This week’s Jerusalem Post had a 25 page insert that was a political journal sponsored by the “Women in Green” who are a very conservative grassroots group concerned with advancing the interests of Israel. This is an interesting document and not something you would see in the United States, at least not typically. The entire document – or political journal as it is called – is devoted to the issue of declaring sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. Because the two-state solution is losing favor and fading in the eyes of some, the right wing has seized the moment and is trying to kill off the two-state solution once and for all. Moreover, the election of President Trump has empowered the right wing because he is seen as sympathetic to their issues and the best chance for the United States to be more aggressive in the defense of Israel’s conservative environment. The election of Trump is considered a game changer because he is perceived as willing to find alternatives to the two-state solution and will be “tougher” in his defense of Israel. Note the appointment of Friedman as the ambassador to Israel who is very conservative and pro-settler.
A proposed solution that is receiving increased talk time anyway is the issue of sovereignty. Political sovereignty is when a political authority has power over independent states. That power is established through some sort of enabling law or Constitution. Governments maintain the integrity of the sovereignty relationship and ensure that the administered groups keep their rights and cultural freedoms.
Now there are different types of sovereignty and numerous complexities but we don’t want to send everybody scrambling to find their old political science books. Go here for more on sovereignty. Suffice it to say that Israel would be the primary overseer of a collection of communities that maintain their independence but had limits on citizenship rights, military, and certain other conditions that might damage the standing of the primary sovereign. Here is an outline of the sovereignty plan.
- There would be the establishment of Arab “autonomies” subject to the rule of the Israeli sovereign.
- Security and national issues will be under the control of the State of Israel.
- The autonomies would be bound together in an infrastructure that supports water, electricity, and a host of municipal services.
- Members of the autonomies would be eligible for health benefits, insurance, education, and freedom of movement. This grants the right of permanent resident but not citizenship.
- Martial law will be canceled and normal government services will be returned to civil society.
- The Oslo Accords, which turned out to be unsuccessful, will be canceled.
- The UN refugee organization will be released and refugees will have the right to settle in any autonomy.
- Ultimate responsibility for the protection and maintenance of holy sites will be with the State of Israel. All holy sites will be accessible to believers of all religions.
- No foreign country would have special status over holy sites anywhere in the country.
- The Gaza Strip is part of historical Israel that would ultimately have to become part of the sovereign relationship with Israel.
Suffice it to say that reasonably fulfilling and satisfying relationships can develop under conditions of sovereignty. Still, the success of sovereign relationships is dependent on the history of the relationship between the dominant political authority and the weaker party. Why do those supporting sovereignty believe that the Palestinians will be any more accepting of a sovereign relationship than of outright Israeli control. This conflict has been complex and delicate for a long time. The Palestinians have honed their own consciousness into images of a cohesive collective with all the requirements of nationhood – ethnic identity, religious orientation, national boundaries and borders, and the possibility of a proper functioning political system. The proposal of sovereignty is subject to the same deficiencies of any other proposal – the Palestinians still end up in the weaker position. That’s why a two-state solution remains the only hope for a mature political relationship between Israel and Palestine.
There is a term in political and communication theory known as “democratic reason.” Generally, democratic reason is the collective intelligence of a group of people. It is the notion that democratic communicative processes – that is, things like inclusion, balance, equality, resources, speaking rights, participation – result in higher quality decisions. Or, we could express it in the everyday phrase “two heads are better than one.”
Netanyahu and Trump both fail to meet some basic communication quality standards. Both face electoral problems and controversies because they refuse to recognize attitude trends in the citizenry that call for inclusive and democratic input. Polls in Israel show that about 60% of the population wants peace and is willing to make some sacrifices. It is the leadership that is stubborn and not serious about real progress. Real progress, without being naïve, can be made if a representative group of people spent their time in serious deliberation with the goal of using the communication process to create new ideas solutions.
This notion that two heads are better than one is actually pretty powerful. Even in simple aggregation such as voting more participants improves the likelihood of decisions being improved or not random. In the well-known “jar of beans” example, we could ask individuals with no previous exposure to the jar about how many beans are in the jar. We then get a group average on the basis of the entire group (the group produces a simple average) and the group average will be better than the average of the individuals. Finally, we can organize a group and give them time to talk to each other, deliberate, and share ideas. In other words we could make the communication system available to them. This third group, which allows for as rich and controlled democratic communication process as possible, will most consistently produce better answers.
