Under Donald Trump, trying to predict, dissect and understand the US’s attitude to the world has become almost impossible – not that plenty of observers aren’t giving it a go. Tellingly, they’re all coming to different conclusions.
Other analysts claim to identify some semblance of order, but they disagree profoundly on what that order is. To some, Trump’s “America First” theme is an isolationist rallying cry, with its implications of economic protectionism and rejection of international agreements; others see an administration even more committed to military intervention than its predecessors. And still others say that for all Trump’s sound and fury, not much has changed – that US foreign policy, for better or worse, is hewing to the same methods and objectives pursued in the Obama era.
So how can we cut through all this noise and really make sense of it all? In the interests of clarity (and perhaps sanity) the first thing is to recognise that there isn’t just one Trump foreign policy. There are several. They frustrate each other with various irreconcilable differences. And collectively, they add up not to a coherent US strategy, nor even an incoherent one, but instead a gaping hole where a strategy should be.
The family-and-friends foreign policy
One key difference from his predecessors is Trump’s promotion in certain areas of a foreign policy set and pursued on an ad hoc basis by his family and their business allies. That approach has radically altered, even dismantled, the longstanding US approach to the Middle East – and in particular to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Instead of assigning someone with relevant experience to handle what may be the world’s single most intractable dispute, Trump instead tapped his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner has no grounding in Middle Eastern affairs, nor even in diplomatic negotiations more generally. Having failed to disclose his meetings with foreign officials before Trump became president, he doesn’t even have a full security clearance. And yet Trump reportedly told him, with not a hint of irony: “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”
The reckless cronyism doesn’t stop there. To assist Kushner, Trump chose Jason Greenblatt, the executive vice-president and chief legal officer to Donald Trump and The Trump Organisation. The administration’s chosen US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was previously a member of the law firm Kasowitz, Hoff, Benson and Torres – which represents Donald Trump. Along with Kushner, both have helpedsupport (individually or through foundations) Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the Kushner Company continues to do business in Israel.
With Trump’s family and friends running the show, it seems that American influence in the Middle East writ large is no longer a sure thing. More than a year later, as Saudi Arabia still goes about its deadly business in Yemen, and the Syrian conflict remains intractable, this triad’s chief accomplishment has been to antagonise most of the world and endanger the peace process by having the US recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
What matters here isn’t just the content, but that Trump actually revels in the chaos it creates. As he said in his first speech on foreign policy during the campaign: “We must as a nation be more unpredictable.”
Trump probably did not think of his statement as a reworking of the Nixon-Kissinger “madman” ploy of the 1970s. Nor is he likely to have thought through its effects. What matters, in the end, is capturing the world’s attention and settling petty scores.
The alt-right foreign policy
Before Trump’s ascendancy, the “alt-right” had little direct influence on policy of any kind. But with Trump elected, its leaders suddenly had their foot in the door. Led by hard right White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, they pushed for confrontation with China and detachment from NATO as well as protectionism and departure from international agreements such as the Paris climate agreement. Bannon put himself on a key committee of the National Security Council, along with Fox News commentator-turned-Deputy National Security Adviser K T McFarland.
But one of the alt-right’s polyps is still at the heart of the Trump operation. Stephen Miller, who within two years went from e-mail spammer of Washington journalists to senior White House adviser, is not only the main architect of the crackdown on immigration but also the speechwriter behind Trump’s provocative UN General Assembly debut in September 2017 – an address that railed against “a small group of rogue regimes”, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, and called its leader Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man”.
As far as Miller is concerned, it seems, the more incendiary and derisory the US government’s tone, the better – whatever the diplomatic and strategic consequences.
The institutional foreign policy
These competing tendencies are a brutal test for the structures of US foreign policy, and the stewards of those institutions are clearly on high alert.
McMaster, Defence Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are all trying to contain Trump and his inner circle. They have championed the US’s traditional alliances, taken charge of operations in areas such as Afghanistan and Syria, toned down Trump’s fire-and-fury threats to North Korea by discreetly encouraging a diplomatic path, and tried to curb some of the family’s inclinations – especially a Saudi-first approach that threatens the security of a key American military base in Qatar.
But it’s hard to win a fight against true chaos. Kushner and his allies can brief the media against the pragmatists. Trump’s profound impulsiveness can unsettle any plan, especially given his widely reported lackofknowledge. And those who do know what they’re doing are jumping ship: Tillerson has overseen a dramatic depletion of expertise at the State Department, with 12% of foreign service officers departing in just eight months.
America on the sidelines
Amid all the competing philosophies and factions, the only thing that’s certain is unpredictability. The administration has issued a National Security Strategy, but with all the chaos and policy clash the inexpert Trump constantly introduces, any “strategy” is doomed to the paper shredder.
Meanwhile, US-based analysts scramble to find a framework that can express what’s going on while still conveying some sense of American primacy. “Soft power”, which under Obama became “smart power”, is now proclaimed as “sharp power”. And all the while, US power – if measured in the respect for America at the centre of global affairs – plummets in the opinion polling of peoples across the planet.
In his UN speech in September, Trump declared, “As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else.” It remains to be seen, for all his “American First” front, how his multiple foreign policies are defending those interests.
Barack Obama (born August 4, 1961) served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. The first African American to assume the presidency in U.S. history, he previously served in the U.S. Senate representing Illinois from 2005 to 2008 and in the Illinois State Senate from 1997 to 2004. As he departed the presidency in January 2017, Barack Obama offered his successor advice in a customary handover letter.
“…we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.”
But what would leading writers of the past have made of him?
We can only speculate (well, until someone invents a Rowling-like potion capable of bringing long dead writers back to life). But if I could ask one dead writer what he thinks of Trump, it would be Mark Twain, my favorite American author and someone whose travel articles I’ve written about in the past. While Twain is best-known for his novels, he was also an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.
I suspect Twain would have found Trump the showman – the pre-2016 version – a fascinating figure. He would have been appalled, however, by much about Trump the president.
Twain felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.
“Irreverence,” he wrote, “is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”
In America’s press, he admired its tendency to be “irreverent toward pretty much everything.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”
But pondering what, beyond this, Twain would make of Trump is an apt, tricky and timely exercise.
It’s apt because one of Twain’s novels, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” features a man who travels through time.
It’s tricky because Twain’s views on many issues, including race, changed during his lifetime. Hence there are different Twains – as well as different Trumps – to consider.
Finally, imagining how Twain would view Trump is timely because when some have tried to look to history for an equivalent political moment, they’ll sometimes point to two decades – the 1880s and the 1900s – that happened to also be important in Twain’s life and career.
One of these Trumps is not like the other
The Twain of the 1880s would have probably found the Trump of a decade ago – a brash, self-promoting businessman known for his candid comments and penchant for media attention – fascinating. He may have even befriended him.
But the staunchly anti-imperialist Twain of two decades later would have been as disdainful of Trump now as he was of the man he once called “far and away the worst president we have ever had” – the muscular nationalist Teddy Roosevelt.
My basis for the first claim comes from Twain’s friendship with a flashy, boastful Trump-like showman: Buffalo Bill Cody. Among the most successful entertainment impresarios of his day, Cody founded and starred in a traveling Wild West Show, which drew large crowds in America and Europe and was famous for its reenactments of legendary battles.
In 1884, Twain sent a letter to Cody praising his Wild West Show as a realistic, “distinctly American” form of entertainment. In Cody’s spectacle – as in “The Apprentice” – the emcee was a famous man who played up a version of himself, capitalizing on the audience’s awareness that he had done things in real life that he did in the show: firing guns, in one case; firing people, in the other.
During this period, Twain wrote four of his best-known books. It was also a time of intense nativism in the United States. Many white laborers, especially in western states, became convinced that Chinese laborers, who had crossed the Pacific in large numbers during the Gold Rush, were unfairly depriving them of jobs that rightfully belonged to them.
This prejudice triggered several violent outbursts – such as the 1871 Los Angeles riot, which cost 18 Chinese men their lives – and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the entry of Chinese workers to the United States.
