What Comes After Trump Might be Worse
Global instability, climate change and nationalism could pave the way for someone who makes the Donald look tame.
There was a time when people regarded George W. Bush as the worst president in U.S. history.
Surely, we thought, this was the nadir of American politics. A droopy-eyed warmonger who dragged his country into one of the worst foreign policy disasters of the 21st century. An administration that spied on its citizens and tortured prisoners in detention camps. A presidency so disliked by the public that it ended with one of the lowest approval ratings ever recorded.
Then Obama entered the scene. And the last near-decade of political turmoil seemed like a bad dream. Here was a real leader — eloquent and dignified. Never mind that he expanded the surveillance state and bombed Libya without congressional approval. Pundits were quick to assure us of his fundamental decency.
Still, whatever his failings, America’s first black president struck a historic blow against racism. His election suggested that maybe, just maybe, all the bigotries of yesteryear were finally behind us.
And then came Trump.
There’s no need to recount the allegations against him. His worldview alone implies a moral void. His words paint life as nothing more than an arena for competition. Human beings are either winners or losers, with their worth determined by money and power. Or for women, their looks. To Trump, they’re either perfect 10s (unless they have a flat chest) or “dogs”. Disabled people are fodder for mockery. Black people are inherently lazy. And every Muslim is a potential terrorist. The 45th president of the United States spews contempt for any group outside his own.
There’s no room in Trumpland for integrity or compassion. Winning is all that matters. The thrill of victory as your enemies are brought low. Making America Great Again — at the expense of everyone else.
He’s certainly no Obama. Trump has already eclipsed his predecessor’s record of civilian casualties by drone strike. He’s slashed taxes for large corporations and ripped up the Iran Nuclear Deal, a force for stability in the Middle East. But is he worse than George W. Bush? On a personal level he’s easily more repulsive. But his administration doesn’t have anything close to the former president’s body count. At least for the moment.
It’s important to keep that in perspective. As grotesque as Trump is, what came before him isn’t necessarily better. And what comes next might actually be a whole lot worse.
How did we get here?
In retrospect, Trump’s victory feels like something we should’ve seen coming. Anger with the political establishment, plummeting trust in the media, the continuing problem of voter suppression and an electoral system increasingly decided by exposure created the perfect environment for someone like Trump. This is to say nothing about the backlash that followed Obama’s presidency from “White America”.
Why was this? Well, research into the election pointed to economic dissatisfaction as one factor. But sexist and racist attitudes (as determined by a nationally representative survey) proved much more significant. Trump appealed to these attitudes with his chauvinist rhetoric, placing him in stark contrast to Obama and Clinton. Meanwhile, the former first lady drew attention to issues like police violence and systematic racism in an attempt to win over minority voters.
Unfortunately, her appeals rang hollow. The Clinton name was tied to her husband’s crime bill, a notorious piece of legislation that sent thousands of African Americans to prison for non-violent crimes. As a result, black voter turnout fell to its lowest point in years.
All of this brings Trump’s victory into sharper focus. More than any economic reality, race played the deciding role. Indeed, his shocking win occurred during a time of relative stability. After weathering the fallout of a financial crisis that brought the unemployment rate to its highest point in decades, Obama left the economy in pretty decent shape.
And this raises a disquieting question. If someone like Trump could gain power when times were good, what happens when we’re hit by a crisis?
Trouble on the horizon
Today’s conditions are far less rosy than they were in 2016.
The effects of climate change are daily more manifest. Californian wildfires have increased in size by eight-fold since the 1970s. Millions of Americans live in rapidly heating areas. And world hunger is on the rise as climate disaster cripples agriculture.
But this is just the beginning. Research predicts climate change will slow economic growth across the globe. Countries will see their GDP decline over the next few decades at an exponential rate. With losses set to show by 2030 or earlier.
Expect to see mass immigration as well. Climate change and food insecurity are among the many culprits driving immigration from Central America. And according to the World Bank, millions more will face displacement by 2050. Which is likely to push many of them into the United States.
The reactionary energy that Trump has managed to harness won’t go away as these issues continue to worsen. In fact, people are far more susceptible to the rhetoric of far-right demagogues when times are tough. With Brazil, Italy and Spain all providing clear examples.
Nor is climate change the only bugbear facing the global economy at the moment. Presently, it exists in a very fragile position. The world’s two largest economies are locked in a trade war, squabbling over currency valuation. Trump’s harsh tariffs make it harder for American corporations to do business with China and threaten to disrupt global supply chains. Economic growth is slowing down and the surge in nationalism is making it harder for countries to mount a coordinated response.
On top of this, most experts agree that another recession or financial crisis is all but inevitable. Some predicting this will happen around 2021. With recent turbulence in financial markets suggesting a crash could arrive even sooner.
