Like many last night, I watched in horrific amazement as Donald Trump was voted in as the US President.
His championing of disenfranchised American workers, his utter rejection of the status quo (both politically and socially) and his promise to Make America Great Again .. it all resonated.
Firstly, and it pains me to say this, a lot of what Trump said was correct. Many, many Americans have not done well under the past two decades of trade liberalization, globalization and urbanization. They have been left out of 20 years of increasing global prosperity. Upward mobility – the pride and lynchpin of the American system – is at an all time low; never before has there been so much certainty in the US that if you’re born poor, you’ll stay poor. And this simple fact rankles Americans at their most basic level. The promise of upward mobility has been, for more than 100 years, the secret sauce in the America Dream. Without it, all the myths that are core to the American identity – American Exceptionalism, City on the Hill – are completely undermined. And while these myth – as myths – are obviously fictions… the belief in these abstractions is what truly – in real life – make Americans truly exceptional.
And while all of these ‘real Americans’ have been left out of the American Dream, the ‘liberal elites’, in big cities, with college degrees and weird social values, have been hoovering up all the the (massive) economic benefits of those very trends – trade liberalization, globalization and urbanization – that have pulled the life out of rural America.
Along comes Trump and tells people (i) that all those pain they are feeling are not their fault – the liberal elites are to blame; and (ii) we can make things better through a simplistic set of protectionist and racist policies – policies that speak to our tribal base tendencies but have no basis in economics or policy realities.
Of course there is appeal in that message. And he won.
This sucks right? No! It’s necessary. In Canada we’ve recently come out of 8 years of the most divisive, right wing Prime Minister in our nation’s history. He was similar to Trump in many ways, but not nearly as extreme. He forced us to embrace what divided us – rural versus urban; educated versus uneducated; socially progressive versus socially conservative – and we started to hate ourselves for it. When he lost in 2015 – and he lost badly – one of my pollster friends told me that the loss had nothing to do with his polices but everything to do with Canadians not liking the people they were becoming under Stephen Harper.
Americans will not like the people they become under Trump’s leadership. Trump’s success depends on Americans to continue becoming more angry, more insecure and more scared of people and forces beyond their control. And this simply is not what Americans are. Americans are bold, confident risk takers and they will – in time – resent Trump for taking that away from him.
The next, next American president in 2020 will be truly a great person and will serve during an era where America is truly becoming great again. The next 4 years are a necessary, albeit painful, precursor to the main event.