January 27, 2017
Trump’s Victory is a Wake-up Call: America First
By Michael S. H. Heng*
*Michael S. H. Heng is a retired professor who has held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at 6 universities in Asia. He has published 5 books.
The Controversial, Contentious, and Perplexing 45th President of the United States–Donald J Trump
Even without the benefit of hindsight, Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 US presidential election was not surprising. Although the majority of mainstream newspapers and opinion polls had predicted a victory for the Democrat candidate, a few sharp observers and analysts had been saying that the opposite would happen.
In 1989, Michael Moore made a movie “Roger and Me” about the devastation that descended on the city of Flint, Michigan after General Motors closed the car plant there. Since then we have seen 8 years of Bill Clinton and another 8 years of Barack Obama. What have the Democrats done to address the social and economic ills of Flint? Now the city is saddled with a water crisis, where the tainted tap water cannot be used for drinking, cooking or bathing. In the recent presidential election, the state of Michigan went to Donald Trump. This should have been predictable to any clear headed political observer.
The Bill Clinton presidency of 8 years was not as Hillary Clinton had put it: a great time of economic progress. That is what they like to think and persuade others to believe. Those were years that continued to favor the neo-liberal seeds planted earlier with the blessings of Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, with catastrophic blowback in the form of the 2008 financial crisis. The following 8 years of the junior George Bush were an unmitigated disaster with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But then came along Barack Obama with the promise of Hope and Change. The Great Recession ushered in by the financial crisis of 2008 was not used as an occasion to galvanize the nation to roll back the hanky-panky activities of the financial sector and to reinvent the economy. For 8 long years, his green shoots of recovery proved to be a disappointment. Millions of people just ceased to register as job seekers, because the jobs they were looking for had vanished. It was not unusual for a hotel doorman in New York City to juggle 3 jobs and his wife 2 jobs in order to make ends meet.1 Wages were so low and work so hard to come by.
The victory of Trump constitutes part of a global trend. It is a trend where the failure of ruling parties in the West and elsewhere to address the real and deeply felt grievances of their citizens have thrust political power or influence onto demagogues and xenophobes. The populist backlash in the US was attributed in an analysis by Niall Ferguson to five factors: (a) surge in immigration, (b) rise in inequality, (c) increase in perception of political corruption, (d) the ongoing Great Recession, (e) the emergence of demagogues. When people are extremely fed up, they would prefer to listen to wild allegations and promises than to the “rational arguments” which have cheated them for too long.
Rather than being consumed by rage, hate, and despair, it is better to treat Trump’s triumph as the serious symptom of a disease that has plagued social, cultural-intellectual, economic, and political life in the last few decades. Politically, it should be taken as a wake-up call for the political, media, bureaucratic, business, and academic elites who have benefited enormously from globalization and immigration.
Unless and until the problems faced by the working class are solved, it is safe to predict that phenomena more horrible than Trump’s victory are going to happen. In the worst-case scenario, they may pave the way for the demise of the peaceful and prosperous world order as we know it.
Without trying to be funny and cynical, it may be argued that Trump’s victory as a wake-up call is politically more valuable than a victory by Hillary Clinton. Her victory would have lent weight to the belief that the US has been doing pretty well. Sure, there are problems, but here comes another Clinton to solve them and make America even better.
History has provided many examples of how resistance by vested interests has resulted in the country experiencing economic difficulties and even demise, with vested interests buried with it.
Thinking along this line, it is wrong to disparage those angry and long-suffering citizens who turned anti-establishment and voted the thug-like and mendacious Trump into power. To blame those who voted for Trump is tantamount to blaming the victims of the past few decades for complaining and protesting. Instead of focusing attention on the gloomy horizon, it is better to think of ways to navigate away from it.
A good news is that Trump did not manage to win the popular vote, something that could have given him more political gravitas. Elsewhere, populist politicians have increased their influence, but are not strong enough yet to capture key political offices.
To reverse the further descent of politics, mainstream political parties will do well to do some sincere soul-searching. They have been living too long in their cozy world of make-believe, detached from the people they claim to serve, and uncritically swallowing the prescriptions of neoliberal economists. Have they for far too long been recruiting into their ranks ambitious people who take politics as an avenue for career advancement, just like their peers in the business world? Why have they failed to recruit those who are keen in their youth to take up politics as a calling? Why have they failed to fire up the enthusiasm of the youth in politics? Have they been too nice in accommodating to the demands of big vested interests?
At the level of ideas, there is a critical and urgent need to roll back the influence of market ideology in arenas that are patently not suitable for it, arenas such as healthcare and education. The political philosopher Michael Sandel has argued against the notion of the market society,2 and the political scientist Philip Bobbitt has written about the challenge of market state.3
At the level of the economy, there is an obvious need for reform. The US has the most enviable human resources and research infrastructure to conduct breakthrough scientific discoveries and technological innovations, which underpin high value-added economic activities. But somehow this great country has channeled its resources into financial engineering, which has inflicted destructive havoc on the real economy, and brought misery to millions of Americans and many more elsewhere in the world. The real enemy of America is Wall Street and other vested interests. Unless the value-destroying financial sector is tamed, with the rich sharing part of their wealth with the poor, and resources redirected to productive areas of research and development in the real economy, the once appealing American Dream will become more like an elusive dream, and to the most disadvantaged, a real nightmare.
Perhaps the most challenging task is at the level of politics. How can the political class sink their petty quarrels in a genuine effort to make America great again? It calls for political reform that will demand a compromise from vested interests in both the economy and politics. History has provided many examples of how resistance by vested interests has resulted in the country experiencing economic difficulties and even demise, with vested interests buried with it. The challenge now, greater than ever before, confronts those politically conscious progressives to unite in their lofty project in order to pressure the elites to bow to economic and political reform.
At a philosophical level, here is a profound insight from Tao Te Ching by Laozi.4
Disaster is that on which good fortune depends.
Good fortune is that in which disaster’s concealed.
Who knows where it will end?
- Lie, C-I (2016, November 20). Private communications.
- Sandel, M. J. (2013). What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Bobbitt, P. (2008). Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century. A. A. Knopf.
- Henricks, R. G. trans. (1992). Tao Te Ching. New York: Random House, chapter 58.
2. Book Review: Theresa Gessler.