Twain mocked the hypocrisy of the Exclusion Act: Just as the U.S. government was preventing Chinese from coming here, American traders and missionaries in China were denouncing the Chinese government for hindering their pursuit of profits and converts in the Middle Kingdom.
Some critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration say it “eerily recalls” the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, we see fear, stereotypes and prejudice fomenting an environment in which some groups are deemed less worthy of rights and protections – indeed, less human – than others.
In one of his early works, 1872’s “Roughing It,” Twain was already castigating those who bullied and abused Chinese immigrants as the “scum of the population.” His disdain for xenophobia and prejudice only grew later in life.
He would be a fierce critic of Trump’s nativist rhetoric even if – perhaps especially if – he had previously praised Trump the entertainer.
Around this time, Twain was not just a celebrated author but a leading figure on the lecture circuit. As both a speaker and an essayist, he was known for his satirical jabs. A key target of his became American expansionists, whom he skewered in, among other works, the 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which lambasts Americans for committing violence across the Pacific under the guise of “civilizing” backward peoples.
In 1900, there were two U.S. military campaigns underway in China and the Philippines. In China, U.S. soldiers joined forces with a host of other countries to fight the anti-Christian Boxer militants and the Qing dynasty. In the Philippines, American troops brutally suppressed Filipinos who sought independence.
Where Roosevelt saw the Boxers as just the latest wave of savages to be suppressed, Twain viewed them as patriots defending their threatened homeland, spelling out his position in essays, personal letters and public lectures.
Sticking to his guns
The anti-imperialist Twain would likely have criticized other recent presidents. He wouldn’t have approved of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor of the way Barack Obama employed drones.
Nonetheless, the writer would find Trump’s disparaging of Muslims and various other groups on the campaign trail – in addition to the immigration ban – particularly distasteful.
He wasn’t afraid to change his mind, and to admit that he had been wrong (as Trump is loath to do). He briefly supported the Spanish-American War, for example, but then spoke openly about how jingoism had blinded his moral concerns. And as American studies professor John Haddad has detailed, Twain’s previous praise for Cody didn’t stop him from walking out of a Wild West Show performance in early 1901. Cody had performed a reenactment of a 1900 Chinese battle, uniformly depicting the foreign invaders as heroes and the Boxers as barbaric villains. Twain thought his old friend was deeply misguided – and he let him know.
In 1901, Twain wasn’t alone in holding and expressing fervently anti-imperialist views. But he was in a minority. Most Americans felt that allied actions in China and U.S. ones in the Philippines were completely justified. So did many famous writers of the time, from Rudyard Kipling to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe.
That’s one difference from today: Twain would find himself firmly in the literary mainstream – and would be far from alone in saying that a president who wanted to govern a truly “great” America should not look to the country at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration.
The following article is adapted from a speech to be delivered at the Melbourne March for Science on Saturday 22 April, 2017.
The mission posted on the March for Science international website states:
The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest. The March for Science is a celebration of science.
To me, it seems the reason concerned people across the planet are marching today is that, at least for the major players in the English-speaking world, there are major threats to the global culture of science.
Why? A clear understanding of what is happening with, for example, the atmosphere, oceans and climate creates irreconcilable problems for powerful vested interests, particularly in the fossil fuel and coastal real estate sectors.
Contrary to the data-free “neocon/trickle down” belief system, the observed dissonance implies that we need robust, enforceable national and international tax and regulatory structures to drive the necessary innovation and renewal that will ensure global sustainability and a decent future for humanity and other, complex life forms.
In the USA, President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 incorporates massive cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
And, though it in no sense reflects political hostility and deliberate ignorance, British scientists are fearful that Brexit will have a terrible impact on their funding and collaborative arrangements.
How does this affect us in Australia? Why should we care? The science culture is international and everyone benefits from progress made anywhere. NOAA records, analyses and curates much of the world’s climate science data. A degraded EPA provides a disastrous model for all corrupt and regressive regimes.
Science depends on a “churn”, both of information and people. After completing their PhD “ticket”, many of our best young researchers will spend 3-5 years employed as postdoctoral fellows in the USA, Europe and (increasingly) the Asian countries to our north, while young American, Asian and European/British scientists come to work for a time with our leading scientists.
The proposed 2018 US President’s budget would, for example, abolish the NIH Fogarty International Centre that has enabled many young scientists from across the planet to work in North America. In turn, we recruited “keepers” like Harvard-educated Brian Schmidt, our first, resident Nobel Prize winner for physics and current Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU).
We might also recall that – supported strongly by Prime Ministers JJ Curtin and RG Menzies – the ANU (with 3 Nobel Prizes to its credit) was founded as a research university to position us in science and international affairs.
Not a done deal, yet
What looks to be happening in the US is not a done deal.
The US political system is very different from our own. The Division of Powers in the US Constitution means that the President is in many respects less powerful than our PM.
Unable to introduce legislation, a President can only pass (or veto) bills that come from the Congress. Through to September, we will be watching a vigorous negotiation process where separate budgets from the House and the Senate (which may well ignore most, if not all, of the President’s ambit claims) will develop a “reconciled” budget that will be presented for President Trump’s signature.
How March for Science might help
The hope is that this international celebration of science will cause US legislators, particularly the more thoughtful on the right of politics, to reflect a little and understand what they risk if they choose to erode their global scientific leadership.
There are massive problems to be solved, along with great economic opportunities stemming from the development of novel therapies and new, smart “clean and green” technologies in, particularly, the energy generation and conservation sector.
Ignoring, or denying, problems does not make them go away. Whether or not the message is welcome, the enormous power of science and technology means we can only go forward if future generations are to experience the levels of human well-being and benign environmental conditions we enjoy today.
There is no going back. The past is a largely imagined, and irretrievable country.
An edited transcript of the keynote address delivered by Jeffrey Bleich at Universities Australia’s higher education conference in Canberra on 1 March, 2017.
You can also listen to the full speech here:
Jeffrey Bleich’s keynote address. Recording by Universities Australia 62.5 MB (download)
While I’ve spoken at many of your universities over the years, it has always been in a non-partisan role – as either ambassador or now as chair of the Fulbright board. So, whenever I’ve been asked questions about politics or elections before, I always did what diplomats have long done. I thought very carefully, before saying …nothing.
But these are not ordinary times. The recent US election has evoked a profound sense of uncertainty across the political spectrum.
The things we had counted on, suddenly and surprisingly proved incorrect. We are not sure what we can rely on anymore, and it has shaken many people’s confidence about the path forward. It is times like these, when good friends like the US and Australia put aside conventions and get real about what we need to do together.
No one saw this coming
Candidly, no one saw this coming – until it came. In the US, on the morning of November 8, 2016, no trustworthy polling organisation, no responsible media outlet, no respected political pundit, no one, thought that Donald Trump would be elected the President of the United States. Even Mr Trump did not expect it.
He won, in part, because many people in the US did not trust the political parties to address their concerns. They did not trust government. They did not trust the media. They did not trust experts. They did not trust the international liberal order. And the fact that neither party liked Mr Trump, that the media mocked him, that experts were appalled by him, and that he seemed to have no experience in government or diplomacy or any interest in it, did not discourage them. It gave them hope. They might not have agreed with him, but they believed that at least he would shake things up. And that is what they wanted.
This is not a fluke. Only a few months earlier, we witnessed something similar in Europe – the stunning decision by the people of the UK to reject the recommendation of their prime minister and virtually all leaders on both sides of politics, and exit the EU.
We’ve witnessed the Philippines elect President Duterte – a leader who attacks all politics as usual, belittles allies, and has authorised the vigilante killings of thousands of people.
Here in Australia, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party won four seats in the last election, and you’ve had five prime ministers in the past seven years (if you count Prime Minister Rudd twice).
Virtually every other major Western democracy these days is led by a fragile coalition government. And the world is already bracing for the rise of new nationalist, populist, and authoritarian minority movements in Europe.
So this populist unrest is not unique to the US.
The question is why, and what are the consequences for Western Democracies around the world. In the time that I have been asked to speak, I’d like to suggest we are witnessing an historic moment that requires an historic response.
