Riding the Tiger with Donald Trump
Though it has been nearly two months since the 2016 US Presidential election, there is still ongoing discussion about the nature of Donald Trump’s victory. A number of political figures and media personalities refuse to call his narrow and numerically minority victory a “landslide,” with some in a perpetual fury that, at the end of the day, winning the popular vote in the United States doesn’t count for much.
I disagree with this view on the basis that this ignores the context in which Trump was operating in: he was going against everyone. He ran against all Republicans and Democrats, the center-right Bush-McCain-Romney Rockefeller Republicans, the Cruz Tea Party right, the Clinton-Obama center-left incumbency, the Sanders-inspired left, almost the entirety of the Washington media apparatus, all the polls and polling services, and the whole Washington lobbyist establishment. And he still won. Babylon, it would seem, has been stormed and put to fire and sword.
The Democratic response to their loss has been, for want of a better word, apoplectic—and at times outright bizarre. For example, there was an effort by (now former) Clinton campaign staffers and powerful Democrats to pressure electors of the Electoral College to go against their state-mandated duty of reflecting the vote totals in their respective states. In other words, they tried to pressure the electors to refrain from voting for Trump. This was truly an outlandish attempt, given that it amounted to an awkward embrace of Nullification thinking: the legal theory that states in the US have the right to nullify/invalidate a federal law that states have deemed unconstitutional. The last time something like this was tried was in the 1960s, when Alabama governor George Wallace attempted to nullify federal guidelines on racial desegregation in schools. Apparently, a Neo-Confederacy spirit is okay when it means stopping Donald Trump.
Then there is the blame game. Democrats have pointed fingers at anyone and everyone they feel played a part in their loss, creating new debate with each issue. The outcry over “fake news” playing a role in Trump’s victory, and that social media should police this, is a prime example. Putting aside the issue that such arguments are essentially in favor of empowering corporate entities such as Facebook to act as information gatekeepers to the masses (a prospect that to some feels as if it were originating from science fiction), the “fake news” issue raises a fundamental and often ignored question in our time: what constitutes “real” and “fake news” in the contemporary media environment? Are opinion pieces passed off as news pieces “real” or “fake”? Are satirical news and talk shows, such as Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, “real” or “fake”? Who has the right to sit in judgment of deciding what is “real” and “fake”? What process is applied to ensure objectivity? Democrats may not have realized it, but in attempting to muzzle the pitbull they may have inadvertently unleashed a dragon—especially if the media system, which plays a key role in public debate, is itself widely deemed to be compromised by subjectivity.
Unfortunately, Democrats have yet to come to terms with what is likely the main reason behind their loss: the candidate. While Hillary Clinton was certainly experienced, with a team that was building a rather impressive policy platform, she and her entire campaign seemed to have missed the obvious: that this was a change election, and that a significant chunk of the public was not in the mood for another more-of-the-same establishment personality who earned six-figures in paid speeches to corporate entities because “that is what was offered.” This is why Bernie Sanders’ campaign aroused such passion during the primaries, while Clinton drew less frenetic energy: there was an enthusiasm gap between the two because Sanders was a change candidate, while Clinton came across as more of the same. As the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said whenever some monarch or empire fell: “Didn’t you see it coming? Didn’t you see the raised knife? What were you doing?”
To be sure, there are a number of other reasons why Trump won and Clinton lost. But at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters in a democratic election is the number of votes one can rally. And it sure is a hell of a lot easier to win if your supporters are wildly passionate about voting for you, especially when compared to your opponent’s supporters.
Speaking of Trump: he, in the meantime, is enjoying something rare in politics: near-hegemony in the domestic sphere. The Republicans now enjoy majorities in both houses of Congress, state governorships and legislatures, and soon the Supreme Court. With his mandate and the supporting legislative/judicial majorities, Trump can drive more change in American society than any other president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Taxes, spending, education, environment, campaign finance reform, healthcare, trade, immigration, foreign policy, defense… everything is now out in the open. And while his critics, which are legion, cry out that Trump lacks everything that is necessary for a president—temperament, wisdom, an ability to pay careful attention to details—they seem to be missing the fact that Trump’s unpredictable break from contemporary political orthodoxy is making waves.
As Victor Davis Hanson from The National Review puts it:
Trump has a habit of offering off-the-cuff unconventional observations — often unsubstantiated by verbal footnotes and in hyperbolic fashion. Then he is blasted for ignorance and recklessness by bipartisan grandees. Only later, and quietly, he is often taken seriously, but without commensurate public acknowledgement.
A few more examples. Candidate Trump blasted the “free-loading” nature of NATO, wondered out loud why it was not fighting ISIS or at least Islamic terrorism, and lamented the inordinate American contribution and the paucity of commensurate allied involvement. Pundits called that out as heresy, at least for a few weeks — until scholars, analysts, and politicos offered measured support for Trump’s charges. Europeans, shocked by gambling in Casablanca, scrambled to assure that they were upping their defense contributions and drawing the NATO line at the Baltic States.
President-elect Trump generated even greater outrage in the aftermath of the election when he took a call from the Taiwanese president. Pundits exploded. Foreign policy hands were aghast. Did this faker understand the dimensions of his blunder? Was he courting nuclear war?
Trump shrugged, as reality again intruded: Why sell billions of dollars in weaponry to Taiwan if you cannot talk to its president? Are arms shipments less provocative than receiving a single phone call? Why talk “reset” to the […] Castro brothers but not to a democratically elected president? Why worry what China thinks, given that it has […] now created artificial islands in the South China Sea, in defiance of all maritime custom, law, and tradition?
Two weeks later after the call, analysts — true to the pattern — meekly agreed that such a phone call was hardly incendiary. Perhaps, they mused, it was overdue and had a certain logic. Perhaps it had, after all, sent a valuable message to China that the U.S. may now appear as unpredictable to China as China has appeared to the U.S.
Unpredictability is, perhaps, exactly what the American political establishment needs. While many have predicted that Trump’s “messiness,” so to speak, will bring about an end to the United States and possibly the Western order in general, it may be a necessary factor in order to prevent the system from becoming too fossilized. In 2006, political scientists Joan Pere Plaza i Font and Dandoy Regis put together a paper on the overview of chaos theory’s applicability to political science. In it, they wrote:
…states with high entropy, meaning that increasing disorder, messiness, randomness and unpredictability will bring more peace than it could occur in predictable or excessive ordered countries. Second, chaos theory aims to model whole systems, looking at overall patterns rather than isolating the cause-and-effect relations of specific parts of a system. Through this approach, chaos theory has discovered that many social systems are not simply orderly or disorderly. Some are orderly at times and disorderly at other times. Others are in constant chaotic motion, yet display an overall stability.
Trump’s America may well be of the latter category: in a constant, unpredictable, and chaotic motion, but hopefully maintaining overall stability in the long-term.
At the moment though, we simply have no way of being sure. So, for the time being, the present situation is reminiscent of the ancient Chinese saying 騎虎難下, which means “riding on the back of a tiger and not being able to get off.” In other words, we are all in a position where we have no way out but seeing it through to the end. For better or worse, we’re all going to be riding the tiger with Donald Trump.
Carlos Roa is Assistant Editor of Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development. He's a graduate of Georgetown University and an avid reader. He is currently doing research for a book on Blockchain technology and how it will affect the contemporary socio-political economic environment.