Part one of my thoughts on Trump explored why he won, this second part seeks to offer some ideas on where we go from here.
If we are to learn one thing from the 2016 US Presidential election, it is this:
Shouting at, or telling people that certain things are innately good and decrying alternative viewpoints as outrageous or wrong doesn’t necessarily lead to very desirable outcomes.
That is, being given a seemingly irrefutable worldview by an elite of how the world should be doesn’t necessarily make it correct. Indeed, recent events like Brexit and the 2016 US election tell us that the question of what kind of world we want to live in is as contested as ever.
Ironically perhaps, more and more of our public discourse seems to be focused on ‘preaching to the converted’ and creating safe spaces around us where we are incubated in our self-contained echo chambers from people and views deemed ‘offensive’ or intolerable rather than seeking to discuss, argue and persuade others of how we think things should be. In other words, if you think your vision of the world is better than mine, then talk to me, convince me, don’t shout at me that it is simply so!
Indeed, in getting to know people outside our circles, we might be surprised not only to discover these people are human, but that their views and concerns are more valid than we think, even if we don’t agree with them. The same goes for reading outside our normal frames of reference. Hence, being exposed to ideas different to our own doesn’t mean we have to compromise, but it might result the beliefs we hold dear being sharpened, this being a very good and important thing.
Before we move on, there’s a commercial aspect to the echo chamber effect that is worth touching on. That is, the ‘old way’ of paying for journalism have given way to expectations that what we read should be free. As a result, proprietors are now increasingly turning to ‘click bait’ to pull in the readers, and the advertising revenue that comes with it. We’ve known this for a while, but what seem far less explored is the way in which this new model portrays language, people groups and ideologies in increasingly polarised terms. In short, people will read the controversial and the divisive more readily than they’ll read the nuanced, in depth and balanced. Given the above, this is a concern.
In saying all of this, I’m not as naive as to think that this engagement will lead to a ‘Lennon-esque’ world where people of all different backgrounds all hold hands in a circle singing Kumbaya all united in every way imaginable. Indeed, it would be optimistic for a proponent of high levels of immigration to think that anti-immigration sentiment will disappear if we just talk to people who have concerns about the issue. This is a dilemma the UK Labour Party has experienced in recent years; having embraced immigration under Tony Blair, the Party in red are finding that a good number of their voters don’t like immigration very much (or, they may well have known all along, but assumed it didn’t matter), or at least in the numbers seen in recent years. The dilemma they have faced is whether to argue the case as to why immigration (either in general, or at as high levels as it was under New Labour) is a good thing, or to cave in and say, actually, no immigration can be a problem and/or we need to reduce it.
I should also say that more engagement shouldn’t necessarily lead to more pandering either. Those whom we find (for whatever reason) genuinely hateful or offensive should be called out as such. Worryingly, I recently read something (I can’t remember where) which argued that those in positions of privilege and/or power are (especially in today’s times) in danger of shutting down dissenting views – this of course being one of the defining features of Fascist ideology. Ironically, given both his and his supporters protestations about being gagged, signs of this can be seen from both Donald Trump and his supporters.
This whole issue of the need for better engagement issue was summed up perfectly in a podcast I was listening to the other day. One of the journalists was talking about the change seen in Shoreditch (an area in Central London) in recent years. To him, Shoreditch used to be a place full of ‘undesirables’ – racists and the like. What was telling though was that he thought that the change seen in the area (I think it’s now become something of a self-parodying theme park myself) had been brought about by the irrepressible rise of social liberalism in the area. On the one hand, he’s right, as gentrification has taken hold in areas like Shoreditch, these parts have definitely become more socially liberal. What he missed out though, and this is critical, is the question as to where the so called ‘undesirables’ went. Shoreditch isn’t an area of social transformation, more an area subject to ‘social shifting’. The people who used to live in Shoreditch haven’t just disappeared or magically changed their views but have moved to other areas. Certain groups that used to live in Shoreditch and inner East London have moved outwards towards Essex for example. Thus, it isn’t as if social liberalism has taken over the UK or the US. Rather, over generations, certain areas have changed in terms of their makeup. This reinforces a point made earlier – the battle as to what kind of nation and society we want to live in is by no means settled.
There is one more theme that needs discussing before summing up – uncertainty. The election of Trump epitomises this on a global political, economic and social level, and to a degree not seen before by many of us. Will he bring in policies in line with his bombastic rhetoric or will his tough talk be just that, all talk, and the neo-liberal orthodoxy seen in the past will, more or less, continue unabated? We just don’t know. My own view is that Trump on his own doesn’t have the nous to implement or oversee a substantial change in direction, political, economic or social. His presidential picks on the other hand might, and Trump may be happy to operate like a Chairman, rubber-stamping the direction of things (and of course taking the credit where the opportunity presents itself), leaving the nitty gritty to Messrs Pence, Harbertson etc.
Let’s briefly explore this theme of uncertainty through one issue – world security. Trump has indicated, in line with his general isolationist bent that he wouldn’t necessarily object to the USA withdrawing from NATO under certain circumstances. Such an action would obviously cause great levels of uncertainty. Up until now, if a NATO state were to be attacked by, oh I don’t know, Russia, then the USA would be legally obliged to step in and help defend that nation state. Might a USA-less NATO arise, then it’s states (not to mention surrounding world regions) would be far less secure and far more vulnerable to attack from an enemy. Even if the USA doesn’t leave, Trump’s apparent cosying up to Vladimir Putin could in itself signal a change in geo-politics. Put it this way, if I were a citizen in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, I’m not sure I’d be confident of the USA coming to my aid should Putin fancy a westwards invasion. And this is all before we think about any relationship between Trump’s impetuousness and the red button! Should such a pressing come to pass, then we all could really be in trouble.
It is perfectly possible that none of the above will happen of course. Nonetheless, people are understandably fearful about the coming weeks, months and years. I hope to write something in due course on how fear doesn’t have to be the last word however.
For now though, let us conclude. Many have been worried about what a Trump presidency might bring, and these concerns may well manifest themselves. But I also think Trump (and Brexit for that matter) present a great opportunity. For much of my lifetime for instance, there has been a broad consensus about what kind of world we should want to live in (pro-globalisation, socially liberal, pro- welfare to work, pro Europe, pro-immigration). The election of Trump presents a real challenge to this consensus, and an chance to ask ourselves about what kind of world we want to live in. It also provides an important challenge and chance for proponents of the consensus to make their case. As such, now seems to be an ideal opportunity for the main parties and media to do better in engaging with the public, including unfashionable minorities, and offering alternatives that don’t necessarily pander to racism and unkindness but offer chances for people of all backgrounds to be heard.
Indeed, maybe Trump has shown us that ‘business as usual’ in terms of politics, the economy and society and the media for that matter just won’t do anymore.