By Sanjit Bhoumick
For the longest time, I’ve struggled to explain the near meteoric rise of Donald Trump. From his seemingly random rants to his demolition of the ‘best candidate field in Republican primary history’, to the unflinching loyalty his supporters are willing to give him, to even his toxic views. I admit, like many others, I’ve been puzzled. I’ve wondered if it was simply a bizarre fascination by a ‘successful’ narcissist or an attraction that makes you believe that to be successful, you need to be like Trump. Or was it his exploitation of ‘poorly educated’ people with his jingoistic brand of ‘telling it like it is’. Or, perhaps, just virulent opposition to a second Clinton administration? But, it was only three weeks ago, right after the Brexit vote, that the pieces began to fall into place.
The Trump effect is not a one-off fascination for an individual. It is a once-in-a-generation clash of ideologies taking root, not just in America, but all around the world. If we trivialize this phenomenon, we do so at our peril. If we allow for it to breed, it could potentially disrupt the ‘established’ world order in fundamentally unpredictable ways. Come to think of it, maybe that is why this election is about anti-establishment. Let me explain.
Collaboration – An Outdated Idea?
The end of WWII saw an unprecedented spread of Western liberal thinking and institutions across the planet. Some fundamental beliefs came to exist. The belief that free trade and progressive practices are necessary everywhere. The belief that if we acted collectively, it would result in the greater good. As nation states, we can and should collaborate and act mutually, whether on trade or security. Even while Republicans and Democrats argued with one another, no one argued against the cause itself. As a result, Bretton Woods, IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations, NATO and countless FTAs and economic and monetary unions came up around the world.
But this creation of a free market also coincided with two broad civilizational trends that were occurring in tandem. One, the creation of a free society with movements like civil rights and women’s liberty. And two, the unprecedented role that technology started playing in our everyday lives. If the first accelerated our freedoms economically and financially, then the other two levelled the playing field culturally. Any individual, anywhere, could do as they chose. And yes, for the longest time, it worked wonders in terms of growth of productivity, per capita income, life span and countless other socio-economic parameters. It promoted a new philosophy. While most non-western societies viewed from the sidelines, over time they either embraced it, like the Asian tigers, Turkey and recently India; or rejected it like in the Middle East. Those very fault lines are now coming home to roost in these two quite opposing world views.
Collapse of the System
So, for the last many decades, western societies were lulled into a warm belief that the institutional guard rails of a free market and free society would always hold and ultimately trickle-down benefits to the middle class. After all, we were better off, weren’t we? Free markets brought down consumer prices. An open financial market allowed us to invest in a bigger market of foreign countries and companies. The capitalistic way let markets decide, in an unbiased way, who was right or wrong, and the wheels could keep spinning on. And when communism collapsed, it served to further vindicate that belief.
Nothing lasts forever, though. But, it took some cataclysmic events to make the wheels start to come off and shake up this belief system. First, it was 9/11. Then, the market crash of 2008. And more recently, the marauding terrorism from the spawn of Al-Qaeda like ISIS, AQAP, Boko Haram. This has, unfortunately, also unleashed global migration unlike any other in the last 100 years.
There are three clear trends that have led up to the predicament we face today.
Free Market Capitalism
First, free market capitalism revealed its excesses in the crash of 2008. It became evident that big banks and trading houses had found innovative ways to package toxicity into financial products and sell it to gullible consumers. Free trade, so long as it contributed to rising living standards and wages, was celebrated. It came unstuck when the public saw its impact on products made cheaply from compromised manufacturing and safety practices in jobs exported to Asia, Latin America and Africa.
And then, even worse, while western economies struggled to get themselves out of the Great Recession, those very countries, to whom free market principles had been preached for years and where millions of jobs had been exported, began to perform much better and lift their citizens out of poverty. While in the West, people faced unemployment and wage stagnation. The perception of free market capitalism, as a growth driver, all but disappeared for wealthy economies. Nevertheless, it had firmly taken root in developing ones.
Second, a free society meant giving a nod to working with people who came from different values and thinking. Take Saudi Arabia for example. On the one hand, it is one of America’s staunchest military allies in the region. But, this is the same Saudi Arabia that gave rise to radical Islamic ideology that inspired Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They also brutally repressed human and gender rights in their own country. While it is ‘in-country’, it is condemned. The vast cultural gap gets exposed when large-scale cross-border migration takes place. Today, it is happening out of Syria and elsewhere. It becomes particularly difficult to integrate these migrants into starkly different societies. This is precisely the reason behind the backlash we see in much of Europe and UK today.
No doubt, large numbers of undocumented, unassimilated immigrants pose a security risk, but what is implied is the cultural risk of diluting free society principles as their demographics change. In the absence of a rational policy, hate and racism can easily flourish, instead of being in the shadows where they belong. And more importantly, it can threaten the ‘free society’ principles that their custodians, themselves, are trying to protect.
