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What the victory of Donald Trump can teach us

As America’s president-elect prepares for office, it’s important to understand the nature of the new political reality — and how we should deal with it. Русский

Nikolai Klimeniouk
24 November 2016
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Protest at Trump Tower, New York. (c) RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov. All rights reserved.The unexpected victory of Donald Trump has been widely understood as a triumph for populism and a defeat, if not an existential threat, for liberal democracy. The main danger from populists is not simply that they make a mess of things or undo liberal reforms. In every country they take power, they seek to usurp it, dismantling the mechanisms for its peaceful handover and systems of checks and balances.

To protect democracy from populism means, first of all, to protect existing procedures and institutions from the fickle and easily manipulated “will of the people”. If Trump doesn’t set out to destroy basic democratic institutions, he will simply be another bad president, replaced after four or eight years. But everything in his post-election behaviour suggests the opposite. This is why any reform of the American political system initiated by Trump — such as an attempt to replace the universally hated electoral college system — is dangerous, however reasonable it may appear at first glance.

In a democracy, procedures are more important than the “will of the majority”, especially since the term “majority” is an abstraction — the best that can be achieved is a majority of those who turned out to vote. The existence of the electoral college system determines both the way electoral campaigns are run and voters’ behaviour. Voters were less active in states like New York and Texas, where there was no doubt about the outcome — Clinton would win New York and Texas would go to Trump. Swing states such as Florida saw a higher motivation on the part of voters.

After Trump’s victory it became obvious that many unwritten rules, on both sides of the political divide, had simply ceased to operate

Calls from Clinton supporters to challenge or revoke results on the basis of the “popular vote” are also a victory for Trump. Here’s why: unwritten customs and traditions, based on democratic consensus, are no less important than formal procedures. But as they are that much more vulnerable, they are Trump’s chief target.

After Trump’s victory it became obvious that many unwritten rules, on both sides of the political divide, had simply ceased to operate. Trump is now busy throwing out the accepted principles of a president’s relationship with the press which have existed since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt — take, for instance, the rule that the press could accompany the president everywhere from the moment of his election. Trump, however, went to a restaurant with his family without informing the media. This seems like no big deal, but it is a significant break with tradition.

During his election campaign, Trump also refused to grant accreditation to media outlets that had criticised him, and after the election he gathered the CEOs and anchors of major TV channels and gave them a dressing down in the style of his pre-election speeches: they were all biased and they were all lying about him. This is how democratic institutions are dismantled, one small step at a time.

Trump’s victory also revealed how direct foreign interference and a stream of illegally obtained and unverified information (from WikiLeaks to posts by conspiracy-obsessed bloggers) can influence election results. It’s impossible to either confirm or refute this now, but such a small difference in votes as that between Clinton and Trump inevitably invites attempts at both[1] . In any case, this kind of interference is a demonstration of strength and a clear signal: “You can’t ignore us, we can bring you down.”

Open propaganda, without resorting to hacking attacks, smear campaigns or dirty tricks, can also be very effective. One example of this is the notion that Hillary Clinton might draw the USA into a war with Russia and trigger a third world war. This idea, planted by Russian media in the final stage of the election campaign, was picked up and took on a life of its own so quickly that it no longer mattered where it had sprung from. 

The fact that the story about World War Three took off so easily was one of the many consequences of Barack Obama’s disastrous foreign policy, in which Clinton herself played a significant role. Although Obama reduced US involvement in international conflicts, taking US forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan and rejecting active engagement in Libya and Syria, he and his administration nonetheless acquired a reputation as hawks with blood on their hands. This is clear proof that you can’t wage a war with your hands tied behind your back. Obama’s minimal military interference achieved no strategic goals and did nothing to bring peace any closer, while at the same time totally discrediting the USA’s role as the main guarantor of global security (in the eyes of Americans as well as everybody else). 

The threat that a Trump administration will be friends with the “bad boys” and authoritarian regimes is a real one. But it’s equally true that, for decades, democratic governments have been friends with the “bad boys” themselves — especially Saudi Arabia, pretty much the leading sponsor of radical Islamism and conservative trends across the Islamic world as a whole. If the Trump administration drops its support for Saudi Arabia (as he has promised) and moves closer to, say, Russia, this will represent a change, but not necessarily for the worse: for that, it first needs to decide which is the “lesser of two evils”.

