Donald Trump is not the problem – he’s the symptom

Trump is what happens when you fail to understand our global problems in their interconnected, systemic context.

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
20 January 2017
Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The inauguration of Donald Trump is a historic day, not just for the United States, but for human civilization.

But it is a mistake to believe that Trump is the problem who must be resisted. Trump is not the problem. Trump is merely one symptom of a deeper systemic crisis. His emergence signals a fundamental and accelerating shift within a global geopolitical and domestic American political order which is breaking down.

In order to know how to best respond to the incoming Trump era, we must understand how we arrived here.

The crisis of democracy

In 2014, a Princeton University study quantified just how badly US democracy is broken. Using a database of 1,779 policy issues, the study found that when a majority of Americans disagree with “economic elites” or “organised interests”, they “generally lose.”

The authors noted that when average citizens and affluent classes want the same policies from government, they usually get them. But when they disagree, the rich almost always win out. The study did not, contrary to numerous headlines, define the US as an oligarchy, but it did conclude that US democracy is in fact a system of “economic elite domination”.

Since then, the study has generated extensive academic debate, including three studies which have taken issue with these findings. However, the new studies do not contradict the Princeton study’s main verdict that the rich disproportionately dominate policy decisions at the expense of those who are less well-off. And the Princeton study’s verdict was not even that novel – it built on and corroborated the previous findings of numerous other political scientists studying political and economic inequalities in the US.

Distrust and disillusionment

Trump was not part of the Washington political machinery, and it was this positioning as an ostensible ‘outsider’ even to the Republican Party that he used to his advantage. But ironically, the biggest reason for his victory was the sheer lack of public credibility of the Democrat candidate, Hillary Clinton. Democrat voters simply didn’t come out to vote for her.

Even if they had, what would they be voting for? Clinton was the favoured candidate of Wall Street, having received the most campaign donations from the US finance and banking elite.

Trump’s victory was a clear signal of both a deepening level of distrust with the political establishment, and growing levels of apathy and disillusionment with the two-party choice. The data suggests that many white working and middle class voters voted for Trump because they believed he might be a genuine ‘outsider’ to the DC establishment; while many ethnic minority voters didn’t turn up to vote.

But there is some alarming but inconclusive evidence that in 27 Republican-controlled states, minority voters were systematically marginalised. An investigation last August in Rolling Stone by Greg Palast, who has exposed vote fraud in previous US elections, found that the Interstate Vote Registration Crosscheck Programme, run by Republicans, appeared to overwhelmingly purge “young, black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters” from Democrat constituencies.

Vote fraud or not, Trump’s rise to power was enabled by an increasingly defunct two-party democracy which has become more beholden to the power of an unaccountable economic elite, and more distant from the majority of Americans.

Which is why, of the 227 million eligible American voters, just a quarter voted for Trump. Almost equally, around a quarter voted for Clinton. A tiny minority voted for third party candidates like Jill Stein of the Green Party. And everyone else, fully 42% of voters, just refused to vote.

The obsession with blaming Russia for the rise of Trump is therefore a convenient way of ‘otherising’ the problem. It helps us avoid admitting the far more fundamental role of structural flaws in American democracy.

Flawed democracy, failing system

Those familiar with such structural flaws correctly anticipated the basic contours of the Trumpian moment. The Nobel-Prize nominee and futurist professor Johan Galtung who accurately forecasted the demise of the Soviet Union, also predicted the inexorable decline of American global power. Along the way, he warned, the US would likely undergo a shift toward fascism. In my recent interview with Galtung, he told me that Trump appeared to epitomise this shift, and would probably accelerate America’s projected decline.

The rise of Trump represents a deeper trend that makes sense from a complex systems perspective. In 2010, in my book A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, I argued that a nexus of escalating global crises – climate change, energy depletion, food scarcity and economic instability – were driving a trajectory toward escalating violent conflict, civil unrest and state-militarisation.

In the same year, during the British national elections, I warned in my article “The Global Weimar Phase”:

“Whatever government gets into power with this election… [t]he new government, beholden to conventional wisdom, will be unable or unwilling to get to grips with the root structural causes of the current convergence of crises facing this country, and the world. This suggests that in 5-10 years, the entire mainstream party-political system in this country, and many Western countries, will be completely discredited as crises continue to escalate while mainstream policy solutions serve largely to contribute to them, not ameliorate them. The collapse of the mainstream party-political system across the liberal democratic heartlands could pave the way for the increasing legitimization of far-right politics by the end of this decade.”