New technologies, and global trends, are principally driving the shock and uncertainty. I’ll share my thoughts about what these are and where they are leading us. I’ll then do something that we all need to do – suggest some ways that higher education can adapt to meet these global trends and restore our sense of order and common vision.
But first, how we got here.
The digital revolution
Every person in this room, grew up in a century defined by the Second Industrial Revolution. Today, that revolution is being eclipsed by a Digital Revolution.
The uncertainty that we are experiencing in every aspect of our society, including our politics, is the same disorientation that occurred between 1870 and 1910 when the first Industrial revolution ended and a second one began.
It eventually vaulted nations like America and Australia to the top of the world order. But it also produced a Gilded Age, labor unrest, mass migrations, a great depression, and two world wars. That era is closing, and we are now experiencing the new great disruption that Silicon Valley promised.
Digital technology – while solving crucial problems – is creating or compounding others.
It has outstripped the capacity of Government to control it, and amplified the collapse of public confidence in democratic governments.
It has inflamed rivalries between those who benefit and those who don’t.
3) It has undermined standards – of journalism, of altruism, and of civility – that are necessary for us to find common ground.
To appreciate this, we have to see where we’ve come from.
A hundred and fifty years ago, we went through the same thing. Changes in technology revolutionised media, global integration, and demographics. The changes were profound.
In 1879, during a three-month period, both the electric light and a workable internal combustion engine were invented.
Those two inventions alone produced over the next 40 years a dizzying number of new technologies. The telephone, phonograph, motion pictures, cars, airplanes, elevators, X-rays, electric machinery, consumer appliances, highways, suburbs, supermarkets, all created in a 40-year burst from 1875 to 1915. It fundamentally transformed how people live.
We’ve known for a while that the structures created by this Second Industrial Revolution were running their course, at least in advanced economies, and was being replaced by a new revolution, the digital revolution.
In retrospect, we should have seen all of the side effects coming. Recently the pace of these advances had started to build on each other exponentially, and the pressure has been mounting.
Everyone who has had to throw out their CD player for a DVD player for an iPod for an iPhone for Spotify, knows what I mean.
The pace at which our world is being changed just keeps accelerating. Every year there has been some massive new disruption. Every year a new massive theory of disruption: “the digital economy”, “the social network”, “the Internet of things”, “sharing economy”, “big data”. Last year “machine learning” – where machines teach themselves things we do not know – was the Buzzword.
The word in Silicon Valley this year is “singularity” – where our species itself is altered by technology – gene-editing, bionics, AI – creating a new hybrid species.
Three years ago as I was getting ready to depart Australia, I gave a talk about how driverless cars would soon transform our societies, but that this would be a hard transition and it would be several years before we saw driverless vehicles on the streets.
Well I was wrong about that. As I was going to the San Francisco airport to fly here, the car driving alongside me was a driverless Google car.
In Philadelphia driverless cars are operating as taxis. As the tech writer William Gibson wrote:
“The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”
Now I love driverless cars. Self-driving cars can reduce accidents, save us from needless deaths, injuries, and property damage, reduce traffic, give us more leisure time, reduce stress, and improve our quality of life.
Believe me, as an ex-ambassador, life is better in the backseat of the car.
But that’s not how you look at it if you are a 47-year-old truck driver or bus driver or cab-driver or you drive a fork lift and have a high school education, are carrying a lot of debt, and have a family to take care of. All you see is some elites in San Francisco trying to kill your job and destroy your family.
And driverless cars are only one disruptive technology. If you work in a small hotel or motel, you see AirBnB as an existential threat. If you work in manufacturing, 3D printing and robotics are direct threats to your job. If you are a book-keeper, artificial intelligence is an immediate threat to your job.
Fear of losing control
Many of us feel that we’ve lost control over the pace of it all. The technology is driving itself.
Breakthroughs that once took decades to develop can now be developed in a matter of months. We can test the impact of a particular set of compounds on thousands of cells simultaneously.
We can take the data from every mobile phone, every laptop, every modern vehicle, every refrigerator and toaster and microwave and aggregate them and analyse them as fast as the speed of the internet.
I was with the director of Google’s cutting edge incubator, Google X, Astro Teller, and he was asked what he feared about technology. He said,
“it is simply going so fast now that no one can control where it is taking us.”
Archimedes said that if you gave him a long enough lever, he could move the earth. Today, the lever of technology has extended so long that it takes very little pressure to fundamentally move the earth.
This dramatic acceleration of technology affects not only the workers who see their jobs disappearing and fear these new technologies. It inspires fear in retirees and dependents just as much.
Gene therapies may make it typical for people to live healthy active lives past the age of 100. That should be a cause for celebration. People getting to know their great grand-children, maybe even their great-great grandchildren.
But it’s also frightening. How will society support a generation that lives 20 years longer than they’d planned, that runs out of retirement savings? And if they live healthy lives to age 100, they will need to fill more of those years with work – their work lives may need to last 60-70 years.
But as technology accelerates, their training may barely be sufficient to last them 10 years. How will that work? How do we educate and re-train people for six careers over a lifetime? And what sorts of jobs will those be? How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable?
Even if you could find work for people and retrain them every 10 years, what sort of economic model can sustain this?
If you aren’t feeling anxious and uncertain yet, then you are in denial. If you are a 47-year-old bus driver, or coal miner, or assembly line worker, or cashier, or toll booth operator, you might want a leader who promises to shut this all down.
Build a wall, bring back the old jobs; let me keep my iPhone and Facebook (I like those), but otherwise, just go back to the way it was.
This could have been predicted.
The Industrial Revolution in the last Century caused the same great anxieties, and caused politics around the world to go haywire. There were massive disruptions in labor markets, unprecedented levels of migration, and other effects of industrialisation.
The result may sound familiar. Popular unrest especially in Europe and East Asia, xenophobia, isolationism, violent protests, and the emergence of authoritarians and demagogues around the world.
In the US, William Jennings Bryan was nominated three times for president during this Gilded Age – offering a bizarre mix of populist messages. He was anti-Darwinism, pro-Isolationism, proposed a Silver Standard, favored Prohibition, and stunned the political establishment with the way he campaigned – defying all conventional logic.
Demagogues flourish when large sections of society feel overwhelmed and fear they will be left behind. They offer simple solutions to complex problems and play on people’s fears and prejudices.
But technology does not do this alone. At the turn of the last century, the US did not elect William Jennings Bryan. It elected leaders who embraced technology. It chose people who felt government had an important role in fostering technology and dealing with its unwanted effects. Healthy democracies resisted demagogues and authoritarians and fascists. But less healthy ones didn’t.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of this throughout Europe. So this is not about technology alone. Three other trends already existed that fed public anxiety, and drew people to an authoritarian figure.
The gaming of democracy
The first trend is a 30-year campaign to diminish the importance of democratically elected governments.
For 30 years, political leaders on both sides of the aisle in the US ran for government by running against it. They secured votes by campaigning on the notion that government is a mess and couldn’t do anything right.
President Reagan had demonstrated the power of running for election on the claim that government was too big and bloated and ineffective. He ran on a campaign of cutting taxes and red-tape.
His successor George H.W. Bush did the same, to win, and then lost when he failed to keep his promise not to raise taxes. The next president, Bill Clinton, followed the same playbook, leading the charge that the era of big government was over. In all cases, the message was that we needed less and less government. George W. Bush ran almost entirely on promises to continue shrinking wasteful government.
Tom Friedman, the New York Times writer, had an insight about this. It came from his days when he covered the advertising war between Hungry Jacks and McDonalds.
He was interviewing the head of marketing for Hungry Jacks and asked him why – with the hundreds of millions of dollars Hungry Jacks was spending to win market share from McDonalds – it hadn’t actually gone after McDonalds burgers. Why didn’t they run an ad saying that McDonalds burgers were nasty frozen patties? The marketing head looked at him and said:
“That is the very first rule of marketing. You never kill the category.”
Loss of confidence in governments
Well, to win elections, both sides had been killing the category of government. And then in 2008, the US government seemed to vindicate their worst fears.
