The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has, in the words of Phillip Collins, highlighted the drastic need for a reckoning at the liberal progressive centre. Western politics is in the midst of a major identity crisis, a crisis which is leading to the decline of its values and many nations and societies under its umbrella.
Donald Trump's victory, the victory of a campaign fuelled by ultra-nationalism, hideous patriotism, nativism, sexism, bigotry and racism, has pierced the heart of the greatest experiment of democracy in history. The Trumps of this world have latched onto the dominant crises of our time and twisted much of what we have feared against us. Such issues have included immigration, the global refugee crisis, "terrorism" (which has witnessed a boom in Islamophobia), and the widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us.
The most disastrous aspect of this whole affair is that liberal progressives, centre-left and the failure of imagination in domestic and foreign policy by a generation of politicians have fanned the flames of disillusion and dislocation over twenty years. In the words of Steve Convey, "seek first to understand, then to be understood." It is easy to react angrily to the ignorance of Trump supporters and those who voted for such a man. However, their problems are real and they have been exploited. Sasha Abramsky explains the many problems in the United States:
"Even before the financial crash in 2008, for tens of millions of working-class Americans, things were heading in the wrong direction, and fast. Their real incomes had fallen; their access to pensions, to paid sick leave, to affordable medical coverage, to reasonably priced education for their children had collapsed; their debts had soared; and their chances of climbing the socio-economic ladder had become remote...In the US, as trade unions were marginalised, and as wealthy individuals and large corporations came to gain a stranglehold...the country witnessed a staggering transfer of money and power to the wealthiest citizens. Trump's campaign...crude and vulgar, pandered to racial and religious fears, but in the anxious age it resonated with millions of American voters...furious with crime, police brutality, terrorism, economic stagnation, social and demographic changes and proposed gun controls."
While contemporary issues are frequently contextual and influenced by the history of a given nation, there are parallels in Trump's election and the anger of his supporters which can be drawn from events in Europe and the Middle East.
ISIS, Jahbat al-Nusra and Al-Qa'ida hijacked the Arab revolutions which were sparked decades of anger against corrupt authoritarian and dictatorial regimes dressed up as democracies. These cliques running the Middle East plundered the economy, strangled opportunities for the young, were highly militarised, and cracked down on dissent. Many of these regimes which were toppled, it should be noted, were installed by the United States. These tensions reached boiling point with the Arab revolutions and opened up a vacuum which has been filled by a range of volatile and unpredictable forces one of them being ISIS. They exploited the fear of Assad's army and the betrayal felt by many Iraqi civilians angered by a government in the capital Baghdad which they regarded as a kleptocracy and deeply corrupt. The Arab revolutions were rooted in economic dislocation, frustration with the political order and a lack of opportunity in societies across the region.
ISIS revolted against Al-Qa'ida's hold on the leadership of global jihād and did what no one thought possible; they established a caliphate across territory in northern Syria and northern Iraq. They received condemnation from Al-Qa'ida and Jahabat Al-Nusra (its branch in Syria) for being too extreme. ISIS were daring, they were openly opinionated about the necessity of butchering Shiite men, women and children, they were openly brutal, they published snuff videos of beheading and torture, they trolled and blitzed their way across digital networks, they were unconventional , they were anti-establishment within the jihādist community and stunned the international community.
Far more extreme than Trump? Certainly. However, while politics in the Middle East is far more unforgiving, a sharp observer will say that Donald Trump has tapped into the deeper currents of rage lying in parts of American society. He was unabashedly blunt about complex problems, he was openly brutal (rhetorically) to his opponents (Republican or Democrat), he published videos pandering to many people's fears of immigration and "terrorism", he trolled and tweeted his way to victory online and he was unconventional while claiming to be the people's champion within US politics. Trump received condemnation from Republicans and Democrats for his extremist and divisive campaign but he did not care less what they thought and his insurgency stunned the international community.
Trump is not ISIS and ISIS is not Trump, yet similar parallels exist and are present elsewhere. Who can forget Benjamin Netanyahu's Youtube video published in the dying hours of the Israeli election warning voters that "Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves"? He went on to clinch the elections. Who can forget Ayelet Shaked stating on Facebook quite genocidally that all Palestinian mothers should be killed so that they may not produce more "terrorist" children in the 2014 Gaza War? Her popularity soared and she is now the Israeli Minister of Justice. Who can forget Nigel Farage's 'Breaking Point' banner during the Brexit campaign which portrayed Syrian refugees fleeing the bombs of Assad as immigrants? He got his heart's desire of Brexit. Who can forget Marine Le Pen and Sarkozy's racism and Islamophobic rants against Muslims and immigrants? Who is to say she or he won't be leader of France by 2017?
It is the age of maverick. "The great age of revolution!" Farage exclaims. "Their world is crumbling, ours is being built." Le Pen asserts. "They want to stop our movement!" states Trump. The far-right and right wing are insurgencies, they are not revolutions and the agendas they spout are a far-cry from visionary. Race war, the threat of a clash of civilisations, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, nationalism, mass-deportation, xenophobia, walls, white supremacism, exceptionalism, intimidation, and voices of violence appear more a relapse into our baser impulses and man's darkest moments rather than a revolution. It is a volatile and dangerous form of politics: the politics of fear and scapegoating.