That assessment looks to have been borne out in some significant ways so far.

I have deepened the “Crisis of Civilization” model with a new scientific study, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence, which finds that global net energy decline is intensifying interlinked environmental and economic crises, culminating in a heightened risk of states failing. The implications in relation to the Trumpian moment are simple: human systems – social, political, geopolitical, cultural, and so on – are becoming destabilised in the context of escalating Earth System Disruption driven by dependence on fossil fuels. But the failure to understand this is driving increasingly reactionary approaches that address only symptoms of this destabilization.

Trump is what happens when you fail to understand our global problems in their interconnected, systemic context. Rather than seeing the roots of our problems in the deep structures of a system that is failing, we see only the symptoms, the fighting, the terrorism, the chaos. And so we do more of the same to fix the problem: we exert greater force, greater power; we hark back to the ‘good old days’ when American was an industrial power house; and we blame anyone who disagrees with us as an ‘Other’ standing in the way of what’s Making America Great Again.

But this is a truly narcissistic reaction that eclipses our own role in supporting a system that incubates the problems we resent.

The elephant in the room

Among the biggest but currently invisible elephants in the room, comprising a root cause of accelerating global system failure, is global net energy decline.

Don’t be alarmed if you’ve never really heard of this concept. It’s not just Trump who is in denial about it. So is Clinton. So was Obama. So is most of the incumbent fossil fuel-centric energy industry.

Over the last century, the net value of the energy we are able to extract from our fossil fuel resource base is inexorably declining. The scientific concept used to measure this value is Energy Return on Investment (EROI), a calculation that compares the quantity of energy one extracts from a resource, to the quantity of energy used to enable the extraction.

There was a time in the US, around the 1930s, when the EROI of oil was a monumental 100. This has steadily declined, with some fluctuation. By 1970, oil’s EROI had dropped to 30. Over the last three decades alone, the EROI of US oil has continued to plummet by more than half, reaching around 10 or 11.

According to environmental scientist professor Charles Hall of the State University of New York, who created the EROI measure, global net energy decline is the most fundamental cause of global economic malaise. Because we need energy to produce and consume, we need more energy to increase production and consumption, driving economic growth. But if we’re getting less energy over time, then we simply cannot increase economic growth.

This has led to a number of devastating consequences. To maintain economic growth, we are using ingenious debt mechanisms to finance new economic activity. The expansion of global debt is now higher than 2007 pre-crash levels. We are escalating the risk of another financial crisis in coming years, because the tepid growth we’ve managed to squeeze out of the economy so far is based on borrowing from an energetically and environmentally unsustainable future.

As global net energy is declining, to keep the endless growth machine running, the imperative to drill like crazy to get more energy out only deepens. So instead of scaling back our exploitation of fossil fuels, we are accelerating it. As we are accelerating fossil fuel exploitation, this is accelerating climate change. That in turn is driving more extreme weather events like droughts, storms and floods, which is putting crops in major food basket regions at increasing risk.

As climate and food instability ravages regions all over the world, this has fueled government efforts to task their militaries with planning for how to deal with the rising instabilities that would result as these processes weaken states, stoke civil unrest and even inflame terrorism. And that escalating breakdown of regional states coincides conveniently with a temptation to use military force to consolidate control of more fossil fuel resources.

Trump is the face of the crisis of civilisation

So make no mistake: the emergence of our Trumpian moment has happened as a direct consequence of the failures of previous governments to address these crises systemically, which has only allowed them to worsen.

Although the policies of Obama were, compared to those suggested by Trump, far more progressive, they were simply not sufficient to address the deep structures of system failure. And so, despite those mixed efforts, crisis has continued to accelerate.

On energy and climate, whatever the merits of Obama’s support for renewable energy and robust environmental regulation, his split personality approach to climate change was unable to avert us from a pathway toward dangerous levels of carbon emissions. While tackling pollution and carbon energy consumption at home, he simultaneously pushed environmentally destructive fracking of unconventional fossil fuels both at home and abroad, including offshore drilling. Clinton was not set to dramatically shift away from these policies.

