Remarks to Panel “The Rise of Trumpism” Brock University 17NOV16
The Rise of Trumpism: what happened and what’s next? The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency was unexpected by most professors of political science — in the United States from Berkeley to Columbia, and indeed in Canada from our McGill to York to UBC. It was unexpected by professors here at Brock too. To them it seems incomprehensible that the American people have chosen as the leader of the free world a man they would characterize as a narcissistic boor whose rationality in discourse is overwhelmed by xenophobic resentments, and whose frustrations express in racism and misogyny. These are the same people who were at a loss to explain how Rob Ford was popularly elected as mayor of Toronto. Nor could they comprehend how Mr Ford sustained very strong support among a significant fraction of residents of Toronto throughout his political career, despite successive revelations of what the media and political elites loudly declaimed as highly unacceptable disreputable behaviour on Mr. Ford’s part. But Rob Ford as a municipal leader was not in a position of as much authority as Donald Trump will be. Mayor Ford’s scope for destructive damage was much more constrained than President Trump’s will be. Mr. Ford had no access to the codes for setting off nuclear bombs or capacity to declare war on nations that offended him. But Mr. Trump will. I have also been here long enough to have been party to the failure of Western political science to have anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union and demise of the Marxist-Leninist dictatorships that dominated most of Eastern Europe up to the 1990s. We political scientists seem to be more perplexed and bewildered by game changing political change than able to anticipate and account for it. The response of so many seems to parallel the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s paraphrase of the Old Testament Psalm 55, “Hear My Prayer,” in which King David laments “My heart is sorely pained, within my breast, my soul with deathly terror is oppressed, trembling and fearfulness up on me fall, with horror overwhelmed, Lord, hear me call!” Well this does not make for very good social scientific analysis! So the larger question it raises is: “political science: what’s the good in it??” It turns out that evidently illiberal populism is the preferred political option for close to half of the U.S. electorate. In my case I have dedicated most of my career to scholarly and government work on China and North Korea. So perhaps this makes me more sanguine about illiberal politics than most. After all the Government of North Korea issued a very strong endorsement of Mr. Trump’s candidacy early on in his campaign. I don’t judge this had much impact on the outcome. But it is no surprise that Mr. Trump is the favoured choice among authoritarian dictators from Asia to Africa to Latin America. Our failure to predict the strong appeal of Mr. Trump to a definitive element of the U.S. population leads all the more to questioning political science here at Brock in St Catharines. After all we now know that most of Trump’s support comes from rural areas and smaller towns with a predominantly less educated blue collar population and higher than the national average unemployment rates. In other words, places like our Niagara. Similarly to these alienated parts of the USA we here in Niagara know well that we are not central to the awareness of the smug elites of Toronto, Montreal Ottawa and Vancouver. As someone who is sometimes invited to Ottawa to advise on Canada’s China policy, I realize this all the more. I have had this conversation many times: “Oh so you are at Brock University. You know I have passed through Brockville many times on the 401 but have never had a chance to visit your campus! . . . Please let us know the next time you are back in Ottawa.” But the idea that they would ever have occasion to travel to St Catharines is certainly never a consideration. And Niagara is culturally different from the more urban settings of Canada. For example our 19-year-old Brock University Political Science student Sam Oosterhoff from Vineland will likely become the next MPP from Niagara West-Glanbrook. Sam is a strong social conservative. A candidate with his conservative Christian values would be highly unlikely to succeed in Rosedale, Westmount-Outremont or Ottawa-Carleton. Many of the Trump supporters are the collateral damage of the higher cause of globalization in the underclasses particularly in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio — once the proud industrial heartland of America. These are people who had been left behind by the revolutions in technology and globalization, the impact of resultant devastation much underappreciated from the privileged enclaves of the elites in Washington and New York. Donald Trump’s supporters are the dispossessed who yearn for a champion who will take strong measures to set things to rights. And dismantle a rigged system that they see as having been captured by effete elites. In many ways his rise is comparable to the military coups welcomed by the people in less democratic systems The half of U.S. citizens who voted Trump are not unduly concerned by his racist, sexist and Islamophobic discourse or the critiques of those who point out the exaggerations and deceptive inaccuracies expounded by Mr. Trump. The bottom line is that social values transformation in the US rural areas has not kept pace with urban America. I am old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s when pervasive discrimination and racism was mainstream social realities. It was accepted as simply a function of the natural order that women would be subject to systemic discrimination that severely constrained their life options. Homosexuality was both taboo and illegal under the laws of Canada. Society had a hierarchy of white protestants at the top followed by Catholics followed by Jews followed by Chinese and Indians followed by blacks of all origins at the bottom. Bear in mind that it was only in 1947 that Canadians of Chinese origin were extended the right to vote in Canadian elections. Jokes based on denigration of women or homosexuals or persons of colour was considered a high form of white male entertainment. There was a popular American socially progressive TV program of the 1970s, "All in the Family " that satirized the values of the generation of blue collar workers that had grown up in the U.S. in the1930s. The theme song of this show was entitled "Those Were the Days. " Part of that song went: “And you knew who you were then, Girls were girls and men were men, Mister we could use a man Like Herbert Hoover again. Didn't need no welfare state, Everybody pulled his weight. Guys like us we had it made, Those were the days” So there is strong opposition among the Trump supporters to Obamacare as it is considered the road to more intrusions of the state into a free society. But, more significantly, as Carol Anderson, a historian at Atlanta’s Emory University, put in her interview with Doug Saunders published in the Globe and Mail on Saturday: “You know, if you’ve always been privileged, equality begins to look like oppression. That’s part of what you’re seeing in terms of the [white] pessimism, particularly when the system gets defined as a zero-sum game – that you can only gain at somebody else’s loss.” It is serious: Hilary Clinton only got 51% of college educated white women The strong support in the U.S. for illiberal populist politics is not resolved by mobilizing all those who would vote against Trump to come out and fill out a ballot the next time. The sole route to resolution of this rising political force in America and throughout the Western world is to address the causes for the severe discontent of those who are so alienated from liberal values of social justice and tolerance of difference. International impact Once Mr. Trump assumes the presidency he will likely receive new information and advice that will lead President Trump to modify some of the positions that he espoused in the course of the election campaign and even abandon some of his more intemperate proposals. And who he chooses for key positions in US foreign policy leadership positions will have a strong impact But it is fair to say that Trump will not support ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership The U.S. will abandon commitment to measures to mitigate climate change. And tariffs will be imposed on imports from China, Mexico, Canada. An isolationist America will likely lead to China being able to bring South Korea, Taiwan and the Southeast Asian nations into its geopolitical orbit. It is all bad news for the prospects of democracy and human rights globally. To maintain our Canadian prosperity if our economy suffers due to U.S. changing the terms of NAFTA, Canada will likely be more amenable to allowing Chinese state firms access to the Canadian energy and natural resources sectors and to develop infrastructure to get Canadian tar sands oil and minerals to the Canadian west coast for transhipment to Asia. But it would necessarily be on Chinese terms with illiberal political costs that Canada has not been willing to bear up to now. Let me conclude by saying that In general I cannot see much in the way of prospect of positive consequences in the Trump presidency contributing to the building of a more just, peaceful and prosperous world. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today.