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Can Donald Trump predict the future?

The myth of prophecy is central to the success of authoritarian politics.

Credit: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.

During his recent ragged interview with Time magazine, Donald Trump returned again and again to the fact that he “predicted Brexit.” He mentioned Brexit a total of eleven times; the interviewer didn’t mention it once.

Throughout the interview, Trump was determined to prove an almost mystical power for prediction. From the very first question, when the interviewer asked Trump whether he’d like to be given a quick overview of his “story so far,” Trump responded by reeling off a list of his ‘predictions’ so far: ‘Sweden…Huma [Abedin] and Anthony [Weiner]…Hillary’s email thing…NATO…Brexit…Brussels is not Brussels’ and Bernie Sanders’ candidacy campaign being ‘rigged.’ He didn’t offer any explanation, but all these things had come true apparently. “I predicted a lot of things, Michael,” he said, “Some things that came to you a little bit later.”

Brexit is the prediction which makes Trump the proudest. He couldn’t stop reminding the interviewer he predicted it, despite the interviewer never asking. If he could turn this prediction into a badge, you’d imagine he’d wear it every day. In one instance, the interviewer presses Trump on his reputation for lying: “Do you worry about your lack of credibility?” he asks. “If you’ve cited things that turn out to be wrong, what if there is a genuine emergency?” “Name what’s wrong” Trump shot back, “I mean, honestly.” “Fox news said…,” the interviewer began to respond, but then Donald draws his trump card for the fifth time: “Brexit. Wait a minute. I predicted Brexit.”

It was as if, so many months after the event, Trump was still struggling to believe that he really had predicted Brexit, astonished at his own ability to read the future. “I think that Britain will separate from the EU”, he said back in April 2016, two months before the result. But for Trump, this was no ordinary prediction; for Trump, being right once means he can never be wrong again.

Trump’s claims to clairvoyance put his ‘alternative facts’ in a new light. What if the lies we react to with rage—that Trump was wiretapped, that three million undocumented people voted in the election, that Sweden was attacked by terrorists and so on—are not actually lies but rather ‘not-yet-truths:’ not  ‘fake news’ but ‘fate news’?  

Perhaps that’s his hope: by making a ‘prediction’ public, Trump believes that the ensuing pandemonium will make it more likely to take place. Rarely, if ever, will Trump predict something that he doesn’t want to be true. Declarations of doomsday make doomsday all the more likely.

And so Trump claims to predict the future. People are always sceptical of his predictions, he told the Time Magazine interviewer, but – take Brexit, for example (have I mentioned Brexit?) – “I said, no, Brexit is going to happen, and everybody laughed, and Brexit happened. Many, many things like that. They turn out to be right.”

It’s not just Brexit. When Trump branded Brussels a “hellhole” over a year ago, he points out, “I was absolutely lambasted. A short time later they had the major attack in Brussels.” A coincidence? Impossible. When Trump talked about Sweden, claiming there was a terrorist attack, “everyone goes crazy”, but then “the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.”

Time’s interviewer clarifies to Trump exactly what he’s implying: “You are now saying you were referring to something that happened the following day.” Yes, yes, reading the future. “I tend to be right. I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works. I said I was going to win the election, I won the election.”

Confident assertions of victory before the race is run are as old as any competition. But there’s something striking about the new set of right-wing nationalists that are ascendant in global politics, and not just Trump: they all claim to see society’s destiny so clearly. The future they envision has two constant features: it’s scary—Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage speak of civil war, breaking points, terrorist attacks, Armageddon and overcrowded public services—and it involves them winning. The future then becomes brighter and a golden past is restored.

Their doomsday narratives need disaster, and so when disaster strikes their outrage is matched only by their smug satisfaction. Trump and his fairground prophets delight in nothing more than saying ‘I told you so.’ Trump has tweeted this phrase 28 times. It doesn’t matter how nasty the event. Following the terrorist attack in London on March 22 2017, Farage tweeted that he was “very upset and depressed by the terrorist attack in Westminster, but unfortunately not surprised.” Just like a similar incident in Berlin last year when he tweeted: “terrible news from Berlin, but no surprise.”

Like Trump, Farage sees himself as some sort of soothsayer. “When I came here 17 years ago and I said that I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union,” Farage ranted to the European Union Parliament after Brexit, “you all laughed at me—well I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?” After Trump’s victory, Farage called himself “the catalyst for the downfall of the Blairites, the Clintonites…and all these dreadful people.”

This is clearly part of his image: for all his lies and deception, only Farage can see the future. Back in 2014, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) released a video entitled “Nigel Farage Predicted Everything.” It ran to 35 minutes and was scored by strings that Steven Spielberg would be proud of. It framed Farage as a harbinger of EU doom, a Mystic Meg for politics.

Brexit and Trump’s victory are now taken as signs that this dark and delightful dystopia is on its way. These victories have fuelled their fire, and the right-wing nationalists dance around it, smiling and singing, waiting for the storm. Marine Le Pen looks into the flames and sees “a new world being born” where “the European Union will die.” Farage sees “the beginning of global revolution.”

But make no mistake, these prophecies are calculated. The more their apocalyptic forecasts are accepted by the public, the more reasonable their reactionary agendas become, and the more realistic their chances of election or re-election. As Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon puts it: “What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order, and the more frantic a handful of media elites become, the more powerful that new political order becomes.”

Let’s not take anything away from Trump, however. Maybe he’s right and he really does have his own unique power of prophecy. “I’m an instinctual person,” he told the Time magazine interviewer, “but my instinct turns out to be right.” He said he would win the election, and he did. He said the Brexit campaign would win, and it did. What next? We await his next prediction with bated breath. 

About the author

Samuel Earle is a freelance writer who lives in London. His work has been published in the London Review of Books, Jacobin Magazine, openDemocracy and other media. Follow him on twitter @swajcmanearle.

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