“God Help America”


So now we know. Mr Trump is the new President of the United States. There will be many who think that America has taken leave of its senses. That it has committed an enormous act of folly, an act of unparalleled irrationality. In some ways this may be true. But even if this is the case there has been an enormous failure of the political establishment, a failure that is to some extent replicated around much of the West.

Isaiah Berlin distinguishes two types of thinkers. On the one hand is the Fox who knows lots of things, and on the other, the Hedgehog who knows one big, important thing.

Hilary Clinton is like the Fox, she knows a lot of things. Go to her web site and she has a policy on everything. The policies are about the traditional issues of a political campaign, about how to get the economy back on track, how to create jobs, how to improve health care provision and other social welfare elements of the modern state. It is the type of agenda that has dominated politics since World War Two. It is an agenda which at one time would have been familiar to both major parties and their divisions would have been on emphasis. It is about the efficient administration of the state.

To be fare there is some recognition of the anger that her fellow citizens feel about Wall Street; their declining living standards and corporate tax avoiders with promises to extend Dodd-Franks to the shadow banking sector and a crack down on tax inversions and other scams. However, it looked like politics as usual.

Mr Trump on the other hand is like the Hedgehog. His great strength is that he knows one very important thing. He knows that a large number of Americans are hurting, and hurting badly. His knowledge is not the product of careful research and rational analysis. Few people are going to accuse Mr Trump of that.

Mr Trump’s understanding is visceral, not intellectual. He has an instinctive feel for the symptoms of pain of many, many Americans. Pain that has been building for years, indeed decades, as globalisation and technological innovation has stripped the country of well paid middle class and blue collar jobs. Whilst, in parallel with this, wealth in the country has been trickling, and indeed, surging upwards so that an ever smaller group of Americans own an ever greater proportion of its wealth.

The political elite have defended this process on the basis that a rising economic tide lifts all boats. Whilst there may have been some truth in this through the late 1940’s to the mid 70’s when annual growth rates were around 3% and taxation and welfare expenditure grew in tandem, it has been less and less true over the past 30 years or so. The proportion of the national income going to wage earners has declined and, an increasing proportion of that smaller amount has been taken by an elite group of ultra high-income individuals.

The American public have increasingly perceived the political elite of donkeys and elephants as out of touch, defending a system that only seems to benefit the already rich. The credit crunch reinforced this view in spades when the political establishment rushed to the defence of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. Those on multi-million dollar salaries, who had gambled with other peoples money, and lost, were bailed out by the tax payer and almost without a stumble returned to their high reward culture.

Worse, it looked as if that defence was grounded in self-interest. Millionaire politicians and senior officials who pass through a revolving door from high-ranking public office into well-paid, private board rooms, often of financial institutions, were rescuing the very institutions which they would later obtain spectacularly well paid jobs in. The vast sums of money needed to secure access to this club meant ordinary voters felt more and more that the only log cabin route to the White House was the Aspern ski lodge of the very rich and not for the likes of them.

Mr Trump now sits astride a Tiger. When his empathy for the symptoms is not translated into a cure of the problem, as it most assuredly will not, the question arises of how long he will be able to assuage the anger with what are almost certain to be increasingly irrational initiatives. Socially reactionary initiatives like the criminalisation of abortion and the legitimisation of racial discrimination, inquiries into the affairs of the Clintons, isolationism, increased spending on the military to defend fortress America.

If what America needs, as many think, is a rebalancing of market forces involving a significant shift in the balance of power from a super rich elite towards the majority of the population it is unlikely to come from President Trump. What he will therefore be forced to do is seek out scape-goats for the lack of substantive change, the liberal media, foreigners, neighbours (Mexico), the political establishment, the courts anybody who public anger can be directed at for undermining his project to make America great again.

But worse, when politicians run out of scape-goats at home there is one other way they often attempt to shore up their standing, a foreign adventure. President Trump’s isolationism may have global consequences for trade and growth but it might be infinitely preferable to his engagement outside of the United States.

When America sneezes the world catches a cold. America now has a viral infection which has existential implications for the rest of the world. It is difficult to be optimistic. Even as an atheist I pray God Help America.

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