After the political trumpquake last November and its attendant tremors, I have been dithering on the subject of Donal J. Trump: Given the oceans of ink already poured in an attempt to divine this self-absorbed gift to the psychology of NPD – narcissistic personality disorder – should I, or should I not write about this phenomenon? (To be fair to Trump, NPD is estimated to afflict about 1 % of the general population, which is 70 million people; so he is not exactly lonely!). As the inauguration date has drawn closer, my hesitation has vanished.
And so, here is my take.
In respect to the transition from Obama to Trump, a competing impulse within me says I should title this article: From Class to Crass. And therein lies the problem. Most of the commentary about Trump focuses too munch on his character – the animated histrionics, the naked vulgarism, his gleeful disdain for diplomatic etiquette (a good thing!), and the self-absorbed melodrama. This is not just about the spicy-hot enchilada called Donal J Trump; it is about the pendulum of history – or more accurately, the quirks of the human story in evolutionary time.
That is why to see Trumpism with its implied dystopian drift as a fatal stain on liberal democracy, and therefore as a refutation of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis, is to miss the point. Francis Fukuyama is the American political scientist, who, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union posited in a famous article that liberal capitalist democracy had triumphed over all other political ideologies – for good.
Closer to the point are those who, like Samuel P Huntington, another American political scientist, dismiss Fukuyama’s liberal utopia with the hypothesis that the world is fated to suffer a state of ‘inevitable instability’ brought about by conflicts over cultural and religious identities. In the Clash of Civilizations and the Making of the World Order, Huntington argues that civilization, as the ‘highest’ cultural identifier, will increasingly be the driver of conflict.
It is easy to dismiss the notion that there is an end-point in humanity’s sociocultural and political evolution: it is incompatible with the reality of constant change and the unreliability of cause-effect predictions. Like Max before him who saw class struggle ending in a classless socialist utopia where all means of production and property is shared among all citizens, Fukuyama ignores something profound about human beings: we are restless, creative, destructive and often irrational. Which means we are as often as unpredictable as the outcomes of our actions. Anything is possible, including – God forbid – a return to cannibalism and colonialism!
Huntington’s thesis has more resonance: culture, especially if animated by notions of religious, linguistic and anatomical or pigmentational superiority, is a real force in shaping human history. But even Huntington does not delve into the fundamental causes of conflict or the real drivers of history. For that, we must turn to evolutionary history and examine it through the refined lenses of survival and uncertainty.
You see, we are complex adaptive beings. We forge ahead through the rough tides and tumults of nature and, if we have beneficial traits that confer advantage, or are just lucky, we may survive – stronger, wiser – to face a new cycle of challenges, and may pass our traits to the next generation. The essential ingredient for resilience and survival, it turns out, is competition in an environment of uncertainty and change. At a deeper, fundamental level, humans seem designed to compete for the privilege of transmitting the mystery we call consciousness. There is competition for survival at every level: amongst cells and molecules in our bodies, and individuals and societies and amongst nations. Uncertainty and change (read shocks) provide the motive force for human resilience and survival.
Seen in this context, Trumpism, especially the ‘we, ourselves, and us, against the worse others’ variant, is actually a useful tonic in service of resilience. It is a necessary stressor, much as a vaccine – a weakened disease-causing agent – shocks the body to develop resistance against the real pathogen. America – indeed the world – needs Trumpism at this time. It will not only trigger a useful counter-reaction, perhaps even a useful correction in the amplitude of the globalisation pendulum, but also remind us that for every action, there is often an equal and sometimes greater, and differential reaction (to paraphrase Newton’s third law of motion).
It often useful to remind ourselves of our individual and collective capacity for creativity, adaptability and resilience. Consider the neuron – the communications command unit of the nervous system: there are one hundred billion of them in an average human brain; each one connected, through synapses, to about ten thousand other neurons to make a total, potentially, of 100 trillion connections!
The capacity for human creativity and hence survival – is limitless. The world will survive Trumpism.