In September 2008, the country was already mired in an unpopular war in Iraq that was costing us our bravest troops and billions of dollars, and then we were hit by a recession that was directly due to the federal government easing its bank regulations. The two things that we counted on our government to do most – keep us secure, and protect our economy – it had failed to do. And both parties had supported both decisions.
If anyone was looking for proof that government couldn’t do anything right, that was the moment.
I think the Brexit vote shows that US voters aren’t the only ones losing confidence in government.
All of the indicators are moving in the wrong direction.
Voting rates have been falling in the US and many other Western democracies. Polls show that young people’s faith in democracy is plummeting. Tax protests movements have risen. America’s wealthiest people are looking for ways to avoid paying taxes through elaborate tax avoidance schemes. Recall that then-candidate Trump said that if he hadn’t paid taxes in 20 years, it was because he was “smart”.
Technology has exaggerated these effects.
For the average American, polling, data-analytics, micro-targeting voters, have turned politics into a game, and left them feeling manipulated. The political parties seemed more intent on using these tools to play the system and block each other than to deal with the real issues that we were facing.
While businesses were expected to innovate and do things faster, cheaper, better, governments now had less money, and were hamstrung with older technologies, and had more difficulty keeping pace. Government seemed to make the case for its detractors – moving slower or sometimes not at all. In the face of runaway technology, we have often seen walk-away government.
Millennials have the least patience with democratic government.
Having grown up at the pace of the internet, millennials aren’t afraid of technology. They love the new technologies; they trust technology to transform the workplace for the better.
To them, tech companies will solve their problems more than government, and so government seems irrelevant. To some, not all, government is entertainment or worse. And if you think government is entertainment, then why not elect a reality show star; and if it’s a joke, then why bother showing up to vote at all?
Disrupting demographic expectations
The second major trend in the US relates to demographics. Demographic effects have emerged in the past 25 years that have had a particularly pronounced effect on white males.
Your former countryman, Rupert Murdoch, built a news empire on the simple insight 25 years ago, that white males in America were getting angrier, and wanted someone to vindicate their anger. Even Fox & friends cannot keep up with the appetite for anger. Now they face competition from the even angrier Breitbart.
So where does that anger come from?
If you were a straight white male in the US in the first half of the last century with a high school education or less, you might lose out on jobs or opportunities to college educated white males, but that was it. You had an advantage over anyone else. You did not have to compete against women, people of colour, or people who were openly gay or lesbian. And you did not have much in the way of international competition.
Industries were largely protected among those countries with which we actually traded. But about half of the world’s economy was locked up in a failed economic system – Soviet-style communism – which did not compete with American jobs at all.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the US economy changed dramatically. Programs to enforce civil rights laws profoundly changed the workforce, introducing opportunities for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other previously disadvantaged groups to compete for jobs.
At the same time, the fall of the Berlin wall was effectively a starting gun for global competition. Suddenly a talented workforce around the world that had been denied the chance to compete was unleashed.
Western nations saw great opportunity in trading with these countries and working them into their supply chains. And now, suddenly, a white male worker who had a built-in advantage was forced to compete with women, people of colour, and people around the globe, who were hungrier and potentially more competitive than they were.
Now white males may never have been entitled to that advantage, but the feeling of loss, and resentment, and unfairness that they felt is a very real emotion that most of us would probably feel in similar circumstances. Even if an advantage we have isn’t fair, we still feel pain and possibly anger when it is taken away.
Especially if it affects your livelihood and your place in society.
The truth is, that the benefits of globalisation and modernisation have not been evenly distributed. While women and minorities and people who had been subject to crippling poverty in former communist countries are better off today, the white working class in America doesn’t feel that way.
Unlike minorities, they didn’t grow up expecting to have to work twice as hard to get half as far, or to live in poverty. They expected that their lives would be better than their parents lives, and that their kids’ lives would be even better than theirs.
But that is becoming less true now.
Statistically, about half of the middle class is not more successful than their parents. Their fathers supported a family, had a nice house, two car garage, vacation, health care, the ability to send their kids to college, and enough for a decent retirement, working a 40 hour a week.
Today, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. To have those same things, both parents work, they work longer hours – nights and weekends – and they go deep into debt. They feel like they are working harder and not getting as far. And they are worried that their kids will do even worse.
So they don’t want to just turn back the clock on technology, they want to turn back the clock on civil rights and globalisation, too. Because they don’t see how it is helping them.
So it is no surprise that some of President Trump’s strongest supporters want him to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, or ban all refugees, or deport immigrants, or roll back the reproductive rights of women, or reduce civil rights enforcement.
There is some bigotry here, but about 80% of Republicans currently support Donald Trump, and the vast majority of them are not bigots. If you don’t believe the heartbreak in this group is real, consider this.
If you are a white male with no college education in the US you are the only demographic in the OECD, the developed countries, whose life expectancy is going down. The main reasons for this are all forms of self-harm: suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, or morbid obesity.
We miss the point if we think this is just prejudice or intolerance. For many, they voted for Donald Trump because he gave them hope. Everyone needs hope.
All of us want to believe that our lives will improve, or at least that our children’s lives will be better than ours. But for people who have lost their advantage in the market, and have to compete harder than ever just to have the same job, and who worry that their kids will have it even harder, they’ve lost hope in the current system.
Nearly two-thirds of the counties that voted for Donald Trump in swing states voted for Barack Obama. For them, Donald Trump was the hope candidate.
One last thing. I have no tolerance for bigots and racists, but I also cannot abide ignoring the fundamental humanity of others, particularly people who are heartbroken.
Now imagine how the people who depend on these men feel, their wives and their daughters and their mothers, and you can understand how many women, too, would not really care what Donald Trump has said about women.
The degrading of journalism
Finally, the third global trend that we need to address is the dramatic change in how we get and interpret information.
This shift isn’t new either. Before the printing press was invented, written documents were drafted by scribes.
Those documents were trusted because – frankly – they are hard to produce. Only those with some standing in the community and reputation had the resources to produce them. It was too expensive and time-consuming for a scoundrel with a crazy idea to publish a book. And so people got used to generally trusting things that were written.
When the printing press dramatically reduced the cost of the printed word, all sorts of things could be published that wouldn’t have been before.
While this actually improved the flow of information, it also confused people who were used to trusting the things they read, and it disrupted society and politics for many years.
Here, we had two media revolutions at once. Until about 30 years ago, news was generally obtained from one or two newspapers, and the small number of network channels available in each country – which usually devoted up to an hour for news.
While different papers might cover the same news stories differently, they generally reported the same facts and merely drew different conclusions from them.
With the advent of cable news programs, this changed. We created a vehicle for virtually limitless news. Instead of news organisations being forced to decide what were the most important events that happened each day, they could report on many things that were not necessarily relevant to people’s lives but would boost ratings.
News organisations could make news a form of entertainment and compete for viewers in ways that didn’t exist before. And, before long, news balkanized so that every viewer could pick a news service that reinforced their prejudices.
In this way, conservatives who did not trust liberals, could find a channel that reassured them that liberals were untrustworthy, and capable of the most irrational and diabolical acts. And vise-versa. Social media only compounded this, because its algorithms ensured that you’d be fed advertising that reinforced your biases and beliefs.
If this was not enough to bring down trust in government, a second wave of media disruption emerged close on its heels.
With the arrival of cellphones and the world-wide web, suddenly every person with an internet connection could become a journalist and publisher.
Before the traditional media had even heard about a story, people were blogging it, uploading images to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and effectively getting their story out faster than cable could.
In order to stay relevant, traditional media simply followed suit and began running with whatever came in across the internet – right, wrong, or horrifyingly wrong.
The notion was that you wouldn’t be wrong for long, but that you needed to publish quickly or risk being irrelevant.
And so we have the phenomenon that at one point over 40% of Americans believed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It did not matter that President Obama was born in Hawaii, and that his birth had been duly recorded and reported in the newspaper for all to see. Bloggers created this lie, sent it around at the speed of the internet, and news channels covered the “phenomenon” as if it were actual news.
If anyone on earth recognised the power of this phenomenon, it was the chief evangelist of this claim, Donald Trump; the person who would be the next president.