The reason for this is the epistemic nature of communication but we will talk about that some other time. For now, I want to make the observation that the full Republican control of the senate and congress along with Trump is a dangerous situation. Key decision-making issues will escape the scrutiny of diverse voices and fail to let each side fully participate in the intelligence of the other side. This is why the Congress is polarized rather than democratized.
Trump already has authoritative tendencies. He has no patience for other people and little history having to answer to anybody. Much of leadership in his business world is based on clear lines of command with few or no constituencies to please other than investors. Moreover, Trump holds to the belief that the best and the brightest are going to beat and know more than the average citizen. Whether or not Trump has actually identified the best and the brightest we will leave for others just to say, but his aristocracy theory that the elite will always know more and therefore make better decisions than the average citizen does not always hold sway.
The reason that elites do not always make better decision is because they lack diversity; they may hold expertise even deep expertise in a particular subject but they lack diverse points of view and variety. In an interesting book by Scott Page (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Society: Princeton University Press), he demonstrates the power of inclusiveness and diverse voices in decisions.
True enough that collective reason can go awry but that is usually managed by the communication process and the conditions of contact. Communication is only smart when it is allowed to work properly. When communication is restrained or distorted or the victim of a host of other maladies it then becomes a mechanism for collective unreason preventing itself from finding real solutions.
You would think that Trump and Netanyahu were pretty much compatible on most issues. Netanyahu and Israeli leadership did not care much at all for Obama even though much of the Obama style is just what is needed in this conflict. Obama was unfairly characterized as weak when in fact he was a little more considerate, deliberative, and diplomatic. Even though Obama was committed to Israeli security and continued munificent funding, Obama was not afraid to express differences between the U.S. and Israel in addition to turning a more respectful eye to the Arab world.
In fact, Trump is a dream president for Netanyahu. Trump has clear moral positions and a conservative’s sharp distinction between what is right and wrong. A couple of weeks ago before Trump met with the Prime Minister the right wing in Israel demanded that Netanyahu drop the two state solution. This was an aggressive move to strike while the iron was hot; that is, if any US president were going to oppose the two state solution, and support Israeli dominance in the West Bank and Gaza, it would be Trump. Moreover, during the campaign Trump supported moving the U.S embassy to Jerusalem, increased construction of settlements, and did not seem to be supportive of a Palestinian state.
But Trump’s statement after a meeting with Netanyahu shocked some people and disappointed the Israeli right when he said, “he is for anything the two parties are for – one state or two.” Trump got a fair amount of flak for this but he was actually saying he will accept anything the two main parties will accept. I thought Trump was misunderstood and certainly consistent with the demand that the solution be bilateral and the result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. How could one argue with any solution that was truly acceptable to both sides even if certain third parties disagreed?
But the Israeli right did put the issue of settlements on the table. And because Trump knows very little about the issue and has no historical perspective, he is in a particularly vulnerable position with respect to Israeli conservatives and their efforts to annex the West Bank. Sentiment in Israel these days is increasingly one of “manage the conflict.” Trump doesn’t realize that the right wing in Israel is interested in one state –a state of Israel only. The Knesset already passed the “legalization law” that legalizes existing settler outposts. This law will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court but still represents the thinking of the Knesset.
There is something symmetrical about the fact that my first week in Jerusalem was taken up with the issues of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. And what could be more appropriate given that Israel was unhappy with Obama who was too slow and diplomatic along with overly careful about relationships with the Arab world, and Trump is about the opposite. Netanyahu has put together and drifted toward one of the most conservative governments in Israel’s history so it stands to reason that Trump should be more to his liking. But what could really happen? What are some of the issues in the new relationship between the U.S. and Israel?
