate discourse on both the Left and Right as society diffuses inward on itself. The current political environment is ripe for reform and change (for the better) but the political establishment is using the culture wars to keep Americans busy fighting against each other in order to keep the status quo.
The two party system has become inadequate and archaic in modern America. Talk of third party presidential bids for both the Democrats (Jill Stein for the Green Party) and Republicans (Gary Johnson for the Libertarian Party) have become serious talking points for those ideologically involved in party politics. A modern day constitutional convention might be the way forward, but instead we have allowed the archetype of the strongman (i.e. Donald Trump) to take advantage of what should be a natural political evolution and bring the symbol of the American Presidency closer to something akin to tyranny.
Trump Tactics and the Politics of Unpredictability
Trump commands political style and employs the Unpredictability Card. He has a masterful command of rhetoric and has won over voters (and is the presumptive Republican nominee) by using the art of persuasion. If one is to look at his “domestic policy,” it is nothing more than a checkerboard of so-called evolving positions strategically laced with unfettered nativism.
He has the ability to construct reality in the mind of the voter by understanding the innate psychological tendencies of how the human psyche subconsciously absorbs and evaluates information. He uses vague but incendiary wording, changes his position on topics, and uses simple words plus repetition to prompt variegated confusions amongst various voting blocs. Each differing group will take what Trump said and fill in the blanks with what appeases their natural ideological leanings. For example, during one of the Republican debates he defended his ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S by saying,
“I talked about Muslims. We have to have a temporary something because there is something going on that is not good.”
Anyone listening to this statement will psychologically persuade himself or herself to fill in the blanks with what will make him or her more comfortable due increasing fears over security and terrorism.
He is able to compel his supporters by proving to be the dominant figure and dismantling the confidence of his dissenters. We saw many examples of this with his take down of Jeb Bush in all of the Republican debates. He attacked Bush on his poll numbers and called him “low energy” while physically never looking at Bush when either dishing out an insult or defending his prowess to be president. Bush exhibited obvious discomfort and stiffness when trying to defend himself which led to him looking inept.
Trump has succeeded in deflecting attacks by using humor, thus instilling an element of cognitive dissonance in the listener. It is very difficult to laugh and hold sentiments of anger at the same time. Trump uses this tactic to help lessen the severity of his hostile rhetoric and reduces people’s ability to view their own hateful opinions as wrong. Trump has taken advantage of the fear and anger of the average American voter due to the erosion of economic security for the middle-class after the Great Recession of 2008. He understands that insecurity breeds the need for a scapegoat. He has legitimized all of America’s worst tendencies (such as racism) and used it as a tool to propel the support of socially disaffected and economically disenfranchised people.
Majority of non-political/non-ideological Americans feel a sense of emotional and thus national pride when hearing Trump speak their language. What they are actually seeing is a well-crafted reflection of their own psyches (the good and the bad) become personified through the image of Trump as a new-age politician. His ability to use simple, repetitive phrases might seem replete with banalities for policy/academic circles, but for the majority of politically non-aligned Americans these phrases have the ability to nurture their opinions, especially those who have little understanding of world affairs.
The mind finds it easier to comprehend and accept simple language even if it laced with questionable moral vagaries. Most people subconsciously shut down information when it is presented in an overly statistical manner. Trump knows the mind will naturally look for an emotional equivalence to complex problems. No matter how true data may be, spinning out numbers to an audience will not compel them to resonate with your assessments.
The United States is still a young power that has not fully matured but continues to be pushed onto the main stage of a world in transition. As we enter into a post-Cold War order (one where the U.S is still powerful but not the lone superpower), the majority of Americans will not be able to comprehend how to get out of the past, nor will they want to.
This is why the slogan “Make America Great Again” resonates with so many people. This leads to the questions: What happens to democracy when voters devolve and fracture into non-assimilating socio-political blocs but has a powerful political/military machine forced to assert its interests on a global scale? Has the seat of the presidency become solely a symbol of hyperbolic American culture? Will the experience of a post-Trump political environment force both voters and political actors to develop a more mature America in both domestic (for a post-2 party system) and foreign affairs (develop a less ideological and more systematic grand strategy)?
The New Internationalism and Donald Trump
Trump’s tactics are not being consumed only by a domestic audience, but by the world at large. The world’s major players are attempting to dissect what a Trump Presidency may mean for a shifting alliance system. Ambitious countries, such as China, Russia, India, Turkey, and Iran seek to scope their place in a world order realigning into a new regionalism. They understand that the traditional post-World War II system of a U.S led rules-based order is dissolving into a different shape and are set out to assert leadership to identify a path forward.
Can America keep its hegemony status but disengage from post-Cold War military alliances as Trump says he wants to do? Trump has said he wants to unwind American hard power and stop military engagements abroad, but at the same time has promised to keep our military strong. What does this really mean? Most analysts foresee that an America that can work with emerging regional power blocs is the key to a successful future. Trump is actually advocating for this, although his supporters believe Trump will bring back the Reagan political era where one superpower reigns supreme.
How Trump plans on asserting American power in this new era has many countries on edge. What can be assessed by looking at some of his public statements on foreign policy is that he is a fan of strategic ambiguity. This is not so much a policy as it is a tactic in warfare and/or deal making. It seems as though Trump would take a less ideological line of approach to foreign affairs and rebrand America’s power not through the confines of international systems or law but through the most basic form of real politicking.
One of Trump’s more interesting foreign policy statements is his insistence on non-intervention in countries that do not pose a direct threat to our national security. It’s not clear on what this would mean in the context of places like the Middle East since he has also stated that we have to bomb terrorist (and their families) in order to protect Americans against the threat of the Islamic State.
Is this the ambiguity that puts more power in the hands of Trump when dealing with national security issues? Or will it inhibit American power by making us look more like a rogue actor?
It is unlikely that Trump is truly an advocate for isolationism. When looking at his spoken declarations, there seems to be an implicit insistence on engaging the world through a case-by-case unilateralism. If Trump’s boisterous frivolity is solely for a domestic audience and employs a sound mind when privately meeting with foreign counterparts, this new kind of foreign policy may have its benefits as America reestablishes its place in the ensuing global disorder.
What is clear is that power politics is back with a vengeance. The United States understands that it cannot forge the stability of the world within the confines of the old alliance system or with a Cold War strategy, nor do it alone. In a transitory period like what we see now, it is common for powerful countries to begin the process of remaking their use of power in order to maintain their most important strategic national interests.
If this makes it seem as though maybe Donald Trump knows what he is doing, American society must be strong enough to endure the changes ahead, because in Trump’s world winner takes all.