Today some substantial portion of Americans believe Michelle Obama is a man dressed as a woman. Even more believe that climate change is a hoax, that airplane vapor trails are a government conspiracy to spread chemicals to humans, that vaccinations cause autism, and that toilets in Australia flush backwards.
In this environment, where facts are ignored, and people choose the stories that support their world view, is it any wonder that a substantial number of voters believe even the most outlandish claims.
That the president can claim that it wasn’t raining when it was. That his crowds broke records when they didn’t. That millions of people cast illegal votes when they did not?
Over the past 30 years a perfect storm has formed to produce an election in which a large enough portion of the American public has backed ideas that have been heretofore unthinkable.
Our nation elected a president that was prepared to call into question not only a stunningly broad set of policies that had served the US well, but he was also prepared to question basic facts, science, and principles of our democracy.
And that is why the challenge for our nations, and our nations’ universities is both great and urgent.
Role of universities
So what is the way forward? We should not lose heart. During the Gilded Age, when a similar rapid change in technology, media, and demographics all converged to short-circuit our politics, our nations endured. In fact, our nations preserved and strengthened the values that have made America and Australia great.
We remained nations that ensured religious tolerance, the rule of law, free press, free minds, freedom of travel, free markets, and the free movement of capital.
Despite missteps along the way, over time we became fairer nations, more prosperous nations, and more secure nations not by abandoning our values, but by fighting for them.
So this is the challenge facing our universities as they confront their own disruption. Whatever is happening in the US will challenge every democracy and every pillar of democracy. The future is here, it just is not evenly distributed. Yet.
The only antidote to the impulse to divide and exclude, to isolate, to create barriers, and to resist the future is this.
We need to rethink education to help address the things that ail our democracies. And we must put our best minds to work to offer a vision of the future in this new economy that works for everyone.
The forces I’ve described challenge many assumptions about how we should learn, the lives and careers we should be prepared to perform, and how our economies should operate.
To successfully navigate this turn, educational institutions need to refocus on solutions that reboot our democracy, and prepare our citizens for this new economy.
Australia is already ahead of the US in many actions needed to restore and refresh democracy. Australia’s universal voting offers a model that the US should consider.
Universal voting reduces the influence of extremism and money in elections, it keeps the debate more on the issues that matter, and it forces citizens to stay more informed and engaged.
Australia already has a head start on educating citizens. In the US, free public education is guaranteed only until year 12, and civics education has been dropped from most curricula.
Today, every study shows that to be economically competitive and an effective citizen in a Western economy, you need at least 14 years of education including civics. So again, the system here in Australia is one that Western democracies need to study and adopt.
There are things that no one has solved where we all need to pioneer together. Both of our Second Industrial Revolution economies were originally designed to train people to work from ages 25 to 55 (after doing military service) in one career and generally not live past 65. The training they received prepared them for a single career that would last their full working life. This no longer works.
If the students we are training today are going to live to be 120 years old, and their careers are likely to span 90 years, but their training will only make them competitive for 10 years, then we have a problem.
We need to rethink our educational model.
We will need to increasingly train young people not just in a skill, but in how to learn, and for skills that cut across multiple disciplines. Universities may become less a way station for youth, than a life-long subscription service, with frequent retrainings.
We need to restructure information systems so that facts matter, false statements are exposed, and making false claims has real consequences. The irony of the information age is that increasingly we seem to know more, but understand less. But this can be fixed.
Imagine a world where every article is immediately fact-checked by libraries, and reviewed for accuracy and relevance by a trusted board of editors drawing on high-speed computers. Where every article has the equivalent of a yelp-rating, or is crowd-corrected Wikipedia style. Where every false and digitally altered image can be exposed through blockchain technology. Universities can do this.
After a while, just as we know which restaurants to avoid, we would know which writers and journals and articles and politicians we can’t trust.
And finally, we need to devote our best minds to answering the greatest question of the digital age.
How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable? What economic model works where most of the things in life can be produced sustainably at low cost through robotics? How do we develop a bright vision of the future and give them hope.
Australia and America and Europe faced a similar set of questions 100 years ago. Then the vast majority of our citizens worked agriculture jobs in family owned businesses in rural communities. Over 80% of jobs were in family farms then. What would happen when all of the kids moved to the cities? How could there possibly be enough jobs for them all, and how would America feed itself?
Today, more people are employed than ever, they have more opportunity than ever, and America has more food to export than ever. The question for our universities is to help us see the future and prepare future generations to succeed in it.
No one can say for certain yet what the future holds. But the two things we know about the new economy are that people need a purpose, and that the most prized roles for human beings will be things that only human beings can do.
So as you begin this important work, consider this as a model for the university of the future.
The greatest limits on human civilisation have always been access to water, arable land for food, a source of energy, protection from the elements, and protection from each other.
A vast portion of our economy has been focused on producing those things. But now we have ways to turn salt water and brackish water into usable water.
We have the ability to produce foods that are more nutritious and last longer requiring less land.
We have created clean and renewable sources of energy that could make any place on earth energy self-sufficient.
We can create machines that do the back-breaking monotonous work involved in most jobs.
And, for the first time in human history, we can actually visualise a world that is liberated from dull, dangerous, and determinable work, from activities that cause us stress without producing much value, and from lives extinguished before they achieved their potential.
We have the potential to liberate the workforce to do the one thing that machines can’t do – improve ourselves and the emotional lives of others.
To date, our economic models have ignored many forms of high value work. Here’s one example that I think we can all relate to.
Ultimately, every family and community depends on people who raise our children, look after ageing parents, bring food and comfort to ailing neighbour. And in most cases we don’t compensate them, or reward them, or even give them a title.
They are untrained, unsupported, and yet they are entrusted with our most challenging problem – the human condition – a son who is an addict, a brother who is abusive, a daughter who is depressed, a mother who has lost her memory.
So many people need help with the emotional and mental parts of their lives. Yet, human history has been dominated by one era after another of people simply inflicting more misery on other people, while other work is rewarded.
Massive violence, incarceration, alienation, institutionalisation are ultimately products of emotional failings. Our economies have been driven by scarcity, and our actions by irrational fear, and prejudice, and other products of our own emotional and mental limitations.
So imagine this…
Imagine a world in which our technologists work to meet the most basic human needs sustainably, and our economies are freed up to do the things that society has always neglected – resolve disputes, restore mental health, nurse, teach, imagine, explore, imagine, design, create art, and provide the human touch.
Imagine paying people as much to do this, as we currently pay for them to mine coal, or guard a prison.
Done right, the moment of doubt we face today may be the beginning of something even more profound.
We could move from an impulse to exclude and brand people to just the opposite: an economy based on human outreach and improving the human condition.
We stand together at a great human inflection point. Society will be very different in the next 100 years than it has been over the past 100 years.
Either we need to offer a vision for something better, or we cling to the past and will be left behind.
I am confident that we will rise to the occasion.
While we struggle with the impulses and politics and challenges of today, we have to keep our eye on the future.
As President John F. Kennedy said,
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present, will miss the future.”
I believe our best minds and universities can forge a new vision. One in which we produce an economy that is less violent, less wasteful, less stressful, and in which we live longer and better lives. The world as we have created it is merely a reflection of our thinking.
Change our minds, and we can change the world.
Jeffrey Bleich, Former US Ambassador to Australia; Chair of the Fulbright board; Visiting Professor and a member of the Council of Advisors at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is discovering the political cliché “change the government, change the country” might have bigger implications for Australia’s relationship with the United States than anticipated.
We might re-engineer the cliché to read “change the government, change its foreign policy”, and thus how America manages its relationships with friends and foes alike.
If it has not already dawned on Turnbull and his foreign policy advisers then it should have: a new American administration like no other in recent memory will require a rethink in how Australia calibrates its relations with Washington.
Not since the Gough Whitlam’s Labor government of 1972-75 has such a potentially awkward relationship existed between Australia and its principal ally, or to use another description, custodial power.
Whitlam parted company with his predecessors in his testy interactions with the Richard Nixon White House. Whitlam felt under no obligation to espouse a “pro-American” perspective on matters relating to the war in Indo-China in particular.