On the eve of the Election Day Chris Hedges stated a key point: "they (Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton) are both essentially neo-liberal candidates...the whole campaign has descended to the level of a reality TV show...it is emblematic of a political system in deep decay and one that no longer revolves around fundamental issues." Trump is a less polished part of the elite his supporters are voting against, the very same elite which they perceive to have inflicted all their woes. He has paved his way to power riding the wave of anti-establishment politics. This occurred despite overwhelming evidence that he is super-rich, the epitome of 'Corporate America', and a Republican, the party responsible for the 2008 financial crisis.
Supporters of Trump, propelled by the roar of right-wing media, placed an extreme version of the elite they claim to despise into power. Trump's support base, those who have revolted against Washington, will be bitterly disappointed to find that their plight, their economic exclusion, and their anger against the Washington Consensus will not be answered and that anger may worsen in the short-term and long-term. Trump and the Republican Party's nauseous slogan "Make America Great Again!" will divide the United States. It is a chasm which will inevitably widen and it is one which a man like the president-elect will exploit.
Failed policies of the administration, including potentially sparking a second economic collapse, tearing up the Paris Summit Agreements and the continuation of the "Global War on Terror" will cause grievances and these grievances will force Trump and the Republican Party to find scapegoats when things get worse. They will tap into the United States' darker currents to accomplish this if crisis strikes and the first to be targeted will be immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, homosexuals, feminists, intellectuals and students.
In an overarmed society where over-zealous patriotism and nationalism remains a problem, a society where issue of race continues to flare its ugly head, where there has been a surge in hate crimes against American Muslims since 9/11 and after an election being won on divisiveness and lies, what is to stop Trump from using this rage against his opponents, activists, "traitors" who do not want to "Make America Great Again!" his way, progressive media, and opposition? After the events of this year nothing should be be ruled out anymore. The costs of four years of Trump and his party to the United States' stability and global order is immeasurable. The consequences could scar the planet for centuries if the administration flirts with conflict with Russia and China and pays lip service to funding and tackling climate change.
The world requires multilateral leadership in a multilateral world far different from the bilateral world dictated by Cold War politics or the unilateral world where the United States reigned supreme during the 1990s. This regression, this lack of vision in established and populist politics is a global phenomenon, a gridlock of ideologies, of which most belong in 'the realm of fantasy' and history.
The results have been shocking but unsurprising. Extremism, fascism, and xenophobia rear their ugly heads in times of crisis. These ideologies are not outdated concepts. Marginalised and hateful voices which have lingered under the surface of European and American politics have slowly seeped back into the arena and, in the case of Donald Trump, done the unprecedented.
How did it come to this? While angry liberals, left-wing commentators and progressives may rile against the result, the election of Trump as president says something about Western society since the collapse of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the end of the Cold War.
The "New World Order", the American Century, the expansion of Western values, human rights, liberal thinking, human rights, untethered free market capitalism, and the promotion of individualism and democratic freedom were beautiful ideas. They remain extraordinary ideas for which millions have died and continue to die for. The 1990s was a golden age for Western civilisation, a dream scarcely believable given the brutality of the First and Second World Wars and the tension of the Cold War. But it was a dream which was built, to some extent, on many lies to protect this dream, this ideal. These lies are unravelling, the uncomfortable truths are coming to the spotlight, and it is clear that a better world remains to be built despite the remarkable progress. This progress is one which the West has contributed to immensely through technological innovation, scientific discovery, rigorous political debate and the outstanding accomplishments of civil rights movements and no country has embodied this contribution more than the United States.
However, the Bush Doctrine typified the disparities between beautiful idealism and the reality of promoting a radical experiment. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration envisaged reshaping the Middle East by bringing democracy to the region. This project, a radical project, would bring democracy and free-market economy to the Middle East and Central Asia by toppling authoritarian regimes surplus to the requirements of Cold War geo-politics. The Middle East would learn Jeffersonian democracy. It was a beautiful if not patronising dream which would start in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The result was torrents of blood. London and Washington tortured, starved and killed Iraqi civilians in their thousands. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million Iraqi civilians died in the name of ferociously carving out "freedom" and to catch the "terrorists" from 1991 to 2011. In 2016, Iraq is now an extreme manifestation of the driving forces of global economy, a corrupt kleptocracy melded together with tribal, sectarian, militia and criminal violence fighting off the influence of ISIS.
These were atrocious years in which Iraqi civilians and American values were degraded. It became crystal clear that the objective of safeguarding oil supply took priority over supporting the Iraqi people in building a functioning democratic country torn apart by Saddam Hussein. The Iraq War, in many ways, became a symbol for many that neo-liberal/neo-conservative market economics took precedent over the values which are meant to define Western society.
