Shrump I: Post-Democracy in America?
Before I get started, let’s introduce a new term that helps us to appreciate the differences between words, their meaning, and reality itself. You may wonder what a “shrump” is. If you google it you will find that the definition is still in flux, and ranges from a “pickled shrimp” to a twitter hashtag, and to what I am suggesting here, namely a bump in the forest floor. Look at the picture on the left. It’s only a shrump if there is a mushroom underneath. The most intriguing aspect of this kind of object is that you can’t know what it is until you look inside. If the bump in question does not cover a mushroom, then it never was a shrump! The shrumpiness exists only until proven otherwise, and if you peel back the leaves, the wave function of shrump possibilities and “alternative facts” collapses and resolves into the facts that we commonly call truth, which could also be a gopher hole. In this case, the shrump appearance was just an illusion. But not every shrump dissolves easily when measured, and I suspect we will encounter a few more of them in the next four years on our political forest floor. For this reason, I decided to number my commentaries on shrumps, hoping that the total shrump number remains low.
Why did Trump become President?
I want to write about what the election results mean for our future. Originally, the post was entitled How to win an election when you loose the popular vote. This is actually easy to explain, just look at the picture on top of this post. It’s called gerrymandering, and has to do with redrawing the boundaries of voting districts within states, until you get the desired result. We live in a system of uneven representation, where some votes have more weight than others. In addition to gerrymandering, the Electoral College also distorts political representation between States and should be abolished immediately. Republicans understand better that politics is about power; they have been smarter in utilizing the political and legal system in order to control government entities that determine election districts and election rules. They also try to limit who is allowed to vote, because lower turnout normally works in their favor. 1
Hillary won the election by 3 million votes, or 2%. The intervention of the FBI Director two weeks before the election worked against her. 2 What is even more alarming is Russia’s successful attempt to influence American public opinion through the covert release of hacked information. US officials knew about this attack on American Sovereignty but failed to deter it effectively or to inform the public.
But in spite of all these answers, the question still remains: How could a man with so many flaws ever convince millions of people to ignore the evidence, his bankruptcies, the lack of concrete proposals, his sexual profanities and attacks, and still vote for him? How could he ever win the presidency of the United States? The Trump phenomenon proves that a performance-over-substance approach works in politics. How did this happen? The following observations will shed some light on this question.
- He disrupted the press. By using Twitter (he has 23 million followers) he bypassed journalists and their traditional function of reflecting, vetting, and filtering positions. While other candidates were trying to accommodate the press, he managed to get into a position where the press was following him.
- His public appearances were different from the normal political routines. It was an improvisational stand-up comedy, and he came across as spontaneous, authentic, and candid. He used rhetorical tricks to say politically incorrect or insulting things, for instance, paralipsis (I am not saying that he is stupid. I won’t say that she is a criminal and she ought to be put in jail,……etc.) This allows his audience to hear what he is really thinking, and at the same time he preserves deniability (I did not mean to accuse her of crimes…) 3
- Most political speeches are carefully sculpted, with a clear structure: The speaker announces what she is going to say, then she says it, and finally she summarizes what she just said. Normal speeches have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Trump changed this routine: He is irreverent towards traditional politics, his speeches are improvisational, they contain unexpected announcements and surprises. 4 At times, it almost sounds like free association. This creates the impression that he is not a typical (“corrupt“) politician, but that he is authentic – he tells us what he thinks. His supporters did not expect a political plan from him; they wanted to be the audience that feeds him and his style. His folksy ramblings allow people to feel that they know him, and therefore they can trust him. Sexual innuendos replace any serious messages. In his presentation, politics is about pleasure, if not lust: It will be so good, you will all love it, you will beg me to stop winning, but I will go on and just do it, and then you will finally say yes, keep winning…
- Hillary attempted to fight this histrionic style with an obsessive-compulsive strategy: she tried to create transparency and trust by offering increasingly detailed proposals and plans. She focused on conveying a stale message, he played with the process itself and operated in the here-and-now. The meaning of words is not serious to him, only their function in the moment is important. He positions himself as action-oriented and conveys the idea that he operates in the real, while others just talk and stay in their bubble of preconceptions. From this position of rhetorical freedom, he becomes an entertainer: He imitates other people, he seems to have fun in whatever he does. He indulges his ego; the act of speaking holds pleasure for him. He is the comic hero and irreverent disruptor who will bring us back to the truth of political action and who will retire a corrupt political establishment. This aggressively entertaining style resonates with the average middle-class white man who wants to be free and rich like him.