Many Australians found this refreshing.
While it was inevitable that a moment would arise when Australian and US interests would find themselves out of kilter, it has perhaps come more quickly than anticipated, driven by the arrival in the White House of a man untethered from principles that have guided American foreign policy for generations.
In Trump’s Inauguration speech there was one passage that should have given Turnbull and his advisers pause, even if these words might be dismissed as a rhetorical flourish:
We assembled here today are issuing anew decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only American first, America first.
Protection will lead to greater prosperity and strength.
The latter observation could hardly have been more antagonistic to the free trade principles and practice on which Australian prosperity rests, or for that matter be regarded as anything more than an affront to America’s own history.
In 1930, Congressmen, Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored legislation that raised punitive tariffs on some 900 imports, and in the process added poison to the well of slowing global trade, as The Economist put it.
Smoot and Hawley did not cause the Great Depression or add significantly to it, but the legislation represented a populist response to political anxiety.
Nearly a century later, an American president appears to hold the view that an “America first” approach – or a form of isolationism – will serve his own country’s economy well and those of its friends.
This view, even if you accept that the trade liberalisation pendulum has swung too far, is not sustainable if economic growth globally is to be nurtured.
Otherwise, disaster beckons, including a global entrenchment that will serve no-one’s interests, including America’s.
Trump’s stroke-of-a-pen end to America’s involvements in the liberalising Trade Pacific Partnership gave expression to his antagonism towards trade deals generally and spelled a pause in American leadership of a laborious process of opening markets and reducing trade barriers.
From the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs Trade, to the formation of the World Trade Organisation, to progress towards open markets under the Uruguay Round – alongside a plethora of bilateral trade deals – an era of liberalising trade has underpinned global prosperity.
So, the question becomes: how should the Turnbull government respond to these new circumstances in a way that serves Australia’s interests, and in an environment in which the world is in disarray? And it is likely to become more so if the early stages of an idiosyncratic Trump administration is any guide.
Policymakers need to think outside the narrow confines of what has been regarded as “America first” policy postures that have dictated Australia’s foreign policy choices, to consider what might be regarded as a less dependent relationship on our security guarantor.
None of this is an argument to weaken Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS alliance, nor our alignment with what we have always regarded as America’s better angels. But the time has come for a reassessment.
Trump’s ascendancy to power reminds us there is no such thing as permanent alliances, simply permanent interests.
Australia is not obliged to make a choice between its security in the form of its treaty arrangements with the US and its commercial interests, namely with China. But it does need to move to a position where it gives itself more flexibility in addressing its security and other challenges.
In other words, arguments for greater self-reliance – including defence preparedness – grow by the day.
How Turnbull achieves such a shift will prove a test of his diplomatic and leadership skills, and indeed his understanding of our country’s history. After relying on great and powerful friends for our security, we may be entering a new and distinct phase.
Whatever judgements might be made about the likely trajectory of a Trump administration, early days suggest that what he said on the campaign trail will guide his actions in office.
So when he talks about a form of isolationism summed up by the phrase “America First” he must be taken at his word, until demonstrated otherwise.
This poses obvious challenges for Australian policy. Do we gravitate towards the sort of world defined by Trump – with its risks of a return to a 1930’s isolationism or perhaps a form of 19th century mercantilism – or do we assert our own separation from such a worldview?
Are we seeing the end of “pax Americana”, in which the US proved to be the indispensable cornerstone of global security in the rebuilding of Europe, the containment of the Soviet Union, and a security presence in Asia post the Korean war that has enabled an extraordinary economic transformation in our own region to our advantage?
Turnbull needs to ask himself whether it is in Australia’s national interest for institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to be weakened.
Is it in Australia’s interests for there to be a confrontation between the US and China on trade, or security in the South China Sea?
Or a return to a ground war in the Middle East that would demand a larger commitment from Australia with unknowable consequences?
Lessons might have been learned from an earlier disastrous intervention.
Finally, Turnbull should resist pressure from his the right wing of his party, salivating over the arrival of an authoritarian in the White House.
Turnbull was derided over his initial response to Trump’s decision to abandon the TPP, in which he said China may wish to fill the gap as if, reflexively, he needed to fall in line with Washington.
While the TPP may be dead, Turnbull and his ministers shouldn’t be blamed for trying to keep alive an idea that would have provided a basis for a liberalising trade and investment zone in the Asia-Pacific.
Contrary to the views of its critics, the TPP was always about more than simply a trade liberalisation mechanism. It was also aimed at providing a framework for further action in counterpoint to China’s growing dominance.
Finally, Turnbull might consider the example of former Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who politely declined when he came under pressure to join George W. Bush’s cavalry in the invasion of Iraq.
Chretien, as leader of a country that shelters under a US security umbrella and is a fellow NATO member, said “no”, or “non” in his native Quebecois.
Last time we checked the sky had not fallen in for Canada.
Since Big Brother first exploded onto our screens in 2000 I’ve been a fan of reality TV. In 2002 I wrote a book that included a defence of the genre’s democratising impact on our culture.
Where many commentators and more than a few of my academic colleagues dismissed reality TV as dumbed-down trash pandering to the baser instincts of the mob, I preferred to regard it as a prime location for the untold, self-revelatory, often intimate stories of ordinary people.
Shows like Sylvania Waters, Driving School and Airline showed non-celebrities – “real people” – going about their business, revealing their emotional and psychological quirks, overcoming the obstacles of everyday, previously unexamined lives.
The Apprentice exemplified a particular sub-genre of reality TV, giving us a glimpse of what it was like to build a business and struggle for success in corporate life, the dynamics of team-building and peer rivalry, the hubris that brought down the blowhards and the self-regarding.
“You’re fired!” was the catchphrase of Donald Trump (and Sir Alan Sugar in the UK version). It was informative and also entertaining. Trump was good at it, bringing his tough, no-nonsense management style into our living rooms.
And if that’s where his “tell it like it is” approach had remained, we would probably be looking forward to four, maybe eight years of President Hillary Clinton. Instead, we face the ascendancy to the most powerful office on Earth of a man formerly known to most of his voters as a reality TV star.
It’s as if Kim Kardashian, or, god save us, Kanye West was suddenly running the country (Yeezus for POTUS in 2020, anyone?) – surreally shocking in a way that the elections of former film stars Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the presidency and the governorship of California respectively never were.
Trump presents himself as an outsider, though his reality TV celebrity means that he comes from the heart of mainstream popular culture, as well as being a fully paid-up member of the rich capitalist elite he affects to despise – one who proudly pays no taxes, has been near bankruptcy several times, and convicted for racial discrimination in his real-estate operations among other alleged ethics violations such as the Trump University scam (settled out of court in December).
The white working- and middle-class stiffs who voted for him in such numbers appear to have forgotten the latter, or to not care, while rewarding him for his readiness to say the refreshingly (for them) transgressive things he thinks they want to hear.
From the beginning of his campaign Trump deliberately transgressed the conventions and codes of political communication in America. He already had the “Birther” slander on his political CV, the mark of a racist who simply couldn’t bear the idea of a black man in the White House.
At the outset of his campaign he proposed his wall on the Mexican border, and insulted that nation with crude stereotypes. He expressed racist views about a judge who was handling one of the many legal actions against him because the man had Mexican roots.
He promised to ban all Muslims from entering the US until “we’ve figured out what’s going on” with Islamic State – a pledge now downsized to include only those Muslims who come from countries with a history of terrorism. Will that include France and Belgium, one wonders? Or Australia? Or the UK? All of those countries have produced homegrown Islamists who have fought and killed for IS.
None of that put off the people who would eventually vote for him. He famously mocked a disabled reporter in front of a huge rally of baying supporters. It only made them love him more.
As did the release of the recording in which he observes that when you’re famous – and you got the sense listening to that tape that he was talking from experience – you could “grope” women’s “pussies” with impunity. The man actually boasted about how easy it was for people like him to commit what most people would regard as sexual assault.
