President Trump’s 2016 election victory must rank as one of the most significant and impressive political movements of the past half-century. This momentous election has so many diverse meanings; the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party in its current liberal, identity politics guise; the rise of the specter of white nationalism; the decline of American liberal democracy amidst the broader demise of the Western world order that has governed so autocratically for the past few centuries.
However, much of the true significance of this paradigm-shattering election has been obscured by the monotonous and thoughtless vitriol directed at Trump. In particular, on the broadest historical scale, the Trump Presidency marks the conclusion of the feature most fundamental to America since its independence in 1774: America has simply always been rising.
Lacking regional competitors and able to expand Westwards through Native American territory, America faced no true obstacles in its two-and-a-half century ascent. This meteoric rise served to paper over the great cracks and vicissitudes of American history, above all slavery and the civil war. America’s power reached its remarkable height during the middle of the twentieth century, counterbalanced only by a stagnant Soviet Union. And by the end of the twentieth century following the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s hegemony appeared unchallenged, with the spread of its liberal democratic ideals seemingly inevitable.
However, America is now in serious decline. As the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have so painfully and emphatically demonstrated, America can no longer act as the world’s policeman. Unquestioned hegemon no more. But more than this, America is domestically in sharp decline, wracked by polarization and political decay. The American Dream is now but a myth, a fact evident to anyone aware of America’s enormous socio-economic inequality. And perhaps most troublingly, the cracks obscured by America’s rise are streaming to the fore of the national consciousness; the dark and dismal memories of slavery and the civil war are re-emerging in Southern separatist sentiment and deteriorating race relations.
But this is far from all. Trump cannot possibly be discussed only in relation to America. And indeed, one of the most frustrating characteristics of America is its self-obsessed tendency to forget that a whole world exists beyond its borders. America’s myopic and self-centered view of the world perhaps functioned when the U.S. reigned supreme in the mid-20th century. However, in 2017, the world is no longer even Western, let alone American. The world’s geopolitical and economic center of gravity is shifting eastwards for the first time since the 16th century with the rise of the post-colonial world. Most significantly, the astonishing resurgence of that greatest civilization, China, challenges the very foundations of the world order built over the past five centuries.
The decline of America is about so much more than America. American exceptionalism can continue no longer.
Nonetheless, America in 2017 does pose a question exceptional and unique in history: what happens when a nation that has always been rising suddenly enters a period of decline? The answer appears to be the Trump phenomenon.
Trump’s political revolt was rooted in America’s decline. After all, Trump’s great rallying cry – ‘Make America Great Again’ – was a recognition that America is no longer great as it once was, that America can no longer control world politics alone and that socio-economic mobility is under threat. Those who reduce Trump to a demagogue without an ideology therefore completely miss the point of the 2016 election. Trump’s success lay precisely in his ability to create an extremely powerful and coherent political vision: reinvigorating an America made stagnant by the ‘crooked’ ‘swamp’ of Washington.
Through this forceful and compelling vision, Trump was able to mobilize the white working class alongside the traditional Republican base to win the election. Crucially, the white working class is the group in society most aware of America’s recent decline. Many Trump supporters have been left behind by globalisation and economic liberalisation. The real wages of American industrial workers have remained stagnant for the past few decades. This is not even to mention the recent epidemic proportions of the opioid crisis ravaging poor white America. It is little wonder therefore that this suffering section of American society overwhelmingly voted for a political vision that appeared to directly address their concerns.
Liberal America is culpable here with, of course, the complicity of conservatives. The Democrat Party has continuously reduced this class to a malicious, prejudiced, racist caricature. Distastefully, Hillary Clinton even had the nerve to describe this group as a ‘basket of deplorables.’ Of course, it is crucial to recognize that race and racism were central to Trump’s appeal; the America to which much of Trump’s support base wishes to return is a mythic white nationalist state. Nonetheless, this vision of reviving a sick America is far more sophisticated than race alone.
