June 6, 2016
What is Official Ireland going to do when The Donald arrives? Having gone out on a limb by advising Americans to vote for Hillary, the Taoiseach faces a choice: should he shower with garlands yesterday’s man, Joe Biden, or embrace the potential man of tomorrow, Donald Trump?
In the same way as the possibility of Brexit has coaxed out the highly predictable and not very persuasive brain farts of Official Ireland about the grave dangers that democracy in Britain poses to Ireland, the possibility of a President Trump has sent the whole political/media establishment into apoplexy.
Sure we’d all prefer the world to stay as it is, but that’s not the way life works. You cannot preserve the status quo indefinitely. Human history is the history of change. It is the story of the unexpected – and the people who tend to do best, are those who adapt to change best. This flexibility applies to individuals as much as groups or nations.
There is little point in trying to prevent the new based on the fears of the old. Innovation, dislocation and change are a constant. The only thing we can say for sure is that things never stay the same. And the people who try to hold onto yesterday’s certainty rather than tomorrow’s opportunity, whether that is in economics, politics or business, are the ones who get left behind.
Humans are constantly trying to see patterns where there are sometimes none, and we try to make links between events where there may be no correlations, maybe because this is the only way of dealing with the constant flux all around us.
For example, my mother prays to St Anthony when she loses her car keys. The loss of the car keys signals a quick prayer and a frantic search around the house. This ritual happens on a daily basis. Eventually, the keys will turn up, beside the dog’s food, behind the telly or in the door of the car. My mother will then conclude that the prayer to St Anthony did the trick.
There is obviously no connection between the prayer and the keys being found, but it is the human search for patterns. The Church is/was trading on something deep inside us. We don’t like the unexpected and yet the unexpected is what determines our lives.
Trump is the unexpected. To use business terminology, Trump is the classic disruptive moment. He is the car and current politics is the blacksmith.
When the first petrol-powered jalopy appeared in 1890, did anyone realise it spelled the end of the blacksmith? The blacksmith was such a dominant feature of our lives and the trade gave its name to the most common surnames in English, German, the Slavic languages, Spanish and French. Smith, Schmidt, Kovac, Herero and Le Fevre all come from the most constant trade in the world. Then, in the early 20th century, the old order was disrupted by the arrival of the car. Subsequently, everything changed. No more Smiths!
Trump is a similar development. Political boffins will tell us that he is doing everything wrong – but he is winning. He is the one with momentum. He is the one who understands two things: he appreciates that elections are show business, and he grasps that the American electorate are sick of the political class.
Across the board, his message is simple. He speaks the language of the common people, he feels their fears because he listens to them, and he is prepared to give the people an alternative. It may be an incoherent, nasty alternative. It is most certainly not the alternative most editorial writers are scribbling about, but it is a view of the world that many millions of people subscribe to.
Economically, my sense is that it is all based in rising inequality. I appreciate that the notion of a billionaire taking the side of the working poor is bonkers, but that is his genius. Like all good scriptwriters, he has created a dark but human character and he has written himself into this drama as this bizarre creature – half man, half slogan. Because he is almost an outlandishly theatrical caricature, his menace is muted by parody. But it is real.
On the issue of inequality, the lot of the average American has been falling back for the past four decades. Every few years, the US economy recovers and experiences a mini-bubble – and the little guy, buoyed by easy credit, thinks he is doing well. But each time there is a recession, the working man and his wages suffer. In the slump, unemployment rises and wages are cut, so the average guy starts the next cycle worse off than he was at the start of the previous one.
This has been the pattern of the recent economic cycles.
Meantime, the gains have gone disproportionately to the rich guys and in particular, the very rich.
As the gap widens, the middle ground, made up of a lot of working parents, realise that the system is rigged against them. They also find themselves in competition with migrants in the jobs market. They are also in competition with migrants in the housing market, in the schools their kids attend, and in the hospitals they go to when they are sick or when their parents are infirm.
Responding to economic downturns with austerity and cuts in public services exacerbates competition as we head towards the bottom of society. In contrast, because in a downturn assets are sold off cheaply to those at the top, competition for wealth actually diminishes at the top in a recession. So free competition in already unequal societies actually has the effect of amplifying competition at the bottom, and tapers it at the top. You couldn’t make this up.
This development hasn’t been identified by the Democratic Party because under the Clintons and Obama, the Democratic Party has ceased to be the party of the working man and has become the party of the cossetted, well- intentioned educated class.
These people see no conflict between cosying up to Wall Street while hectoring people about calorie intake as they marvel at the variety of exotic food immigrants bring to corner delis! This is not a recipe for electoral success. It’s a recipe for irrelevance.
Trump speaks the language of the middle because he has figured out what the issues are. This is crucial. He is a buffoon, possibly racist and definitely obnoxious, but he is winning. The old order is exposed and has nothing left to fight with.
A Jewish friend was asked to describe Trump the other day and he responded: “Imagine if Adolf Hitler liked Jews – well, that’s Trump.”
Now that’s chilling.