- Trump also impersonates the angry white man when he speaks of the left-behind American middle class. By expressing anger, he validates the feelings of many people, especially poor families who still live with the expectation that the system should work better for them. He offers a condensed form of identity politics 5 that attacks the liberal slogans of inclusiveness and universalism. He opposes the idea of universal goodness as delusional and weak, and instead embraces the Nation as our ultimate good: America should not be nice to everyone in the world, while its own citizens are neglected.
- Anger is an infectious primary emotion. It is also liberating because it brings relief. If you listen to the emotional subtext, you hear this: Hillary is frustrated and burden-enduring, but hides her feelings behind a smiling mask. Obama is the guy who never gets angry because this emotion is just not in his repertoire. He only gets tense and tries to accommodate everyone. In his lawyerly neutrality and softness, he has failed to stand up for American interests. Here comes Trump, the only candidate who is not afraid to be openly angry: he promises to clean house, to speak the truth unfiltered, and to sweep aside the paralysis of Washington through his deal-making and action-oriented style. He wants to be the strong man who brings change through decisive action.
- He brings feelings back into political language, even though they may be clumsy and underdeveloped. People call him a narcissist, a pathological liar, or even a psychotic. In return, he feels misunderstood, he has good reason not to trust his allies, and he probably knows that his enemies will eventually devour him. He is guilty because he has used so many people to enrich himself, and now he does not know how to stop. He has feelings, but they don’t connect him with others. He is more vulnerable than it seems, and being tough is his only defense. His supporters like him for not being perfect. He is stubbornly defensive and revengeful, to the point of being self-defeating, for instance when he picks unnecessary fights with the press, the CIA, and his Western Allies. He is profoundly self-absorbed, and he will now enact his inner emotional drama with the whole world. Everyone is watching and in suspension about his next moves, but all he knows is how to burn down the house. What will come next?
The Consequences of Trumps’ Presidency
- The Republicans own Healthcare reform. Whatever they do, it will be measured against the achievements of Obamacare. Their actions will also be measured against the state of the Nation when Obama left office: he gave us a booming economy and a strong stock market, historically low unemployment, a low inflation rate and international respect.
- Trump will cause damage across the board, and it is likely that the Democrats win back the White House in four years with a very strong mandate for progressive reforms.
- The American people will show the world how to hold political leadership accountable. This will be a powerful message for the people in Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes around the world. Trump has to deliver, or his Presidency will unravel quickly, and he will not last for more than two years. 6 He might attempt to make a deal with the Democrats to save himself, but the outlook is grim, and he will more likely become toxic for other political actors.
- The American political system faces structural problems: It has no legitimacy if the winning party looses. The electoral system needs to be reformed, and obstructionist politics should not be rewarded. Liberal majorities need to fight it out with Republican Constitutionalists. The Divided States of America have to reunite, and the American people have to prove again that democracy works.
- Trump’s “America First” message will backfire. If American commitment to their allies fluctuates even a little bit, these allies begin to separate and will defend themselves. Europe can unify more easily after the Brexit, and the Treaty of Lisbon calls for the construction of a European military. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore will do something similar if America shows signs of weakness. Some of these countries might even arm themselves with nuclear weapons in order to deter China and North Korea. Europe and Japan will take on stronger political, social and economic leadership in the world. China might also emerge as a world leader, and the BRIC countries will gain more strength and form their own coalitions. America will lose considerable international influence under Trump, which may be good for the country in the long run. The idea of nuclear non-proliferation may become obsolete, and we may soon face a more insecure world with trends towards increased militarization.
