The great unravelling [2]: a new world (dis)order

Trump’s victory throws the playbook of contemporary political communication out of the window. Everything we knew, or thought we knew, about how elections are won — how politics is done — since 1992 has been scrapped. The entire paradigm of campaigning — microtargetting and segmentation using sophisticated software packages, massive phone banks and get-out-the-vote operations - the “ground game” of presidential elections — did not predict or explain what happened yesterday. Donald Trump went against his own party; attacked power brokers and party leaders; alienated entire demographics of voters; presented no coherent policy framework (in fact if one reads a transcript of his speeches and debate responses it is difficult to make any rational sense of them); run the single most negative campaign in the history of US elections; presented a deeply unpleasant personality; was and is involved in serious scandals regarding his tax affairs and behaviour towards women. No other presidential candidate could have survived hours of any one of those challenges. Trump used every single one of those things as an advantage. Equally importantly, he was allowed — if not encouraged — to do that by the media and especially by voters themselves.

The implications of Trump’s victory are so massive that are almost unimaginable. Beyond immediate and local responses (impact on the global markets; impact on both major parties and the political system at large; nominations to the Supreme Court; future of Obamacare; immigration reform; free trade; foreign policy and in particular containment (or lack of) of Putin’s Russia), this event is global and historic for a simple reason: it is not about the United States at all. It is about the state of the world: globalisation, perceived lack of control, a crisis of identity.

Trump’s victory replicated a pattern that has been observed in various other electoral and political contexts around the world (especially Europe, Near East and Latin America) culminating in June’s Brexit referendum. Therefore, as Brexit was not about immigration per se, Trump’s victory is not about the decline of manufacturing or the plight of the working class per se. Both events are part of a much, much broader, bigger and longer process: this is a stealth, semi-peaceful (so far) and slow but now unquestionable revolution of specific demographics which are seeking revenge for the perceived loss of control, the crisis of identity, the questioning of values and the uprooting of communities facilitated by “Liquid Modernity” (Zygmunt Bauman), the Risk Society (Ulrich Beck), the intensification of globalization (Anthony Giddens), the collapse of grand narratives and authorities, such as ideologies, collective identities and the institutions of the Church and the State (Jean-François Lyotard), the dispersion of power away from the core executive towards decentralized and privatized networks of experts and stakeholders (R.A.W. Rhodes), a tectonic shift in socio-political cleavages that transformed party systems (Seymour Martin Lipset, Stein Rokkan, Peter Mair) and the accelerated pluralism, fragmentation, individualism, empowerment, fanaticism and ‘echo chambers’ facilitated by digital and social media (Bruce Bimber, Elihu Katz, Sherry Turkle and others). These phenomena are not identical but they are all interconnected and they make up the thread of the present sociopolitical, cultural, techonological and economic global context. Trump’s victory is not a one-off event and it is not about local issues (whether that is systemic racism in the US or fear or Romanian plumbers in the UK). It is the natural — although certainly avoidable (unless one subscribes to a completely fatalistic view of history) — culmination of developing patterns and phenomena.

In fact, Donald Trump’s victory is probably one of the three most significant events of the last forty years (the other two being the Fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11). The Fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War and led to a short transitional period of American imperium. It released states around the world from the stronghold of the two superpowers and facilitated globalization. 9/11 ended that transitional period and led to a domino whose side-effects actually contributed to the revolution that we’re currently witnessing (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destabilization of Middle East & North Africa, Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, rise of ISIS, spread of international terrorism, online extremism and ideological alienation / de-socialization of urban minorities).

The rise of populist parties and politicians in countries such as Italy and Greece, the return of ethnonationalism in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Austria, the curbing of civil liberties and human rights in countries such as Venezuela and Turkey, the rejection of the establishment’s proposition in referenda in Britain and Venezuela, the systemic crisis facing France and the EU as a whole, and now the victory of Donald Trump — against all odds — may well be multicausal phenomena and we shouldn’t rush to lump them all together into a coherent narrative. However, they are indicative of certain common, global, causes: the inadequacy of international institutions and global governance; the weakening of the voices at the centre of the political spectrum; the increasing instability of the international system propagated by the unpredictability of its main actors (unpredictability being a far bigger danger in international relations than military power or, even, aggressive tendencies).

Trump’s victory symbolizes at the same time the triumph of postmodern liberal individualism (the postmodern politics of identity, pain/victimhood and “personal truth”) and its defeat as the very people who have been empowered in this chaotic, loud, digital, global public sphere are now enabling authoritarian or irrational political narratives. We rejected the collective only to bring it back with a vengeance. Sadly, rather than turning towards a collective identity or community that is based on humanistic values of coexistence, intercultural understanding and sustainable development, we fell for the much more concrete, familiar and convenient narratives of foreign enemies. The new world order heralded by events such as Brexit and Trump’s victory is a global disorder; the unravelling of the post-war framework of institutions, norms, principles, values (meritocracy, social mobility, aspiration, social organisation, human rights, tolerance, cosmopolitanism, welfare state, education, reason, enlightenment) that produced 70 years of relative peace and prosperity.

DRAFT: 1, 9-Nov-2016, 06.20am