Lastly, technology. Although it has created a level playing field, broken down barriers to consumption and increased productivity across the board; in two respects, it has exacerbated the problem. One, since access is free, new technology is available to everyone, whether it’s encrypted messaging or social networks. While for the most part, this is great, it poses a significant threat when it comes to individuals getting self-radicalized or constructing bombs using YouTube videos.
Second, as technology has increased productivity, there is usually a better, faster and cheaper way to get a job done using a robot or a device than to use human labour. Combined with the movement of jobs to foreign countries, this has led to a sense of vulnerability among people as they struggle to find new jobs or skills. The losers in this argument are self-evident. The poorly educated will have a tougher time, as will the older folks.
Which brings me (finally!) to the point of my article. I believe we are at a unique crossroad today. Each of these trends, while they have created immense good, also point to how they can disrupt the status quo in unthinkable and virulent ways. The inexorable rise in jingoistic fervour, that we see across much of America and Europe today, should serve as a stark reminder of what is at stake. It is not just a clash of two opposing personalities – Hillary Clinton v/s Donald Trump.
It is much more than that, it is a clash between two ideologies – that of GLOBALIZATION v/s PROTECTIONISM or PAST v/s FUTURE.
We need to see this election in that frame of reference and consider our choices.
Globalisation – Finding Equilibrium
Consider the implications. Strongman governments are already established in so many countries around the world. Now, there is a real possibility of that happening in America too. People are talking about ripping up FTAs and major multilateral treaties. For instance, the climate protocol is already under threat as countries place nationalistic concerns ahead of multilateralism. Even long-standing security arrangements, like NATO, are under scrutiny as leaders reject the core security and spending principles that underlie it. Privacy is being pushed to the back burner as national and homeland security takes precedence over it. As the world becomes interconnected, nations find it difficult to preserve their history, cultural traditions and languages. As a result, they become protective.
Globalisation is coming under the fire. How do we balance global perspectives with the potential loss of cultural and economic heritage? If the existing system does not work, what is the alternative? What would happen, for instance, if America and other western economies chose to take the protectionist route? Would that serve the interests of those countries, or further depress wages and growth globally? Would it lead to the rise of more nationalistic leaders across the world or less? Would the breakdown of multilateral agreements and treaties lead to more confidence or less? What happens to global security risks? And finally, but most importantly, would this be the kind of world we want to bring up our children in?
With this lens, it is easier to examine the election. The protectionism touted by Trump is far from inconsistent. Certainly, with his tirades and thin-skinned personality, he muddies the waters every so often. However, he has definitely tapped into and unleashed the already simmering scepticism for globalisation. When he speaks about disrupting the establishment, it is this scepticism that he speaks to. While immigrants (legal and illegal), minority voters, women and college-educated voters rightly feel outraged and threatened by his toxic language, they ignore or scorn him at their own peril. What he has tapped into is a real, visceral hatred for the trickle down effects of the present world order.
The Oscillating Protectionist
Clinton has her flaws too. Despite the historic nature of the mandate, many voters feel she is dishonest or untrustworthy. She needs to address this concern immediately. On the issue of globalisation v/s protectionism, it is clear she is in the first corner. But, she does herself a disservice by premising her pitch as a referendum just on personalities. This is because, although she is the well-educated choice, she too has some perceived character flaws, just like Trump. In this respect, it would be more difficult to convince voters.
Instead, she should frame this election as a referendum on the merits of globalisation v/s protectionism in a forceful manner. Till she does that, it will be difficult for her to win over the independents and people on the fence. She needs to point out how Donald Trump has benefited from globalisation for far too long to suddenly become the champion through protectionism.
The Finishing Line, and What Lies Beyond
I don’t know which way the election will turn. As someone who has benefited from globalisation, I am certainly in the globalisation camp. But seeing the continued threat from terrorism, and knowing that every such event strengthens the hand of protectionist forces, I am afraid for the outcome. If Trump does, somehow, get voted into power, I sincerely hope he comes around to a rational view of why turning our backs on globalisation is a bad deal for everyone.
DNA and genealogical tests have proven that 99.9% of humanity’s genes are identical. It is that 0.1% difference which is responsible for our greatest inventions and our worst atrocities. Voters would be well advised to keep this in mind and know that the choice they make this November has, in equal parts, the ability to do immense good or immense harm.
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Sanjit is a customer and marketing analytics executive with over 17 years of professional experience across the retail, CPG, hospitality and high-tech industries. He has worked on behalf of both private and public sector clients. Sanjit is a graduate of IIT Kharagpur and XLRI Jamshedpur and started his career at Arthur Andersen. He is passionate about keeping abreast of the latest global trends in consumer technology, public and foreign policy, and is a big advocate for interdisciplinary thinking. As a recent expat of Indian origin, he has been following the divergent developments in this year’s U.S. election with a great deal of interest. This is his first publication. Sanjit lives in the Boston area with his wife and twin children.