First, there is little doubt that Netanyahu figures his path is going to be easier with respect to settlements. He has tried to walk the line between being supportive of settlements but still managing the international condemnation that comes with it. It was no accident that the announcement of thousands of new homes in the West Bank coincided with Trump’s ascendancy. And Netanyahu has stated rather boldly that he has no intention of giving the Palestinians a state. This is related to a point I’ve been making for some time. Does anyone really think that there’s going to be the creation of a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s watch? Does anyone really think that Netanyahu is going to be the prime minister who goes down in history as responsible for creating a Palestinian state? Even though Netanyahu is on record as supporting the two state solution, I figure you have to be pretty naïve to think that he actually meant it. Like Trump, Netanyahu will say pretty much anything he needs to say to satisfy the moment. The settlements remain perhaps the most significant obstacles to peace and they continue to be the major point of contention.
The US and Israel must put their heads together and work out a common platform designed to support the issues related to settlements. The fact that Netanyahu allows two minor political parties (Haredi and Bayit Yehudi), who are animated by settlement issues, to command so much attention is evidence of both his fragile coalition and the importance of the issue.
Both Trump and Netanyahu assume the relationship will be “bromantic.” That is, these two political and ideological brothers who share a common vision of the world – along with a common desire to change directions from Obama – will have a “bromance” hopefully followed by a complete union.
But in both love and politics things don’t work out the way you expect. I will just bet, for example, that Netanyahu is not happy about having to deal with Trump’s pesky son-in-law who may be bright and capable but seems woefully unprepared to be in a position to manage the most intractable international conflict in modern history. When I think of distinguished presidential advisers (e.g. Brzezinski, Kissinger) the name Jared Kushner doesn’t come to mind.
This is going to be a learning experience primarily for Trump who, as is quite evident, is a newcomer to politics with little knowledge or experience in international relations or policy. Trump’s rather careless statement, for example, about moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem is a good example of his naïveté. He started to back off from this demand as soon as he learned of its provocative nature and the damaging consequences. There is little doubt that Netanyahu will try to lecture Trump and “educate” him on the issues. This puts Netanyahu in a power position because he is more able to manage the information environment. But in the end I hope Netanyahu is careful because this is a president who will strike back viciously if he feels manipulated, disrespected, or challenged. Hopefully, Netanyahu will use his skills to do more than “bromance” his friend; rather, he will take this opportunity to direct Trump to that portion of reality that represents what is best for both countries.
Next week on February 7th I arrive in Israel for a five month stay as a Lady Davis Fellow associated with Hebrew University. The inaugural definition of this blog was devoted to the Middle East and Israel and even though it remains that way I do admit to adjusting course after Donald Trump floated to the top of the pool of presidential candidates. His candidacy and his victory as President is so unnerving and shocking that I could not help but devote more time to try and understand what happened. Trump has to be the crudest and least prepared president in history and I’ve been warning that this is going to be a wild ride. The first 10 days of his presidency certainly has lived up to my expectation.
But over the next few months I’ll post more about Israel – even though there are probably more readers interested in Trump – and I will try to provide some sort of real-time value-added insight as a result of my presence on the ground. Still, I’m sure there will be times when I simply will not be able to shake Trump from the tangle of international relations, identity politics, his oppressive populism, or my tolerances for outrage.
Israel is not quite the same country or culture it once was. The Israeli founding narrative (an invincible democratic and moral Jewish state–holding a righteous sword– and mightily reasserting itself in the face of historic anti-Semitism to reclaim its ancient homeland) has broken up and does not echo the emotional and historical resonances it once did. The long and corrosive battle with the Arabs has depressed the nation and unleashed an unhealthy tribalism and nationalism. Much of the talk between Arabs and Jews is we-they talk that treats the other as a member of a binary opposite group along with attributions that explain deficiencies and problems in the culture by referring them to the particular “nature” of the culture. Still, Israel is a complex multicultural society full of the old and the new.
Listen to Bret Stephens explain the political and social conditions of the Arab world. I might not hold such analysis against lesser journalists but Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Stephens is familiar with Israel, bright and knowledgeable about the issues but he remains committed to various prejudices and distortions when it comes to Israel. In the video Stephens explains how it is anti-Semitism that prevents Arab economic and political progress. He has teamed up with one of the most agenda-driven conservatives (Dennis Prager) to produce this short video, which has some defensible claims, but is so overstated and exaggerated as to render it unusable. The video capitalizes on the racist assumption that Jews are intellectually superior because when they were driven from Spain, or Germany, or Czarist Russia there was a decline in these cultures. A simplistic analysis if there ever was one. It is of course beyond the confines of this posting to offer more comprehensive historical and economic analysis but the notion that the loss of Jews in these populations is responsible for their decline sounds like just the sort of thinking he claims characterize Arab countries. I certainly don’t deny that a preoccupation with anti-Semitism is real enough and an unproductive distraction but is only one affect among an entire nexus of effects that explain problems in the Arab world.