President Trump is therefore a complex and impressive figure who demands serious thought and debate if not even, in my opinion, a degree of respect. However, liberal America and its benighted media outlets have done everything possible to prevent themselves from ever potentially understanding Trump. Self-righteous outrage and condemnation have flowed where cutting analysis should have led the way. Liberal America at first even refused to accept Trump’s victory, instead blaming Hillary Clinton’s hapless defeat on the Electoral College, racism, sexism, Comey, Russia, Bernie Sanders and fake news. In other words, the American liberal establishment was willing to see culpability in almost anything but its own vacuous, bankrupt vision for America.
Such a reaction was perhaps understandable in the immediate aftermath of the election. Trump, after all, is a frontal assault on liberal sensibilities and I remember being similarly horrified after Brexit. However, to continue in this unremitting, thoughtless indictment of Trump well after the dust settled on the election, as liberals have done, is inexcusable. To make matters worse, the liberal media has seemingly taken it upon itself – ‘democracy dies in darkness’ – to singlehandedly impeach Trump, seizing with particular delight on the Russia scandal. Predictably, despite nearly a full year of desperate investigation and reporting into supposed links, no serious evidence of collusion has emerged. And to think that liberals wonder why Trump so frequently complains about ‘fake news.’
Instead of trying to impeach the president, formerly impressive newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times should be desperately trying to understand Trump and how Trump happened. And, looking to past eras, you would surely look to college campuses for the insightful and deep thought necessary to respond to this level of political turmoil.
However, the hegemonic sway of identity politics on liberal campuses has largely prevented any serious discussion of the Trump phenomenon. Identity politics is certainly to some degree a force for good. Indeed, Bernie Sanders was correct in stating when he came to my native England that millennials are the ‘least racist, the least sexist, the least homophobic generation in the history of the world. And that speaks great things about the future of our world.’
While the existence of this politics is therefore not troubling, the utter dominance of this new liberal outlook is hugely damaging for universities. Identity politics necessarily foregrounds personal experience as racism, homophobia and sexism manifest in very personal ways. However, even if this personal focus preaches tolerance, it naturally leads to political intolerance. Any disagreement is inevitably taken as a direct affront on the person and their identity. This is entirely unproductive. Discussion and disagreement should be defining of the university experience. And predictably, Trump proved far too much for the prevailing liberal groupthink attitudes. Revulsion, horror and utter distaste countered the prospect of serious engagement with Trump. ‘Not my president’ was the rallying cry. Trump was a psychopath, a sociopath, a fascist, a totalitarian, a racist, a rapist. He was anything that didn’t require serious thought.
Simply put, the Stanford student body has been blinded by its deep hatred of Trump. Even if this hatred is understandable, it leads us nowhere. And at the current tumultuous moment in American history, the inability and unwillingness of liberal students to engage in debate is highly damaging. America is facing a deep crisis and therefore desperately needs creative thinking. The deepest questions of America’s modernity must be posed. These include, what does America’s decline mean? Is American headed for a long-term split given the resurgence of Southern separatist ideas? What are the structural causes of white working class discontent? What is the future for American race relations? Can globalization be achieved without populist movements such as Trump and Brexit emerging? But this debate must be more expansive than America. We must question what a world with a declining America and an ascending China will look like and what the resurgence of the post-colonial Global South will mean for the twenty-first century. If sustained, intelligent debate does not emerge and the current vein of liberalism continues to exert is hegemonic sway, America may never overcome its current deep polarization or decline.
Enter the Stanford Sphere. Our team of independently-minded writers and editors will fight to create a richer campus political atmosphere. We will cut across the groupthink lines of consensus to challenge prevailing attitudes and we will refuse to be trapped by the claustrophobia of modern identity politics. We will pose, and attempt to answer, the deepest questions of America’s modernity while refusing to succumb to the traditional American trope of only considering America. Our project may well attract anger, controversy and perhaps even vitriol, but this will not distract us from our ambition of enriching campus dialogue. We encourage all thoughtful and open-minded students to join our movement.
Ravi Veriah Jacques