He ran beauty pageants, and it seems reasonable to speculate that he would have enjoyed groping a few of the competitors along the way, when he was not insulting them for their body shape or attitude. Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping were his names for Alicia Machado, Miss Universe in 1996 when Trump took over the franchise. Apparently she ate too much.
In one televised debate he obliquely referred to a female journalist’s menstrual cycle, and routine misogyny has been a key element of Trump’s transgressive pitch. He “loves” women, he insists. You can imagine him joshing to his alpha male mates – why else would he marry and grope so many of them?
He invited the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails (and they did), and praised the sound management skills of dictators such as Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein and Rodrigo Duterte.
In the past, the merest hint of a candidate’s admiration for the Russian Bear or Saddam would have killed a campaign stone dead. Not Trump’s.
Having spent a century denouncing the USSR and Russia as the existential enemy par excellence, the American political system and public were now embracing a man who actively favoured Putin over his own president – the same Barack Obama who Trump regarded as an imposter in the White House.
Not one of these transgressions made the slightest dent in his image, or slowed his rise. On the contrary, his supporters recognised a kindred spirit. Hell yes! Pussy groping, disability-mocking, casual racism and sexism, joking about getting away with shooting people in the street because you’re so popular – that was the American way, and after eight years of a black man running the show and spoiling their fun it was time to remind the world who’s boss.
Trump’s transgressions were not gaffes of the type that sunk Gary Hart in 1988 or Gerald Ford in 1974, but delivered with a skillful eye for the attention they would attract in the news media. He succeeded in setting the 2016 news agenda way beyond his wildest dreams.
It’s reliably reported that neither he, nor his campaign team, seriously thought they could win the presidency when the race started, but so hopeless were his 16 competitors in the GOP camp that he was able to take the nomination and go on to challenge Clinton – one of the “nasty women” he despised so much.
Clinton had her vulnerabilities too, and Trump skilfully exploited them, which is what we expect in a political campaign. But he transgressed by calling on the Russians to assist, and by – it is alleged, and currently under investigation by the US intelligence agencies – actually conspiring with Putin’s security services to damage the Clinton campaign.
Which brings us to the Buzzfeed dossier, of which the most exotic if not politically significant feature is the assertion that Trump was videoed while in Russia engaging in “perverted” sex acts with prostitutes.
Let’s tell it like it is, in the spirit of The Donald. He is alleged by a Russian source in correspondence with a senior former MI6 operative, regarded by the CIA as credible enough for the dossier to have been passed to Obama, to have employed prostitutes to piss on a hotel bed previously slept in by Barack and Michelle Obama.
It is further alleged in the unverified dossier that, as a result of this and other sexual transgressions recorded on videotape, Trump is vulnerable to blackmail in his dealings with Russia.
This may or may not be true, and we may never know now that Trump himself is in charge of the US security apparatus, but the mere fact that we regard it as even possible in the context of a US president is, when you think about it, the most transgressive thing of all. Bill Clinton was Slick Willie, but at least the Monica Lewinsky affair happened in the security of the White House, and he came close to impeachment for lying about “not having sex with that woman”.
Trump’s alleged transgression was only exposed after the election, and despite the implications for US and global security – if the allegations of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the FSB to distort the US political process are true, Trump would be guilty of treason – it does not seem to have seriously disrupted the transition.
Neither his voters, nor the great of majority of Republicans in Congress, seem the slightest bit worried that their man in the Oval Office could be a Russian stooge with a taste for golden showers. So deep is their hatred of the “liberal elite”, political correctness and all the other bogeymen of their nightmares that they seem able to let the scandal and the sleaziness wash over them.
And that means, alas, that those who think Trump will settle into a more conventional presidency, constrained by wiser heads like Rex Tillerson or Mad Dog Mattis – Mad Dog being the voice of moderate reason in this administration – are deluding themselves.
There is no precedent for the Trump presidency in modern times, and no limit to where he can go from here. He has transgressed and broken taboos all the way to the White House, and been rewarded.
He will continue to smash political conventions built over decades and centuries, using Twitter to goad and mobilise his supporters as required, attacking the free and independent media as well as dissenters in general, embracing murderous dictators and corrupt capitalists all over the world where he has business interests.
He will start a dynasty, and use the venerable office he now occupies to boost family members and businesses, friends and cronies. No-one seriously doubts that, and no-one in the GOP except for John McCain and a few sidelined others can be relied upon to stand against it.
For Trump, transgression has worked as a campaign strategy, and he can be expected to pursue a similar approach to governance, as in his recent comments about the EU and Germany. Until he fails, and fails so badly that no amount of scapegoating muslims or liberals can cover it up, America is his to do with what he will.
His transgressions will shift the culture and may even become mainstream, so that the kinds of racist and sexist discourse we have spent decades erasing from public view will again be respectable. The new culture of unapologetic bigotry and bullying will spread. Political success in a volatile ideological market place drives imitation.
In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation will have a go at emulating Trump. In the UK, Nigel Farage is hovering menacingly. In France, Marine Le Pen could easily become president of the republic, and so on.
All over the world, hitherto marginal figures who share Trump’s contempt for fact-based rationality and informed policy making, good manners and basic civility will be jumping on the populist bandwagon.
Some media organisations will strive to maintain critical scrutiny over the Trump administration, others will become cheerleaders and propagandists such as Sean Hannity on Fox News. No-one can assume that in this atmosphere what we still call “liberal” democracy will survive.
If the democracy we have built in so many places around the world since 1945 is to outlast one or perhaps two Trump terms, all who reject the political philosophy of the strongman and the bully must prepare to counter it, in their private lives and public utterances.
They should do so in the knowledge that Trump is a minority president, defeated in the popular vote, the perverse product of a dysfunctional political and media system which for too long treated him as an absurd novelty and then, having given him the opening, had no means of preventing his rise.
He won by the rules, though if the dirty dossier is even a bit accurate, he did not play fair. We must remember that when his supporters start demanding “respect” for the office, and for Trump himself.
For a president who has transgressed so many of the conventions which make our democracies civilised and decent, respect is not an entitlement. It must be earned.
So come on Donald, prove yourself fit to be president, and prove us sceptics wrong.
If in four years time the American and global economy are just as strong or stronger than Obama helped make them; if the Chinese and the Russians have been dissuaded from their expansionist and illegal activities in the South China Sea and eastern Europe; if the progressive sexual politics and multiculturalism of the past decades have not been reversed; and if Islamic jihad has indeed been defeated as you assert only you can do – then you’ll have my respect.
Barack Obama’s presidency was always bound to be something of a disappointment. Few presidents can have entered office with such great expectations, not least because of what went before him.
Indeed, when we try to make sense of the significance of Obama’s term in office, we need to remember the truly appalling legacy he inherited from his predecessor.
Not only did George W Bush begin an entirely unnecessary and disastrous conflict in the Middle East – the consequences of which continue to destabilise the region to this day – but he also helped trigger a major economic crisis that threatened to bring down the international banking system.
The massive spending – and deficits – required by Bush’s ruinously expensive war in Iraq contributed to America’s economic problems. But the efforts of the Bush administration to wind back a painstakingly constructed, largely effective, regulatory framework that exercised some degree of control over the banking system and its self-destructive pathologies was another entirely avoidable incidence of self-harm on an epic scale.
The first thing Obama had to do on taking office, therefore, was to stop the international financial sector from falling off a cliff and prevent icons of American manufacturing like General Motors from going bust.
The fact that the sky didn’t fall in tends to be forgotten or wilfully ignored by Obama’s growing army of critics. If he did nothing else, though, staving off the world’s second Great Depression looks pretty good on the CV.
He might have done much more if he hadn’t been so initially bogged down with cleaning up someone else’s mess, not to mention dealing with a hostile, ideologically recalcitrant Congress that remained implacably opposed to everything he did. Whatever else the Trump presidency has to deal with, the domestic institutional roadblocks should be easier to navigate.
That Obama managed to get his signature healthcare reforms through Congress is a minor miracle, although one that is likely to rapidly dismantled on ideological grounds – not to mention the fact that “big pharma” will be enthusiastically backing its repeal.
Bizarrely, some of the people who actually benefit most from Obamacare – poor, white and working class – are also the most hostile to Obama and his “socialist” policies.