Moreover, most Arabs critical of Israel would tell you that is Zionism and not Judaism that they object to. This may be a modern form of anti-Semitism – and I believe that argument can be made – but it still challenges the centrality of anti-Semitism as Stephens explains it. Israel is changing because it lives in an environment of constant threat that it has been unable to untangle itself from. 70 years of violence and aggression hasn’t worked very well for either side. Maybe it’s time both sides extend their hands palm down. I will explore the various possibilities in the next few months.
Well, some patterns are pretty clear: there is an ever-growing collection of small time nationalists who are angry and threatening the quality of democracy around the world. Even though the 20th century is characterized as an era of expanding inclusiveness, and a century that witnessed more democratic change than any other, it all seems to be dissipating as citizens interestingly and strangely become more comfortable with authoritarian leadership.
And it gets worse! Foa and Mounk, writing in the Journal of Democracy in both 2016 and 2017, report that American citizens are not only unhappy with their governments but increasingly critical of liberal democracy. 24% of young Americans polled in 2011 stated that democracy was either a “bad” or a “very bad” way to run a country. This is a sharp increase from previous measures and especially associated with the young. And consistent with these findings, there was an increase in the number of Americans expressing approval for “army rule.”
This is a shocking state of affairs and at first glance it seems impossible. But the data on Americans is consistent with the larger global patterns. Continuing to cite from Foa and Mounk in the Journal of Democracy (volume 28, 2017), 72% of those born before World War II thought that democracy was essential. Only 30% of Millennials said the same thing. And across long-standing democracies in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand the proportion of young people who believe that democracy is essential has drifted away.
And, of course, the rise of people like Trump, Le Pen in France, Chávez in Venezuela, Brexit, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungry, and Putin are all consistent with the decline in democracy because they blame an allegedly politically corrupt establishment (note Trump’s inauguration speech and reference to a nefarious Washington elite) but still want to concentrate power in an executive.
A narrow vision of groups and polities is the essence of the populist appeal and fundamentally antidemocratic because populism foregrounds and privileges the perspective of a particular group. Democracy is pluralistically oriented and committed to solving problems through dialogue and discourse.
What Explains All This?
For starters, it is not explained by isolated geographic aberrations. The decline in the respect for democracy is apparent in Europe as well as South America. But what does seem to be a key issue is the strength or durability of democracy. I would underscore the observation that democracies are a continuum. The country and political system is not either democratic or not in a binary sense. Measurements of the extent to which elections are free and fair, and citizens have rights of speech, movement, and assembly etc. result in a democracy rating but less so the strength or commitment to democracy. When democracies are weak they are more easily overcome. Moreover, the rise of citizen skepticism and disenfranchisement promote populist and antisystem parties.
It’s fair to say that Trump is like no candidate in American history. His victory caused so much pain and angst for large portions of the electorate because he fit no model of presidential preparation or decorum. His blatant political disrespect and sexism were like nothing the American public has seen in a presidential aspirant. Trump’s victory could have only taken place in the context of declining faith in democracy as well as a persistent history of delegitimizing the press, political parties, and the system they represent. It’s no accident that someone like Trump was elected during a historical period where the two political parties are so polarized, and so incapable of engaging each other to solve problems, that citizens look for alternatives, presumably “correct” alternatives, that don’t require them to consider the diversity of opinions democracies are so good at managing.
You have to admit that if you were Daniel Silva or Tom Clancy trying to write another international thriller you could do no better than the opening chapter being devoted to the Russians hacking American political campaigns in order to influence elections and plant their own Manchurian candidate. This opening “staging” chapter could include tensions between the intelligence services and the new president complete with allegations and embarrassing verbal exchanges. To listen to the president elect and the heads of the security agencies trade public accusations and barbs along with charges of incompetence is unprecedented.
