Fear, Division, Trump, and Collapse
Is Trump the beginning of the collapse?
Posted Jun 26, 2016
In a previous post I discussed a study that suggests that modern society could be moving in the direction of collapse due to a “perfect storm” of major problems—environment and resource problems related to population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy. These factors historically precipitate major unrest and instability in economically stratified complex societies such as ours, in which a detached elite ignore the suffering of “the commoners.”
My question for today, and it’s not one I think can be easily and clearly answered, is whether certain phenomena in current politics may be very early indications of the process of societal collapse.
Donald J. Trump’s rise to candidacy in a major U.S. political party for the office of the president has flabbergasted commentators far and wide and troubled many in his own party (in the latest news, Republican stalwart George F. Will has just announced his departure from his beloved party due to Trump’s impending candidacy). The extremely unpopular Trump is broadly viewed by commentators and the public alike as crude, narcissistic, grandiose, unpredictable, ignorant and often racist, vulgar, unreliable, and utterly self-serving. He’s probably the least honest and least trustworthy presidential candidate in modern history. He’s a veritable insult machine—the New York Times has even been tracking his countless insults of public figures and others. He’s openly mocked disabled people. He’s stoked and supported violence at his rallies. He is ultimately a demagogue stoking people’s deep-seated fears and hatred of foreigners, racial minorities, and others deemed outsiders through whatever means he can.
The Strangest Candidacy
An unprecedented number of political, community, and intellectual leaders in the United States have deemed Trump unqualified for office. His statements on almost any topic vacillate such that he glaringly contradicts himself, sometimes even in the same day or in the same speech. He reverses his positions routinely like a sailboat tacking upwind.
Trump’s supporters must be motivated by some pretty powerful, deep feelings (in addition to more conscious decision making) to overlook such obvious failings. Just over a year ago, if anyone said that such a candidate would be leading a major U.S. political party, nobody would have listened. All of these qualities and actions together do not usually constitute acceptable behavior for anyone, much less an American or world leader. But we seem to be living in different times.
In his recent commencement speech at Stanford University, the historian and documentary film maker Ken Burns, normally hesitant to enter the political fray, delivered a long, searing critique of Trump’s candidacy. A highlight: “We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong.”
What could possibly explain this unexpected ascendancy that puts such a deeply flawed personality within reach of perhaps the most important job in the world? Certainly there are numerous reasons why people may choose to support Trump. This article in Yahoo News describes many. Key among them are
Voters who are “angry” at the government; voters who are “very worried” about the economy; voters who think trade “takes away” U.S. jobs; voters who fear that they are “falling behind;” voters who think that illegal immigrants ought to be deported; voters who believe that Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the country; voters who are convinced that the GOP nominee should come from “outside the establishment.”
A theme running through these is anger at those running the economy and government, combined with a desire to re-group, close down, and keep others out—a basically defensive posture. Trump fits the bill of a strong man who will break up existing power structures and protect “the people” (at least that’s what his rhetoric conveys). And it must be said that many of the concerns of his supporters are indeed real and valid. The middle class in the United States has come under assault for several decades now. People on both the political left and the political right are starting to realize that the economic system is rigged.
Trump represents a right-wing form of populism that, his supporters believe, will re-empower “real” Americans while keeping out those who don’t belong—Muslims and immigrants. (It’s ironic, though, that his supporters are backing a billionaire who games the system at the expense of many to enrich himself and doesn’t pay income taxes.) Trump operates by fostering division and fomenting people’s anger and despair—particularly anger at the perceived detachment of political elites, a marker of societal collapse identified in the study above.
Et Tu Brexit?
A similar phenomenon in which immigrants (rather than a rigged system) are scapegoated for economic problems has now played out with the U.K. voting to leave the European Union (the “Brexit”). Disunity, division, anger, and resentment have been successfully stoked on both sides of the Atlantic. And more right-wing populism seems to be peering over the horizon in France and elsewhere in Europe.
In both cases popular anger against an apparently detached economic and political elite is on the ascent, but it is being displaced onto others who “aren’t like us,” who don’t really belong. This is the visceral reaction of those adopting a defensive posture.
These divisions and the propagation of animosity, together with growing economic stratification and intensive strain on resources, including the “perfect storm” of global climate change, resemble the conditions identified in the “collapse” study I mentioned at the top of this article. Clearly, I can’t say with any certainty whether the anger-fueled populism that has floated Trump to the top of the Republican Party or that has induced the U.K. to create the chaos, uncertainty, and economic costs of the Brexit, are true symptoms of long-range collapse that may play out over the next century or so. But given the surprise, shock, and dismay of much of the world over both Trump and the Brexit, and the uncertainty over what these developments may mean for the future, the possibility seems worth considering.
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