In 1941, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time Magazine, called upon the United States to renounce its isolationism in order to take on a missionary role in which it would help spread and defend democratic values throughout the world. Not only did Luce think this the right thing to do, he also believed that it would inevitably usher in an “American Century” in which the United States government was free to exercise its power for “such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Fast forward seventy-seven years and American power appears to be ebbing a little early; even its current president characterises the republic as ‘crippled’, a shadow of its former self in need of his “stable genius” to become ‘great again’.
The shifting balance of geopolitics is, in part, a result of global technological, demographic and ideological developments above and beyond the control of the White House. Internally, however, it is clear that many of America’s problems stem from self-inflicted wounds. The most significant of which are what I call the ‘unholy trinity’ of American Politics: the dominance of cable news, the absurd system of campaign funding, and the scourge of entrenched partisanship.
Perversely, a defining feature of American politics is that as partisanship bites and proposed solutions become more disparate and conflicting, there appears to be a greater level of agreement as to what the problems actually are. For decades, sage critics (largely on the radical fringe of the American Left such as Gore Vidal, Angela Davis and latterly, Michael Moore) have argued that these structural problems fuelled distrust and discontent on both sides of society. The fact that this oft-stated criticism is now accepted as orthodoxy, on both sides of the aisle, reflects the fact that while the pessimism of Davis and Vidal may have been premature, it certainly wasn’t unfounded.
While despair at the state of things was a staple of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, general awareness of the scale of America’s problems has only become table talk in the last 30 months. In effect, Trump may not have changed politics but he’s certainly changed perceptions, not least because his careless exhibitionism demands constant scrutiny of his character and the office he holds. While America’s twisted media logic necessitated that Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” be the defining soundbite of the campaign, perhaps, the more illuminating was his boast about engaging in the same corrupt practices he promised his administration would abolish. At the first republican primary debate on August 6 2015 he brazenly defended his funding of Democratic candidates by saying: “You know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me. . . . And that’s a broken system.” From the beginning, Trump understood that if people were to believe in his plan to fix America’s broken democracy then they’d have to conceive of him as a different breed of democratic politician.
President Trump, through his candidacy and presidency, has exposed many of the conflicts of interests that paralyse and pervert American democracy. It seems unlikely, however, that he has done so out of the goodness of his heart. Rather, in his new incarnation as a ‘serious politician’ Trump’s self-interest dictated that he build his candidacy around exposing the socio-economic contradictions that not only allow men like him to become successful but allow them to abuse their power with complete impunity. Donald J. Trump did not design America’s broken system and he is certainly not the only greedy white man to benefit from it. If his presidency so far has seen him submit to the same special interests he threatened to smash then perhaps he simply has more in common with his Presidential predecessors than we’re comfortable acknowledging.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, Donald Trump’s presidency represents a few reasons to be cheerful. Most significant amongst them is that Trump’s divisiveness has galvanized a generation of conservatives and liberals against the flaws inherent within US politics. What is clear is that, whether you think he’s made good on his pledge to drain the swamp or not, his transparency has shone a light on the nefarious activities of the Washington establishment. From the overt nepotism that saw his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner appointed to high-ranking advisor roles to the manner in which he sacked FBI director James Comey and tried to delay publication of Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury’, Trump has taken the corrupt way out at every turn. The daily excesses of Trump’s presidency have created space for root and branch reform of American politics because he has inadvertently united both his critics and his supporters against the very system that allowed a man like him to become president in the first place. Ironically, it is the divisive pessimism of Trump (a man who lost the popular vote by over 2 million votes) that is finally getting Americans to agree on something. It’s a shame that that something is everything that is wrong with the country and not what is to be done about it.
In many ways, it should come as no surprise that the system could not be reformed from within by Obama a man who embodied 21st century America in all its multicultural, meritocratic glory. Instead, it must be utterly destroyed by an angry, old, white man, whose untrammeled rage and inability to relinquish a grudge make him a perfect spokesperson for all those who paid their dues (and their taxes), only to be sacrificed on the altar of progress by a Washington elite that neither had their concerns or their best interests at heart. Whisper it quietly, but maybe Trump is the president America needs right now, if only because his sheer divisiveness forces his critics and supporters to actively engage in the democratic process in a way that they’ve never had need to previously.
Upon accepting the Republican nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention Trump declared that “nobody knows the system better than me. Which is why I alone can fix it”. Putting his megalomania to one side, perhaps, he has a point. Donald Trump is America. Or at the very least, Donald Trump is 20th century America in all its fake-tanned, tax-dodging glory. A successful businessman who inherited a large fortune but still retains an uncomfortable relationship with his immigrant past and family background (in unguarded moments he has repeatedly stated how his father pushed him too hard and his brother’s alcoholism deeply scarred him). Moreover, as a white, Ivy League educated billionaire with his own media empire and cult of personality he is largely immune to the establishment backlash he continually invites. His wealth, profile and background serve to fuel his greatest asset: his authenticity. Even his unique use of Twitter and Reddit (his AMA on the latter is a masterclass in social media marketing and r/The_Donald is still going strong), reflects the fact that he understands the technological revolution America gave the world better than most politicians.
Above all, this is the key to successful populism: an ability to employ the opportunities that new technologies provide to promote old fashioned ideas of national identity. The indelible image of Donald Trump eating KFC and sipping Diet Coke on his gold-plated private jet (posted to Twitter, of course) sits alongside Nigel Farage’s school tie and pint of bitter, Emmanuel Macron’s easy cosmopolitanism and glamorous, older wife and Beppe Grillo’s shambolic displays of heterosexuality as an evocative emblem of what their supporters love about their respective nations.
Despite becoming President over a year ago, the political ramifications of the Trump phenomenon are yet to become fully apparent. It remains to be seen how long Trump can keep the show on the road whilst continuing to make huge errors in judgement. There have, however, been some clear indications of the way the story might unfold. Firstly, the 2016 election was notable for the collapse of the Democratic Party’s blue wall in the Midwest, in part a direct consequence of Trump’s personal appeal to white, blue collar workers. This however, came at the cost of alienating ethnic and religious minorities in the increasingly purple state of Arizona and increasingly blue states of New Mexico and Nevada.
Secondly, the ultimate failure of Roy Moore’s (R-Alabama) senatorial campaign reflects the extent to which controversial or scandal-laden candidates might suffer from negative associations with Trump’s presidency, particularly in the face of an increasingly organised and active Black community. Thirdly, for the time being at least, Trump’s combative approach to communications has hardened the media against his administration’s suspicious conduct and abuse of executive power. While stunts like the recent ‘Fake News Awards’ might be popular with his base, Trump only need look at the example of Richard Nixon to know what happens to Presidents who succeed in alienating the entire mainstream media.
Ultimately, for both his critics and supporters, Donald Trump’s presidency has been a very American success story. For America to truly become great again it needs to recognise the fundamental conflicts at the heart of its society and the structural flaws in its politics that prevent these problems from being meaningfully addressed. If Obama failed to enact the change his 2008 campaign so emphatically promised, he at least provided a template for mature and constructive leadership at a tumultuous time. Under President Trump, America faces a new, more fundamental challenge than the one posed by the financial crisis. Disagreement will continue to rage as long as American politics remains structurally ill-equipped to deal with the wide ranging concerns of its culturally diverse population. It’s certainly a long road ahead but even if they seem no closer to agreeing upon a set of solutions, Americans should thank Trump that they seem to be beginning to agree about the problems.