- America’s involvement in the Middle East remains problematic. Obama wanted to disengage; he had only minimal goals: Defeat ISIS, block Iran from becoming a nuclear power, secure the oil supply lines, and support democracy and women’s rights whenever possible. He leaves behind the biggest terrorist of them all, Assad. Obama also allowed Iraq to drift back into the arms of Iran, and he remained silent about Erdogan’s transformation into a dictator. The bloodshed of Aleppo will forever be associated with Obama for his refusal to intervene. Trump promises to end these failures, but nothing much can be done without stronger military presence and political action. Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem will only put more oil into the fire, and make America again the target of Middle-Eastern terrorism.
- Trump’s stance on Russia is alienating Republicans, European allies, and his own Secret Service agencies. We have overwhelming evidence that Putin is a criminal in power, with clear intentions to damage democracies and free societies. He represents ruthless and cunning nationalism that includes shameless lying, the fabrication of news, favoritism, and mass murder as a political tool. Putin has devastated Russia and eviscerated its potential to be a rich, educated and democratic country. The smell of corruption is already permeating the incoming US Administration as well, and the story will continue when Putin and Trump meet and begin to make deals.
- A dangerous right-wing ideology is beginning to emerge with the help of Trump and his comrade Bannon. They want to abandon European liberalism and unity in favor of an internationalized and modernized version of fascism. They support Brexit and right-wing European Nationalists, and they want to include Russia into this new anti-Islamic and anti-foreigner alliance.
- Foreign policy was always the domain of the President, with little oversight through checks and balances. It is not easy to rally the American people behind international causes as long as it does not affect them directly. Trump does not see friendly and cooperative relations as a win-win situation. He approaches countries like China or Mexico from an adversarial position of power and starts the relationship with a confrontational tone. His actions put the Chinese and the Mexicans into the defense and force them to rethink their options. Both countries will also use nationalist feelings to unify their populations, and the tensions will rise quickly. If Trump follows through with some of his threats, trade wars can emerge, with terrible economic consequences for the Pacific region and the world.
Post-Democracy in America?
Postmodernity has run out of steam – the paradigm was probably just a late 20th century reflex to the waning of European Enlightenment. Are we entering a period of political realism that comes in the form of a new paradigm, Post-Democracy? The term was introduced in 2000 by Colin Crouch, with his book [easyazon_link identifier=”0716305984″ locale=”US” tag=”mainacademicsite-20″]Coping with Post-Democracy[/easyazon_link]. In it, he describes nations that have the semblance of democracies, when in reality they are run by a small elite. Crouch writes: 7
A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite…We are not living in a post-democratic society, but we are moving towards such a condition.
Post-democratic societies seem to have fully operating democratic systems with elections, an occasional change of political leaders, and a constitution that guarantees rights like freedom of speech. In reality, however, decisions are made by a small elite that operates behind the scenes of democratic institutions, and nations transform into state-sponsored capitalist systems. We are moving towards a post-democratic political constellation for a variety of reasons:
- Populations increasingly fracture along economic, ethnic and political lines. The divide between rural areas and urban centers exists in almost every country. The liberal urban middle-class is connected across nations, but alienated from their own rural backyards. The elections in the US get decided by a few swing states, and the candidates focus strongly on a small percentage of uncommitted voters in these states. Whoever does this best, wins.
- A broad political dialog becomes unnecessary in order to decide elections. In reality, there is not much choice between candidates. Public debates are not about the exchange of ideas and the struggle for better arguments, but about television posturing. Their campaigns are based on polling and advertisement, and they use marketing and messaging experts to promote themselves. The person is now a product, and elections become intense to the degree in which they are personalized. For many people, politics is just a television show with entertainment value. Trump, like Reagan, had an advantage in this regard.
