On Trump and Revolution

by Jonathan Brun

Rome survived Caligula. Caligula, the roman emperor who named a horse senator, organized mass orgies and committed numerous atrocities and ruled over Rome from 37 AD to 41 AD. Rome, being a large and powerful empire with a bureaucratic system, survived and even grew under Caligula’s divine leadership. Similarly, America will continue to grow with Trump in power. The American Presidency, as Elon Musk said, is a captain-ship of a very large vessel with a small rudder. The impact of the president is completely blown out of proportion by the media. A good or a bad president has much smaller impact on American society than most think.

There has been more ink shed on Trump than perhaps on any other politician. I recognize the irony of my publication of year another blog post on the subject. Yet, his victory is a massive signal to those of use who are far removed from the reality of many blue and white collar workers. My brother lives in London and he was flabbergasted by Brexit. He and I had no clue of the levels of anger in the US or the UK that sent both countries down a path led by isolationist and nationalistic leads with dubious track records as members of the human race. People seem so fed up with the lack of progress by the establishment that they will overlook personal faults and outright lies. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time that a person rises to power in an unexpected way. For a more in-depth analysis of the worldwide rise of populists and the actual electoral strategy of Donald Trump take a look at HyperNormalization by British documentarian, Adam Curtis.

An American colleague once told be a story. A private equity company bought a manufacturing company. The investors came out from New York to the plant and asked the workers to build a stage outside the factory for a big announcement. The staff built a big wooden stage, with a podium, and a staircase. The investors asked them to gather all the employees for an announcement. With the hundreds of staff gathered, the investors got up on the stage and promptly announced that the factory was being moved to Mexico and they were all fired.

This story is not uncommon. Part of the fault is our own, we want cheap products. Our societal dictate that the all powerful consumer must have a cheaper iPhone, a cheaper car, or a cheaper flight. Don’t get me wrong, who wants to spend more than they have to? But, the consequence of these moves to low cost countries is now truly hitting home. The people who worked at these factories, all across America, Canada and other developed countries are revolting. People who once had good unionized job with a good pension and a path to a home and two cars is working as a greater at Wal-Mart. Not only has this happened to line workers at a factory, it has happened to middle managers, executives and top earners who previously had a good quality of life and a path to success for their children. People are angry and rightfully so.

Some commentators said that Trump’s victory was Whitelash against progress on social and racial progress. They say that the vote for Trump was a vote against a black president and black lives matter. There is no doubt that the US is a very racist place, both in the north and the south. You can simply read books such as Between the World and Me, A Case for Reparations or The Arc of Justice to see how racism is very deeply embedded in US society (and most others too). The presidency tends to cycle between the left and the right, which is not surprising. One team wins, the other adjusts and comes back. Back and forth we go. The arc of history is long and may bend towards justice, but it is not straight. Southern pro-slavery president Hayes was a response to Lincoln and emancipation. Nixon was a response to Lindon B. Johnson and the Voting Rights Act and Trump is a response to Obama. However, I think that Trump was a response to the lack of change Obama brought, not the actual change that did occur. Obama did not get much done for black Americans, did not create high paying jobs or reduce the American deficit, or improve government services substantially. Many people who voted for the Hope of Obama, voted for the Greatness of Trump. People want progress and they will go where that is offered with honesty. Clinton represented nothing – just more of the same.

Trump, for all his numerous faults, really believes in himself and he makes a compelling case. I remember an interview during the primaries on Fox News where Trump really made an impact, he is an expert communicator – much like George W. Bush. He just speaks in a different tongue that the educated class, one that appeals to a significant portion of the US population who had to suffer through the US public school system. This video compilation, selectively chosen, certainly makes Trump look great and revolutionary.

Personally I am a horrible predictor of politics. I thought Clinton would win, that Trudeau had no chance and that George W. Bush would never win in 2004. So, my opinion is not exactly worth much. Will Trump be able to execute on his promises, such as his 100 day plan, unlikely. Congress, despite being Republican, is fundamentally pro-big business due to campaign finance laws. Corporations might bite on the tax cuts, the oil and gas exploration and other items, but it will be simply amazing if Congress goes along with term limits (an idea I actually agree with) or the destruction of NAFTA. I am sure they will work something out.

With Brexit and Trump, one thing has become clear. Our societies have been cleaved in two – educated urbanites working in open-space offices with espresso machines (I plead guilty!) and a working class in lousy jobs, diminishing purchasing power and no prospect of measurable improvement. In many ways, this actually reflects the natural tendency of capitalist societies and has been thoroughly documented in Picketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century. His research shows that the period after WW2 was an exception and what Trump supporters or Brits or even the French refer to as the 30 glorious years after the war, was a historical anomaly that was only possible due to the massive destruction of capital during the war and very high tax rates.

As soon as capital can earn money faster than a worker can, society dives back into a world of the haves and have-notes where it is nearly impossible to cross the chasm between the two. Can we go back in time to the boom years of the 50s- late 70s. Yes, it is possible, but it would take a worldwide war on the accumulation of capital at the top and a massive redistribution or quantitative easing for the people along with a revolution in the electoral system and a new division of power. How likely is that to happen without war? Not likely, but not impossible.

*************

Also, this Munk Debate on the rise of Trump is pretty good.