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The good old days. Photo CC: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

The Clinton campaign, especially the uncoordinated spontaneous element run by her supporters and opponents of Trump, was to a large extent based on scaring voters about the consequences of a Trump victory. That, they proclaimed, would herald the end of democracy, fascism, the persecution of minorities and a rupture in relations with the rest of the world. This line was also adopted by Trump’s opponents within the Republican Party and the media, including traditionally republican publications like the Washington Post.

The crisis of trust in traditional media is a global trend, and neither Europe nor the US have learned how to resist it

Voters were effectively offered Clinton as the “lesser of two evils”. This argument became the final nail in her coffin. In the first place, it connected Clinton with a reputation for “evil”. In the second, it pushed voters who disliked Clinton but were also at odds with Trump into voting for him nonetheless: if it’s a question of the lesser of two evils, then why not?

The crisis of trust in traditional media is a global trend, and neither Europe nor the US have learned how to resist it. Slogans about “the lying media,the propaganda merchants for the establishment” play a central part in all populist campaigns, including Trump’s. The coordinated attacks on Trump by the press and, in particular, their nasty, personal tone and emotive exaggerations have only served to deepen this distrust.  

Clinton has also acquired a reputation as a liar, and for many, this was a reason to vote for Trump. This is especially relevant, given the fact that the US president-elect has often being caught lying. Politicians are obviously judged by the standards they set for themselves, but the traditional requirements of truthfulness and consistency make Clinton’s slip-ups, small lies and minor abuses of power a big problem.

Post-truth politicians like Trump are immune to such accusations. They develop immunity to any criticism and any distressing revelations; their reputation is such that it can’t be blackened any further. For their part, Russians developed this “know how” back in Yeltsin’s days in the 1990s: if you simply ignore criticism and denunciations, they lose their power. Tactics like these weaken the media enormously and affect their role as providers of checks and balances. 

Much has been said about the fact that not everyone who voted for Trump shared his views, and about the role of the provincial white working class. Many of these people voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Obama won because he promised change. He embodied the hope (as Trump does today) that the rules of the political game would change. But Obama didn’t even try to keep his promise; during his presidency the system became more rigid, more distant and more elitist. While eight years ago the outsider Obama could beat party favourite Clinton at the primaries, this time round the party apparatus ensured that Clinton won the nomination despite all her obvious shortcomings and prevented Bernie Sanders, a much more promising rival to Trump, from being chosen as its candidate.       

However crazy their views, people have the right to vote, and if they feel they are not being taken seriously, they give that vote to Trump

Obama voters have had to overcome deep stylistic contradictions between themselves and the outgoing president. The elegant, ironic, sometimes impossibly arrogant Harvard professor is a walking incarnation of elitism and the social antagonist of the “common man”. The blue collar population of the flyover states understand and feel much closer to the millionaire’s son Trump, with his weakness for models and gold lavatories. The reason is simple: he, and not Obama, embodies the American dream.  

One may think what one likes about the least educated and most conservative parts of the population, but one can’t ignore them. However crazy their views, people have the right to vote, and if they feel they are not being taken seriously, they give that vote to Trump.

Trump’s victory has revealed an important communication problem. A considerable proportion of the American public lives with a feeling that they are not free. Many can’t accept liberal linguistic norms and infamous “political correctness”, and are fed up with them. Not every man who calls women “chicks” thinks they are inferior to men, that their place is in the kitchen and that they should be overjoyed at any sexual attention they receive.

But this kind of man would also think it an unwarranted insult to be called “sexist”. And many don’t have the imagination to realise that liberals are actually serious about these issues. So they see the liberals’ use of “politically correct” language as hypocrisy, and Trump’s coarseness and swaggering as an antidote to these absurd taboos and a licence to ignore them. As they see it, Trump’s speeches aren’t to be taken seriously: every word is a gesture. And they like Trump’s gestures. 

Trump’s victory represents the triumph of conservative sexual morality and experimental proof of the fact that a gross he-male and sexual predator is as much a part of it as the cult of the “traditional family”, virginity or monogamous heterosexual marriage. Trump hasn’t antagonised the religious right, who have a bigger axe to grind over progressive understandings of the family than with traditional machismo. After all, for conservatives there is another liberating factor to Trump’s victory: it turns out that they voted in favour of sex.    

 

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