Not since the savagery and devastation of the Vietnam War has the United States been so divided on foreign policy. Following the invasion of Iraq little has changed despite the ruinous cost in treasure and blood. Libya burns, Egyptians and Palestinian civilians are suppressed by American clients, Yemen starves, Somalia remains in turmoil, Afghanistan is a narco-state and Pakistan continues to be torn apart by insurgency. Western hawks still push for a client state in Syria and bombing Iran despite the catastrophe of state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Regime change driven by military intervention and invasion by Western governments, driven by the hubristic ideological conviction that spreading democracy would be the endgame for a stable world, has largely resulted in the collapse of states stretching from Central Asia through the Middle East to North Africa and heaped untold suffering on millions of innocent men, women and children. The best of intentions have produced desperate outcomes. Stoking endless wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia has not been without consequence. The refugees flee to Europe from insurgents and regimes who the West have frequently supported, armed and then turned on. The Syrian refugee crisis, a tragedy which has caught the imagination of Europe, precedes several others most notably the Iraqi refugee crisis (1990 - current), the Kurdish diaspora, and the Palestinian refugee crisis (1947-1948 and 1967 - current). If African countries are added to the malaise including Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and more to the equation it is little surprise that these demographic changes and the mass movement of peoples has dramatically altered Western societies as a result of our current wars (overt and covert) and the idealistic but flawed socio-economic project driving many of them.
Globalisation, while an inevitable procedure, has caused many external and internal problems in its current form and Europe and the United States have not been impervious its challenges. As writer Pankaj Mishra notes: "You don't have to be a Catholic, or a Marxist, to acknowledge that Europe is beset by serious problems: soaring unemployment, the unresolved crisis of the euro, rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the stunning loss of a sense of possibility for young Europeans everywhere."
I will attempt to avoid generalisations, but we are a busy, meritocratic, fast-moving culture for good and bad. The West ceaselessly pushes forward and its vibrant super cities at the heart of this rapid advancement can be as exhausting as they are thrilling places to live and work. Individualism, daring and entrepreneurship is everywhere. Despite this, the age of Instant Expectations is as draining on individuals as it is draining on our global ecosystems.
Consumer culture and financial reward bring happiness, but they are not without limits. Mental health has become a major issue. The Guardian published several articles arguing how the neo-liberal framework has fractured social cohesion and the hyper-emphasis on individualism:
"Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of other, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism...What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world. The latest, catastrophic figure for that quarter of million children receive mental health care in England reflect a global crisis."
In the latest issue of The Newstatesman, William Davis wrote of the Age of Pain which has come into existence: "The evidence of rising private distress accumulates weekly. An NHS study published nearly a fifth of girls aged between 16 and 24 self-harm; 26 per cent reported some very recent mental health condition...patterns of social and cultural life are being redrawn along digital lines...The risk is that politics start to become shaped by a binary mentality, reduced to simple friend and enemy distinctions that are the substance of populism." The face of Western society is beautiful, what lies beneath the mask is confusion, a society juggling crisis and immediate concerns.
The consumerist and technological culture is as rewarding as it is distracting and punishing to a society addicted to consumption, products, reality TV, gossip, mass-media and one which has an unhealthy relationship with celebrity gossip and audacious sporting events (again good and bad). These habits and spectacles, fun at times, distract from many of the fundamental issues at hand. Donald Trump in many ways encapsulated many of these distractions and as a showman tapped into many of the spectacles which we are hooked on to and the tools we use to access it.
From economics to foreign policy to societal challenges, questions have been shelved and they keep being shelved. We are all very much a product of this bizarre and contradictory Western way of life. I perplex and bore friends with endless film quotes, I consume the creative and dull products on display, I have immersed myself in the vibrant nightlife of many a city and use the same technology which I am quick to criticise. However bringing down "the system" and blaming "the establishment" will not solve anything as anarchy and chaos would fill the vacuum left behind.
The need for reengagement in politics and awakening from the beautiful but distorted dream is imperative. Trump, the liberal elite's hubris, may have been the catalyst required to rudely awaken progressives from their slumber and, in some cases, apathy. There is not only a need to fight reactively for liberal and progressive thought, but to expand its meaning, to start its reform and revolution. Ideas are never static.
Wider society and many politicians (attempting not to generalise) seems to largely pay lip-service to liberal and progressive thought, nothing more and extreme forces, left and right, have cottoned on to this and are determined to expose or exploit this identity crisis and these double-standards for devious ends. Western societies' divisions over the refugee crisis, the security states we have erected, and our conduct of foreign policy in regions such as the Middle East are examples of these double-standards while Trump is one example of someone who has tapped into forces furious and confused with the seeming hypocrisy of Western values and the lavish and often impossible promises it can bring with it. The answers are imperfect, but recent years have illustrated that Western politics, many of its nations, and their values are decaying, if not regressing. 2016 has summarised this and highlighted an imbalance which must be corrected.
Criticising the current Western model from top to bottom is a necessary experiment for us all and it is an activity which must be reinvigorated at this critical threshold humanity stands at. It is a model which is in dire need of a new enlightenment, reexamination and reform and it will only be from within that individuals, societies, states, and communities can achieve real and transformative change.