Once at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, the great and the good assembled there were invited to say what they saw as the number one single greatest problem confronting the world.
The usual answers were tamely trotted out: Nuclear Proliferation, Pandemics, Terrorism, Global Warming, the tired four horsemen of the imaginary apocalypse.
Something about the smug, obvious, uninteresting nature of our intellectual quest got to me, and when it was my turn to answer, I replied without hesitation, “American political sclerosis. For if the greatest power in the world proves incapable of effectively governing itself, all the plagues you have described could finally come to pass.”
The audience responded with shocked, somewhat annoyed laughter, as though I had proposed something so beyond the experience of human existence as to simply be wasting everyone’s time. One of the Council’s old lions gently reproved me with an unbelievably gormless and arrogant reproach, “John, remember political risk is for other people”.
Not any more. Even the most self-satisfied analyst has to be shocked by the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. For no one other than Trump’s highly capable campaign chief Kellyanne Conway saw this coming.
It is true that the Trump campaign team under Conway did have a theory of how they could buck the odds and win. Unfortunately for political analysts everywhere, their hypothesis was the same deluded narrative almost every losing campaign since time immemorial has put forward as to why they would actually defy political gravity and win: that of the missing voters who were not being counted for whatever reason, but who would rise from their hiding places, show up on election day, and upend all conventional wisdom.
More often than not, this theory merely amounts to whistling by the graveyard, a way to rationalise away devastating polling numbers that accurately signal coming defeat. However, this one time in this one place, the missing voter theory turned out to be on the money.
All along Trump’s key supporters thought that their populist firebrand would attract more voters than he would so obviously repel. In his case, the key demographic was white, high-school educated men. This demographic, demoralised at the coming of an age of globalisation where education became all important, are as fearful of impersonal global macroeconomic forces (think free trade) as they are angry about those they saw as inflicting this new system upon them (think selfish and avaricious bankers).
Newcomers to the country, particularly illegal immigrants, are viewed by the demographic as unfairly challenging their place in society, pressing them from below in the class system just as bankers (and their political lackeys) lord it over them from above.
Trump’s populist talent comes from not bothering over-much with the predictable fall-out from his xenophobic immigrant bashing, acutely realising that, if he could turn his demoralised troops out in such unexpected numbers, it would more than make up for the women, African-Americans, and Hispanics Trump regularly alienates.
Improbably enough, the plan worked perfectly. In the key, unexpected battle-grounds of the depressed upper Midwest, Trump’s strategy smashed years of Democratic dominance, taking pivotal Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan from the hapless Hillary Clinton.
But if the strategy proved a master-stroke, the hangover from the populist party begins now. For what sort of world order do we live in, when the planet’s sole ordering power heeds the siren calls of a snake oil salesman, telling the downtrodden that Mexico will pay for us to build a wall to keep its citizens out of the country, that trade is the villain in the global piece rather than a source of enrichment, and that Muslims should be banned from coming to America? If the ordering power has a nervous breakdown, it cannot save itself, let alone think to help the common good in the world.
So instead we will live in the jungle, where no single country keeps the global order ticking over. Instead, declining bullies like Russia (its GDP is just the size of that of Texas) and rising powers such as China will throw their weight about whenever they see fit, as there is no guardian of global order anymore. America has decided to live in Trump’s pernicious daydream, leaving the world to darker forces.
Political risk has come to America with a vengeance. I grieve for both my sick country and the real world it has abandoned.