And what if rather than treating this as an enjoyable fictional experience we stopped for a moment and considered the implications for the current state of American institutions, political leadership, and security. Corey Robin has begun to make the argument that American institutions are becoming less and less legitimate and this is occurring against the background of political deterioration. Even at the risk of charges of alarmist exaggeration, I believe it’s possible to make the case, at least one worthy of discussion, that there has been a steady decline down a path littered with the remnants of more legitimate institutions and behavior reflective of that legitimacy.
The American democracy seems to be turning on itself and in the process weakening institutions and altering our sense of moral political consciousness. In other words, certain democratic values and forms of political communication have begun to decline. Robin cites as one early example the loss of trust in the government and military during the Vietnam War that resulted from lies and misleading information. This would extend to the crude manipulations about Iraq and the deceptions perpetrated on the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the denigration of an admired military leader (Colin Powell), a “stolen” election (Busch-Gore) decided in accordance with pure party lines by the Supreme Court, the rise of Trump, and a Congress so polarized and entrenched that it cares nothing about governing but plenty about treating the other as an enemy to be conquered rather than a worthy adversary to work with.
There are two trends in contemporary American society that are both causes and consequences of this decline. The first is the rise of American authoritarianism (see Amanda Taub’s work), and the second is the post-truth politics were there are no facts or evidence-driven conclusions that can’t be manipulated. As Nietzsche put it, “there are only interpretations.” And it is important to underscore that the rise of authoritarianism in America is not about strong controlling individuals taking over and leading by authority. No, it is more the rising tendency for people in the country to obey and accept authority, to prefer authoritarian relationships. They accept authority unquestionably and seek it out.
This preference for authority was one of the divides that separated Trump supporters from those who are horrified by him. And a post-truth mentality seems to be attaching itself and boring into the culture ready to deconstruct and disperse the “reality-based community.” These are the conditions for some difficult conversations and the impossibility of communicating. Then again, paradoxically, it is probably only the communication process that can re-challenge these trends.
Sorry my friends who are blindly supportive of Israel but the US failure to veto UN Resolution 2335 was correct and justified. In December the United Nations passed a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies including the construction of new housing. The vote was 14-0 in favor of the resolution and the United States abstained.
This caused an outpouring of anger and accusation claiming that the Obama administration initiated the failure to veto, and the whole thing was “shameful,” and “hostile to Israel.” The vote was nonbinding so various sanctions are not on the table. But it does have the possibility of internationalizing the conflict even more than it already is, and simply adding to the list of criticisms Israel must suffer.
Yet the fact remains that no solution, no progress toward end of conflict, is going to include half a million settlers in the West Bank. The key issue, the fundamental principle, is for Israel to remain and continue to be Jewish and Democratic. It simply cannot do this in some sort of binational state or in circumstances in which Israel must oversee a hostile minority. The two state solution is the only answer that safeguards both Israel and begins the process of developing a Palestinian national and political identity along with institutions that protect and bolster Palestinian life.
Obama should have made this point and been more critical of the settlements even earlier in his presidency. In fact, he has talked plenty about Israeli-Palestinian peace along with lofty generalities about our interests, but has really done very little to bring a two state solution into effect. This last minute abstention just before he scoots out of office was actually gutless on Obama’s part and helped the resolution lose some of its impact. So Kerry, in an effort to chastise and influence Israel, delivered a speech trying to appeal to moderate Israelis.
Kerry’s speech was a cogent analysis of the current situation including admissions of deep despair between the two sides accompanied by anger, frustration, and unproductive indifference. More than a few specialists who weighed in on the issue wished the speech had been delivered a few years earlier.
The basic principles of a future solution – there are six of them – are easily agreed upon and they include the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state with the right to exist. Israel also seeks a declaration of the “end of conflict” which provides a foundation for discussion and negotiation.