And so here we have a constellation of problems. An insecure economy, mass immigration, climate change and a breakdown in international relations. Problems that exacerbate each other. They might take a few decades to manifest as a full-blown crisis, but when it happens it’s going to hit people hard.
And somebody will try to take advantage of it.
Reaction on the rise
Trump’s sole virtue might well be his extraordinary lack of coherence. One moment he’s an isolationist, the next he’s threatening his enemies with fire and fury. First, he’ll deregulate the economy, then he’ll institute sweeping protectionism. And he’ll approve a military strike on Iran only to back off at the last minute. Try to keep track of his administration and you might just get whiplash.
The man himself is largely driven by spleen and ego. He’ll obsess over the size of his crowds and call for a reporter’s job over a misleading tweet. He rambles and boasts. He clings to one-word ideas like “tariff” and “wall” like a dog clings to the bumper of a car.
And still, he ran circles around the media and political establishment. His outrageous statements won him $2 billion of free coverage during the 2016 election. Meanwhile, the DNC bolstered his candidacy under the assumption that he would be easier to beat than a moderate like Marco Rubio. Needless to say, their strategy backfired.
So, considering these major institutions couldn’t even deal with Donald Trump, how are they going to deal with somebody like him who’s actually smart?
How will we deal with someone who channels Trump’s worst impulses into a coherent ideology?
Their arrival wouldn’t defy belief. The far-right is on the rise, after all. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor of education and sociology, has noted how they’ve already entered the mainstream. They’ve adopted softer language, less offensive imagery and a willingness to work through the electoral system. Their rhetoric is even echoed by politicians like Trump.
The GOP made room for the Donald and he gave them a dedicated, mobilized base in return. Why wouldn’t they hedge their bets on another snake-oil populist if it means victory? Only this time, it might not be someone as vacuous as Trump.
It’s a frightening prospect, mainly because America seems so ill-equipped to deal with a proper fascist. A politician who knows how to couch far-right arguments in liberal sentiment would trounce the media with ease. They could don a democratic facade and attack the political establishment for their many hypocrisies.
It’s not a hard trick, either. Anyone with a functioning brainstem can do it. You only need to shift the blame for economic woes on immigrants. Or claim that people are under attack from an “invasion” of refugees. Sliding towards nationalism with a series of speeches that might go something like this:
“Isn’t democracy supposed to express the will of the people? Shouldn’t our citizens get to decide on the cultural identity of their country? I’m sure these people are fleeing hardship, but we cannot be held accountable for the corruption of their leaders, especially when we already provide so much in international aid. No, I have been put in office to uphold the rule of law and the rights of everyday Americans. And I refuse to fail them in that sacred duty.”
It’s a nice bit of sophistry that pushes inconvenient truths to the side. It casts democracy as a form of mob rule where the rights of minorities don’t matter. It ignores the West’s role in causing mass migration. And it fails to note that rich countries plunder billions of dollars from poor countries through commercial tax evasion.
But our blink-and-you-miss-it news cycles wouldn’t provide enough time for such criticisms to rise above the chorus. In the midst of a crisis, millions of Americans could fall for the promises of an authoritarian. And from there, the trajectory is clear. Turn refugees into criminals, demonize foreigners and legalize discrimination.
Winning the future
The near-future is still very much up in the air. Trump could win the 2020 election. The Democrats could beat him. Or they could emerge victorious only for a financial crash to wipe out their chances of re-election.
But whatever happens, the problems that gave rise to Trump’s presidency will remain. American democracy has bent to the winds of reaction and so has most of Europe. The liberal international order is facing a crisis of legitimacy as it struggles to deal with an ascendant far-right. People are fleeing the center. And because the political establishment has spent so much time marginalizing the left, reaction seems like the only game in town.
Meanwhile, Trump has fired a warning shot for fascism. He’s already revealed how a few years with his successor will play out. The news media will turn the threat they pose into a spectacle. The opposition party will grumble about how awful they are and work with them anyway. And this is likely to unfold so long as nobody addresses the underlying problems of our times.
Precarious employment, the immiseration of millions, an impending climate disaster and the failure of our current system.
We cannot go forward with a system that places profit above every other human need. A system that divides people into haves and have-nots. A system that makes some of the needy “worthy” and the rest of them “unworthy”.
Instead, we need an alternative to our current system. We need to affirm that the world has enough resources to support everyone. We need to abandon production as a measure of progress and focus on outcomes that actually measure human well-being. And we need a vast redistribution of wealth so that we can all live happy, fulfilling lives.
Only then can we meet the challenges of the 21st century and offer a vision of the world that refutes the far-right.
Alternatively, we can continue down our current path and pray that Donald Trump was just a fluke. But given our current circumstances, that doesn’t seem too likely.