Engaging the Trump Presidency

By: Mbaye Lo

Let’s think proactively on how to deal with the Trump presidency.

Donald Trump won the election because he was a bold and creative candidate. Trump was more aligned with America’s spirit, which embodies a drive for change and risk-taking. Hillary Clinton was not. She was the candidate of the Establishment with its two faces of bureaucratic expertise and neoliberal globalism. A Clinton presidency would offer nothing new but a continuation of an order that more than two-thirds of the American people found unsatisfactory.

The spirit of risk-taking has seldom been abandoned in electing leaders that commit to pushing new boundaries. Trump is risk, and progress requires taking risks that deliberately unsettle the usual and the mundane. In electing Trump to the highest office of the land, we have pushed the boundaries of risk-taking to a new high that challenges the democratic system, prevailing moral values and global politics.

With these challenges emerge new responsibilities of citizen participation and political engagement.

Political systems age, become unwell and run out of ideas — as do people. However, there is an important difference between the two. People’s existence could not only be interrupted by death, but also hindered to varying degrees by selfishness, desire and faith. The life of political systems holds another benefit over that of individuals: The political system can prolong its durability and vibrancy through reformation and regeneration. Political systems age when they settle on old ways of doing things, or are befallen to the pacifism of domestic tranquility. Both corruption and collusion find fertile ground in this sort of tranquility.

Trump’s upsetting of the political structure is a test of our democratic system that is supposedly intended to thwart dictatorial leadership. If our democratic system is properly functioning as we claim it to be, then it will revitalize itself and withstand an assault of Trumpism as it withstood the external threats of the Cold War’s communism and the internal threats of global terrorism.

But for this to happen, political disengagement needs to change.

American society has gotten used to pushing policies through litigating, and not through engaging politicians. Obama’s eight years of leadership activism of regulating businesses and imposing civil rights acts have much to do with the rise of this trend. Much of his domestic accomplishment — from the overtime pay rule to Obamacare — were either enforced through the courts or legalized through imposed regulations. Obviously, his actions were often in response to Republican opposition in Congress, but this is not a sign of a healthy civil society, in which civil and political engagement from the bottom up forms the ground of legislative changes rather than vice-versa.

The millennial generations have much to blame for the demise of political activism. They have grown accustomed to free-handed victories through the reach of the legal system, while avoiding political engagement. They revert to human rights claims and dismissal of conservative values on the ground of rights and not on the merits of their logic. This is a generation that has never been tested on what makes rights right and what makes civics more civil, civil civic, whose only exposure to such questions has been in the context of preaching from the liberal elites and rulings of the high courts.

A while ago, I led a group of students to attend a debate at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fez, Morocco. Many of our American students blanked out when challenged to explain the ground on which the LGBT community should be afforded marriage equality. The Moroccan students were forthcoming in offering logical arguments for opposing the concept of marriage equality for the LGBT community. Most American students cited court rulings, while others clutched to the argument that this is a basic civil rights question, and people’s rights are inalienable.

With his majoritarian share in the House and the Senate, Trump might use the courts to curtail many of these “civil rights.” The millennial generation will then be challenged to engage actively and forcefully with the reasoning of civic and political institutions.

On democratic and moral grounds, Trump’s xenophobic, opportunistic and misogynic tone is also unique. It challenges our culture of political correctness that is increasing, stifling civil discourse and muzzling anti-liberal viewpoints. It is ironic that raising these issues was central in the anti-Trump campaigns.

People overwhelmingly disagree with Trump’s language. But many would agree that liberal correctness is constructing a hypocritical society and counter-current culture of hate and resentment. Many sincere people would find solace in showing indifference in public, but acting differently in private.

We should not gloss dismissively over the choice of the electorate; there is much wisdom to their collective action. In fact, Trump did much better among white women, African-Americans and Latinos than did Mitt Romney in 2012.

Trump also upsets the bankrupted international politics of Obama and Hillary, especially in the Middle East. The world has never been as insecure in this 21st century as it is now in this second decade. The point to be made here is clear: Obama’s foreign policy has normalized the breakdown of the nation-states in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya as well as ongoing U.S. confrontations with non-state actors in many corners of the world.

Hillary did not offer a solution to these phenomena. In the Syrian context, she represents a continuation of Obama’s catastrophe of non-action. A no-fly zone, as she so strongly believed in, is not a promise to end the war, but a prolonging of the status quo as we saw in the 10 years of no-fly zones imposed on Iraq following its occupation of Kuwait in 1991.

We do not know Trump’s international political agendas. This makes him just another risky choice. However, there is wisdom in choosing the unknown outcome over the known disastrous one. Public wisdom would rather go with the charlatan instead of a futile leader. No matter how vague Trump’s judgment toward the Syrian conflict might be, I agree that to end the war, one side of a conflict has to win. In a conflict between citizen-combatants and the state, the latter must prevail for civil life to subsist. So, I am eager to witness decisive policy that brings the Syrian suffering to an end.

A week before the elections, a friend from Cleveland talked to me about his support for Trump: What is the wisdom of investing in international refugee agencies while ignoring internal citizen-refugees in America’s inner cities? my friend asked. He agrees with Trump’s views on breaking with the Establishment by stating the cries of America’s inner city as a problem. My friend has a point in capturing this topic.

I have been in many world conflict zones, in Darfur, Juba, (both in Sudan), Somali, Southern Lebanon and Yemen to mention a few. But conditions of survival are not qualitatively dissimilar to America’s inner cities in Chicago’s West Englewood, East Cleveland, Macon, Georgia, Mississippi, etc. I look forward to Trump’s promised new deal for America’s inner cities.

The challenge posed by Trump’s presidency is honestly inspiring.

It calls on us to revitalize our civic intuitions and think critically about the vitality of our democratic system. As we welcome his tenure we must ask a set of intuitive questions: How can the Republic rehabilitate Trumpism rather than dissipating in its charismatic aura? How can we limit the effects of Trump’s divisive tones, while holding him to his policy promises? How can our civil society organizations shift from identity politics to political engagement? To answer these questions now would be ill-informed. Only seriously engaging with Trump’s presidency can tell.

Mbaye Lo is an associate professor of the practice in the Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Department at Duke University, and he is the director of Duke in the Arab world academic program.

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