- Large trade agreements and multinational treaties are not subject to direct democratic control, and as a result, people feel disempowered. Globalization makes nation-states weak in relation to trans-national corporations, who have more leverage to avoid domestic regulation and local controls.
- The leaders of the EU, the United Nations, or China, are not elected by the people but chosen in a secretive process behind closed doors. This is even to some degree true for the US: people do not directly elect the President. Political actors like the US, Europe, China, or India may have become too big for their own good.
- There is increasing entanglement between political and commercial interests. Elections require large amounts of money, and corporations are keenly interested in influencing the legislative process. Politicians transform into lobbyists, and the political process becomes a business. What happens to the overarching interests of the society as a whole when democracies become monetized in this fashion?
- Markets penetrate public goods: Neoliberal economic policies have argued in favor of privatization, and as a result, public services have been eroded in sectors like education, health care, city management, or the military. The primary goal of these companies is to make a profit, not to protect the welfare of the communities they serve.
- The private sphere is being transformed and eviscerated through social media. New technologies allow the formation of political opinion like never before. Information is about shaping opinion, not the discovery of facts. The public sphere is not free, and public discourses are not about the truth. Political belief systems become fortified opinions that defend and hide deeper economic and technological interests. We understand now that politics is not about addressing the facts, it is about the creation of facts. People begin to believe that something is true when you say often enough that it is true.
- A constructivist view of politics is prevailing: political communication is a variant of show business and follows the logic of the medium in which it takes place. From this perspective, the political world is reconstituted according to the conventions of the medium in which it comes to exist; it is constructed as ‘reality’ by media that present and report it, and in this reality, politics becomes a game of appearances and surfaces. Trumps “substance,” is an extreme form of identity politics. But what he sees as natural political categories, ethnicity, and nationhood, are themselves only political constructs.
The events after Trump’s inauguration show that the backlash has already begun. The liberal majority in the US now has a chance to unify and rally in their contempt for Trump, and chase him out of office. He may help the country to come together, and in this regard, he could be the unintentional catalyst for a smarter and more confident democratic system in America. Interestingly, the initial protests are driven by women groups and feminists, because he insulted them so badly during the campaign. This can also lead to a resurgence of feminism around the world. The protests that I have seen are playful and creative, more like festivals with many young people and echoes of the Sixties. Trump’s political career could end like the statue in the Burning Man Festival, where people come together for a week of celebration in the Nevada desert. The high point of these parties is the burning of the giant statue of a man: he represents patriarchy, the system, or anything that is oppressive.
Copyright @Jürgen Braungardt, 2017
- In the 2016 Election, only 55% of voting age citizens voted. Restrictive voting laws normally suppress minorities and poor people. If voters need to produce an ID Card with a photo and a current address, they might not be inclined to participate. Elections really boil down to the mobilization effort of candidates. People actually have to show up and vote, and therefore polling is inaccurate. The candidate who has more popular support is not necessarily the candidate who mobilizes his or her own supporters better. ↩
- James Comey, a Republican, announced publicly that he reopened the email case against her. The same man later refused to answer if he had started an investigation into the Trump campaigns’ ties to Russian officials. Why did the Attorney General or the President not interfere in the FBI Director’s politically motivated actions? ↩
- He must have learned this way of speaking from the approximately 4000 lawsuits he was involved in during his lifetime. ↩
- Sometimes he announced that he would make an announcement, but nothing happened. ↩
- He started his political career with the birther question, demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate: Are you really one of us? ↩
- The next big anti-Trump demonstrations are scheduled for April 15, tax day in America. People want to see his tax returns. ↩
- “Five minutes with Colin Crouch”. London School of Economics. 5 February 2013. ↩