The result is that at a time when we needed to dramatically shift away from a fossil fuel resource base – whose net energy value has been haemorrhaging – to a more resilient and sustainable energy system, we didn’t. And so all our efforts to kick-start growth have had little success. Instead, we have pumped so much new debt into the system, the financial system remains vulnerable to another crisis. 

Trump’s proposal is to advance the fossil fuel component of Obama’s approach – intensifying fossil fuel exploitation beyond limits while ditching support for renewable energy. In doing so, he will accelerate the pathway toward energy decline and economic malaise. And while driving the car of civilisation into an economic wall, Trump hopes to distract his predominantly white male support base by blaming everyone else: ethnic minorities, Muslims, women and LGBTQ people.

And in that regard, he is not as different to Obama and Clinton as some might like to imagine. His secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has come in for flack for ties to Russia, such as helping the state oil company Rosnet secure access to Arctic oil fields. Also under Tillerson’s watch, Exxon made a unilateral oil deal with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, undercutting the Iraqi central government; and raised a private mercenary army to defend oil fields controlled by the dictatorial government of Chad.

Yet neither Obama nor Clinton are exactly strangers to Tillerson. In a 2013 State Department roundtable, then secretary of state Clinton described “Iraq as a business opportunity.” Exxon was specifically mentioned in the email, and participated in the roundtable among 30 US companies, along with US and Iraqi government representatives. Exxon has also donated $1 million to the Clinton Foundation.

Indeed, Obama had accelerated many of the policies that Trump wishes to build on. Despite his belated and commendable rescinding of the discriminatory post-9/11 Muslim and Arab immigrant registry system (which in nearly a decade failed to yield a single terrorism conviction), the Obama administration built up a formidable legal infrastructure which extended some of the worst Bush-era policies: cracking down on civil liberties, penalising whistleblowers, escalating surveillance, rehabilitating torture and rendition, and expanding our silent drone wars against mostly helpless civilian populations across seven countries to the tune of ten times more strikes than Bush.

So the Trumpian moment does not see a departure from the failed policies of previous governments, but rather their radicalisation and consolidation.

Beyond resistance

Within this constellation of crises, there has arisen a strange opportunity. Trump and the peculiar white supremacist network of social forces he is bringing to the fore, have shocked even the Republican and Democrat political establishment. That establishment is increasingly horrified by what it has spawned, and what it now wishes to disown.

Ironically, this crystallisation of American power is making ‘outsiders’ of us all. As Matt Taibi has pointed out so eloquently, the Trumpian moment has seen an astonishing array of social movements brought together in horror at what Trump stands for: “From the ACLU to the Sierra Club to Everytown for Gun Safety, civil society is girding for battle – reinforced by an unprecedented upwelling of activist support and donations.”

New ties of solidarity are emerging across the left and right of the political spectrum. Constitutional conservatives and anti-Trump Republicans are finding themselves on the same side as progressives.

There is a powerful lesson here. In the wake of Trump’s victory, many of my American friends and colleagues who lamented Clinton’s failure see the future as essentially one-track: we need to get the Democratic Party back in power in another four or eight years.

Yet this utter banality in our political imagination is precisely what allowed the Trumpian moment to arise in the first-place – the abject deference to the inevitability of working within a broken two-party structure, regardless of its subservience to narrow vested interests, regardless of its accelerating distance from the American people.

The solution is not to react to Trump as if he, too, is the Other, but to recognise him as little more than the Great Orange Face of regressive social forces that we all enabled, forces tied to a global system that is no longer sustainable. That means raising the stakes, and shooting to build something bigger, better and brighter than merely an ‘anti-Trump’ movement.

In the Trumpian moment, we must be neither Republicans, nor Democrats, left nor right, conservative nor liberal. We are humans, together, not merely resisting a broken system that is beyond fixing, but planting the seeds to build a new system as we travel deeper into the post-carbon century. Yes, Trump is a psychotic blip in this great transition. But he is also the culmination of a state of political psychosis which began long before him, and which we’ve all been part of.

So the question is no longer what we’re against. The question is this: what are you really standing for? And what are you going to do to build it?

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