It is testimony to just how difficult it is to have a rational, much less an informed, debate about key elements of public policy in the US that such counter-intuitive outcomes are possible.
It is not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist or even a critical Marxist to recognise that there’s something odd, rather sad and deeply troubling about people voting against people and policies from which they might have been the principal beneficiaries.
Sadly, the domestic agenda, disappointing as it has been in many ways, was arguably Obama’s strong suit.
Critics argue that procrastination and an unwillingness to use America’s undoubted military might decisively has made the situation in the Middle East even worse. Red lines were crossed by the likes of Bashar al-Assad with no consequences, something that encouraged Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to test America’s commitment to maintaining its primacy, the arguments go.
Perhaps so. And yet, “don’t do stupid stuff” is not the worst strategic doctrine the world has ever seen. Indeed, when contrasted with Bush in particular, it looks entirely reasonable and in keeping with a highly complex and unstable international order that defies quick fixes.
More pointedly, we actually know what happens when American administrations are determined to do stupid stuff, no matter how implausible such a strategy may be.
If we’ve collectively learned anything over the course of the last few decades – indeed, the last few millennia – it ought to be that wars are a lot easier to start than they are to finish. They generally don’t have happy endings either.
Perhaps a few carefully calibrated surgical strikes would have made a difference in Syria, but the record of American intervention over recent years is not encouraging. The motto “if you break it you own it” is worth keeping in mind.
We will soon have the opportunity to compare and contrast Obama’s presidency with someone who is altogether more impulsive and apparently determined to act decisively.
Whether the Hulk is preferable to Hamlet we shall have to wait and see. But that we came through one of the more troubled periods in recent history more or less in one piece is perhaps as much as “we” – privileged denizens of what’s left of the Western world – can hope for.
Donald Trump may rapidly discover that there are no tweet-sized solutions to the world’s problems. Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism may prove alarmingly prescient:
Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities.
Obama’s great attribute was that he recognised in advance how dangerous and counterproductive certain actions could be. There is absolutely no guarantee that his successor does. The Obama presidency may yet go down as a relatively sane and sober period bookended by the two worst presidents in American history.
At the peak of post-Soviet triumphalism in the west, amid all the hype about a New World Order and the end of history, historian Eric Hobsbawm rained on the parade somewhat by suggesting that we were in a pre-war, rather than post-(Cold) war period.
Hobsbawm was a Marxist, deeply concerned by what he saw even then, more than two decades ago, as the rise of nationalism and religious extremism.
The ideological vacuum left by the demise of the USSR and the broader decline of socialism was in danger of being filled by tribalism, sectarianism and ethnic conflict. Long dormant hatreds of “the Other” founded on reactionary creeds of racial and religious supremacy would now have room to breathe, he believed.
He didn’t live to see that prediction fulfilled, but as we leave 2016 behind and the world prepares for a Trump presidency built on white rage, it is clear that we are there.
The Long Peace which has lasted since 1945 – no wars between major powers, no world wars after the two that defined the 20th century, and despite the horrors of civil war such as we see in Syria today, no human casualties on the scale of 1939-45 or 1914-18 – is coming to an end.
Russia hacks US elections, and invades sovereign nations in Eastern Europe. China steals US drones in international waters, and builds military bases on artificial islands. The soon-to-be commander-in-chief of America writes this is “unpresidented” (sic), while endorsing the behaviour of the murderous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. And all this before Donald Trump even gets his greedy fingers on the nuclear button.
All it will take for this bizarre mix of post-factual ignorance, nationalism and religiously fuelled aggression to become full-on war is one provocative move too far, by one side or another.
It might happen in the illegal Israeli settlements next week, or around Taiwan in June. Maybe Trump will take a shot at North Korea. Who knows?
We do know that we have a tax-avoiding, pussy-grabbing reality TV star for president of the United States, who communicates his foreign policy on social media while proclaiming he has no need for such trivia as CIA national security briefings.
And if we manage to avoid that apocalyptic scenario, we will still have to deal with nationalism tearing apart the UK, the EU, and all the gains of internationalism, globalisation and multiculturalism we have painstakingly made since the cataclysm of the second world war.
The English artists Gilbert & George produced a prescient 2014 piece seen by this writer at MONA in Hobart. It declares:
Well, now they’re voting for them again – in Austria, the UK, Australia, the US, even Germany, where neo-nazism is on the verge of again becoming respectable.
We are in an historical moment never experienced by anyone born after 1945. A moment unforeseen and unprepared for.
In that respect I am guilty.
Yes, like most observers I understood that Brexit was a possibility, given the polls showing a slight majority for Remain right up to the end of the campaign. But the wishful thinker in me chose to believe that no rational person would wish to tear up the complex web of relationships between Britain and the EU, formed over 45 years, and which had contributed so much to peace and prosperity on the continent.
Sure, the EU had its problems and challenges, but nothing a determined UK government could not have resolved through firm negotiation of the type pursued by Conservative and Labour administrations for decades. To destroy the entire edifice of economic, cultural and political union between 28 countries was masochistic and self-destructive, surely?
The Scots had rejected separation from the UK just two years before, after all, a very similar issue to that pushed by the English nationalists in the EU referendum.
What we see now with the chaos and uncertainty of Brexit would have been visited on the UK in 2014, if the separatists had won the referendum – ironically, the Scottish nationalists now cite Brexit as their reason for overturning the democratic vote for Union.
My Scottish countrymen and women made the right call there, and maybe that encouraged me to think the Brits would do so in relation to the EU, and then the Americans would elect a principled and experienced public servant such as Hillary Clinton over the mean-minded man who will soon be sitting in the Oval Office.
In the US election, again, the data showed that a Trump victory was possible, if not likely. No-one, not even Nate Silver and those at FiveThirtyEight, wanted to believe the data could all be wrong, even if we knew on recent evidence that they might be.
But we were wrong, very wrong, and now we face the most serious threat to all of our livelihoods and lives – wherever in the word we call home – most of us have known. Unless you are a rich billionaire such as Trump and his super-rich cronies, it’s time to dig in and prepare for a future of chaos and austerity.
Our grandparents DID shoot fascists, and they did win the war. We 21st-century anti-fascists can prevail too, but only if we understand the enormity of what we face.
This is a culture war, first.
As I observed in Porno? Chic! three years ago there is a global reaction underway to the historic gains of feminism and gay rights, spearheaded by radical Islam and now hijacked by the white supremacist alt-right. In what remains of the liberal capitalist world we must defend and promote progressive sexual politics as never before.
We must defend multiculturalism and the values of tolerance, against not just the white nationalists but the Islamists and haters of every type.
If our leaders had been more honest about and resistant to Islam’s assault on our progressive social values we might not be where we are today, in the UK, the US, France, Germany, Australia (where One Nation is preparing to seize its historic opportunity).
We must declare zero tolerance for religious, nationalist, and ethnic intolerance, from whichever direction it comes.
We must learn to fight the alt-right with the same ferocity and fearlessness they apply to their enemies in the media, academia, everywhere.
Forget politeness, or all known rules of online etiquette. Forget turning the other cheek, or trying to be reasonable with those who ignore the facts in the hope they will be persuaded to your point of view. Challenge them now, because the deplorables will be coming for you next.
The internet is now a target, so we must relearn how to live without the digital, and how to survive when the network gets hacked or knocked out by Russia or China (or indeed Trump).
As we have just seen in the starkest possible manner, our liberal democracies have become extremely vulnerable not just to demagogues spouting populist bile on social media, but to foreign state hacking.
It’s clear that when the Long Peace does end, the internet will be taken out first. We should all be prepared to survive the abrupt withdrawal of online services which we have become reliant on.
But look on the bright side.
Buy a turntable and some vinyl records; a nice pen that you can write with, and some notepads. Start reading hard copy books again. Reduce your dependence on the digital. Rediscover the pleasures of the analogue.
Such survival tactics won’t stop what’s coming after January 20, but they might make it just that bit easier to cope. Meantime, as we approach the new year and say farewell to Barack Obama, let’s echo his sentiments of this week: