Making sense of Donald Trump

The Trump victory demonstrates yet again that social scientists and political scientist no longer fully grasp the world they inhabit.

November 14, 2016 21:32
3 minute read.
U.S. President Obama greets President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

U.S. President Obama greets President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Like most academics, I woke up Wednesday morning baffled by the results of the US election. While a Trump victory was always a possibility, the theories and concepts through which I view the world all but discounted this possibility. Financial elites are supposed to be the true power brokers in the world.

Yet despite Wall Street’s support of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump has been elected president. The media are supposedly a powerful institution as they shape the public’s world view. Yet despite the animosity of most of the American press, Trump has been elected president. Statistical modeling is supposed to be an accurate measure of people’s actions. Yet for all of Nate Silver’s mastery, Trump has been elected president.

The Trump victory demonstrates yet again that social scientists and political scientist no longer fully grasp the world they inhabit. Brexit makes no sense to us. Why would Britain choose to isolate itself financially and politically from Europe? Why would Britons risk financial uncertainty over a cosmopolitan and networked world? Similarly, why would Americans favor building walls over bridges? While it is still too soon to fully grasp all that catapulted Trump to the presidency, one factor may have been the renouncement of globalization and modernity.

In physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

For eight years, Barack Obama was a modern president. His tools were reform and diplomacy, his vision was that of a globalized world brought together by shared interests. Domestically he hoped to reshape American values, offering social cohesion and mutual support over individualism. Yet even more importantly, Obama was the personification of the demographic changes altering America, and the world. A black man in a white house.

Donald Trump offers the opposite reaction. Tradition, patriarchy and a social stratification in which white Americans are the true Americans. Trump also manifests a promise to favor the nation state over the global one, to advance localization as over globalization. These promises meet people’s desires to halt the social revolution that has taken place in Western countries over the past 20 years. The election of Trump is thus not entirely different from the wave of religious fundamentalism sweeping through the Middle East, or the rise of nationalism throughout Europe.

Both are a rebuke of globalization.

One reason for this rebuke is that globalization has failed to deliver on its promises. In Israel, it is all but impossible for young middle class couples to purchase a home. In the UK, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge are unlikely to be able to return their student loans while in the US, financial inequalities have led to the demise of an entire middle class. My generation of young adults may be the first in over a century to be unable to climb another step on the ladder of social mobility.

Secondly, the globalized world is not a safer one. Terrorist attacks are to be expected in the streets of Paris, Munich and Islamabad. Financial markets remain unstable as volatility is the norm, not the exception. Unemployment is at peak levels especially among the educated youth. Even the institutions meant to manage the global world have reached a crisis point as is evident from the UN’s failure to challenge Russia’s annexation of Crimea or bring an end to the atrocities tacking place in Syria.

Lastly, globalization has yet to bring about a new world order, one that enables people to make sense of the reality around them.

Such was the case during European imperialism and the Cold War. Like money making its way from a financial institution in Shanghai to a start up in Tel Aviv, the world is in flux. It is not flat, as some superpowers remain in place, but neither is it hegemonic as these superpowers cannot fully exercise their power.

The globalized world is not simple but increasingly complex. For how does one resolve the Syrian crisis without risking war with Russia, destabilizing Iraq and a renouncing of the nuclear accord by Iran? Throughout his campaign, Trump addressed all these issues. His promise to make America great again was also a promise to make America simple again and to make the world make sense again.

Trump told his voters that America could once again be a shining city upon a hill, provided that the shiny object atop that hill was another Trump Tower.

The author is a PhD candidate in diplomacy at the University of Oxford.

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