True enough, the resolution is a rebuff to Israel but if the United States is going to be taken seriously as a negotiation partner, a fair and genuinely engaged partner, then it must be possible to point out disagreements and differences of opinion between the US and Israel. The settlements are described in the resolution as a major obstacle to the two state solution, and primarily responsible for the stagnation and lack of progress toward peace. It is true that the United Nations seems woefully biased and unbalanced when it easily finds ways to criticize Israel while the violence in Syria rages on and they do little or nothing about human rights violations around the world. Still, that should not stop the UN from doing what it must.
But all of this commotion notwithstanding, the world is going to change on January 20 and highly symbolic United Nations votes (in the most vacuous sense of the term) will seem pretty insignificant.
Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.
Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.
The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.
Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.
There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category
Enemies versus Adversaries
|To be destroyed.||To be defeated.|
|Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust.||The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.|
|No trust.||Trust is possible.|
|Zero-sum game.||Non-zero-sum game.|
|Warfare metaphors.||Possibilities for cooperation.|
|Differences between the two sides are maximized.||Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.|
|Unwavering commitment to a perspective.||Opportunity for change and altering perspectives|
|The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it.||Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.|
|Statements are predictable and offer little new information.||New information surfaces and can be addressed.|
|Success requires simple impassioned statements.||Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.|
Sung to the theme of M*A*S*H
Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
What madman or anguished society would give the keys to the candy store we call the United States to Donald Trump? No candidate in history has been less prepared and, moreover, does not seem to be bothered by it. His cabinet and advisor appointees make for a ghoulish monster’s ball of Wall Street billionaires who have no experience in government, business executives who think running the government is the same thing as running a business, and ideologues with an agenda that is ironically counter to the mission of the office they are running.
Trump’s election has been regularly compared to populist movements in history and currently around the world. It is in line with populist and nationalistic parliaments in Hungry, Poland, Greece, and the rise of the right in France. And the rhetoric of populism is consistent across cultures. Such rhetoric is often an early indicator of unstable and vulnerable democracies. Truly consolidated democracies are the most resistant and stable forms of government and most likely to be immune to the siren call of nationalism and populism. But less established democratic political cultures, especially those with charismatic strongmen as leaders, are more susceptible to the political discourse that constitutes populism.
That is, the modern populist praises tough and decisive leadership, belittles and distrusts elites and specialists in an effort to alienate the average person from the truly competent, and is critical of institutions. Trump, interestingly, has some new wrinkles for this pattern because although his rhetoric strikes a chord with the struggling and downscale demographics, he has successfully convinced them that he will improve their lives. Curiously, Trump traffics in elitism. And he will soon go about the business of using his own appointees as loyalists who will compromise the media, silence the opposition, and create a threatening discursive environment. He has already begun to undermine trusted institutions such as the CIA (taking the unprecedented position that the CIA is wrong about Russian cyberhacking), the media (a regular flow of criticism and delegitimization that cast even more doubt on quality sources of information), the legislative history of conflict of interest policy (refusal to release tax forms, challenges to his own business interests), and foreign policy traditions (a more volatile and aggressive foreign policy such as breaking the nuclear treaty with Iran, harsh challenges to China, and name-calling).
The United States’ record of promoting liberalism and generally making the right decisions is strong enough. We commit our military when necessary; typically pass legislation that protects the rights of individuals (whether it be guns or abortions); we continue to make progress on due process and equal protection under the law; and we have a decent history of widening the circle of citizen inclusion with respect to rights and opportunities.
But we momentarily lost our minds when we voted for Trump. It was a reckless mistake that requires a “do over.” Clinical research explains that for successful suicide victims there is only a few seconds in which they will actually pull the trigger or jump. The rest of the time they are holding back but there remains some moment – some brief period when the window is open – in which all of their stress, pressures, and cognitive distortions conflate and they actually step off the ledge or pull the trigger.
So we have the United States and Trump. The American citizenry momentarily lost its mind and pulled the trigger. It’s going to be a crazy few years riddled with mistakes resulting from Trump’s lack of preparation, his long and embarrassing record of bad behavior and misogyny, his refusal to listen to security briefings because he can lone wolf-it, his knee-jerk congenital lying (his loss of the popular vote by almost 3 million was from people casting illegal votes; Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the American election), and his naïveté about world leaders.
I fully expect Trump to expand his control and throw the population a bone or two on occasion, all the while converting the presidency into a postmodern spectacle designed to continue Trump brand recognition.