A Shocking Structural Setback

Sometimes history comes in overload. So it has been the last months, weeks.. Joke and I circled North America yet again, all the while glued to our internet news screens for all the hourly tidbits coming through on the presidential elections. Right up to its shocking end and ongoing aftermath.

Some of you might say: oh! he says “shocking” – therefore he was one of those many who thought Trump would never make it to the White House! Yes, you are right. Joke’s intuition was better than mine. She “had a feeling” he might win. I could not even contemplate such an outcome.

But here we are.

I reflected so much on what I’d like to say about all of this. No, I have not reached any strong conclusions. How can there be strong conclusions when the apex of power in human affairs is occupied by a man who has no strong conclusions or convictions, other than his unquenchable thirst for showing and proving his winning self?

At one stage I thought I would title my message to you like this: “I voted for Donald Trump twice before.” Nice juicy one, right? To explain. My first “Trump vote” was for the Conservative Party in South Africa, the breakaway movement that wanted to restore Apartheid to its full, while the then governing National Party started to introduce incremental reforms under intense international pressure. Yes, as a late teenager I became embroiled in the Afrikaner politics of the day, going to “rallies” where Trump-like supporters gathered: the rural, more conservative people, those who felt that their power and economic base were being threatened. They wanted to see South Africa “great” again, and indeed, as is the case with so many of the Republican base, see it “white” again.

Back then I was also still a Christian. And like the Southern Evangelicals of today, I saw my voting with these nationalists (and often racists – a fact which actually did not sit well with me at the time) as the only way to restore Christian values – and in fact, the faith itself – to a position of central influence and importance. But unlike Trump, the Conservative Party lost woefully at the polls. Afrikaners on the whole were ready to move on – from Apartheid, as well as from the ideological underpinnings of “Christian Nationalism.” And in subsequent years – through gut-wrenching personal struggles – so was I.

The second time I sided with “Trump-up-ians” was fairly recent.

Some background: in Thabo Mbeki, the “new” South Africa had its first president after Mandela, a man rather removed from the masses. He was an intellectual with a tendency to turn government programmes into elaborate abstractions. Political freedom failed to translate into economic empowerment for the masses and consequently, by 2008, the populist Jacob Zuma arose, strongly backed by an even more populist Julius Malema who was then at the helm of the ANC Youth League. Zuma was not loved by the press and has at the time already landed in court on charges of rape and multiple corrupt dealings. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he was a man of the people and their voices needed to be heard! He was also fairly eloquent and said all the “right” things – at the time. The courts let him off the hook (by hook or by crook) and I could forgive myself to brush over his ‘rough edges.’ Like some other black leaders who have been mistrusted in the past and then turned out to surprise all their (often white) critics, might not Zuma just be such a good surprise? And lo and behold, for the first years of his reign it was not the end of the world for South Africa. Yes, he had shady conflicts of interests regards his son, other family members and networking with the rising Indian Gupta family businesses, but was it not a good thing to challenge the monopoly of white capital in this way? Yes, the economy started to stutter, but was that not rather due to larger global shifts beyond any government’s control?

And then the day came, only a year ago, that Zuma suddenly fired the finance minister and replaced him with… well, seeing the man’s face who was now to be entrusted with my beloved country’s treasury chest was enough for me to suddenly see “the light” about Jacob Zuma – a man whom I should have seen as flawed in character from day one.

Let me state this: Trump is major structural setback to the world at large. And perhaps not a surprise at all, however shockingly unwelcome.

Last night I saw a movie on the last days of the Third Reich (“Downfall”), with Hitler brilliantly portrayed by one Burno Ganz. Trump by no means has Hitler’s ability to hold a consistent ideology – however contorted it was – and does not view the world through such an intense militaristic lens. But Trump shares the reckless conqueror’s abhorrence of contradiction. You might say, “but Trump contradicts himself all the time!” Indeed, but why does he do exactly that, something most people would become aware of eventually and be uncomfortable with, and would mostly try to defend or resolve? Because in Trump’s mind, he does not contradict himself at all! His contradictions are a function of his one supreme consistency: of having to be the winner in each and every situation, relationship and “deal” – whether the truth suffers or not. Both Trump and Hitler’s abhorrence of contradiction shows in the fact that they (and any true dictator for that matter) WON’T BE CONTRADICTED. That is why they must surround themselves by those who are at first loyal to them, and only after that, perhaps also competent. This is what I saw in the face of one Des van Rooyen, the man who Zuma suddenly put in charge of South Africa’s treasury: a complete manipulable loyalist, someone who thrives on pleasing the boss. But Zuma is only mildly dictatorial. He was for instance swiftly convinced to correct this particular move. Trump, however, from day one, is filling his cabinet with the pliable and those vulnerable to his favour. And he insulates himself from the checks and balances a democracy relies on to stay sane. Almost inconspicuously, the discourse in Washington has changed from, “this person is chosen for these political and competency reasons,” to, “well, this person has been loyal to Trump and therefore will naturally be awarded.” How long will it take America, who has never had to deal with real autocracy in its midst, to fully wake up to the dangerous fact of the facts-dismissive Donald John Trump?

So, from my previous two “Trumpian votes,” I take these lessons: no, there is no going back to making things great and white and powerful again (yes, the flow of history is against that, as the growing sorry wave of exclusive-minded nationalism the world over, at heart, belongs to an older, discombobulated and backward-looking generation); and no, you cannot overlook character traits and flaws that should disqualify anyone from taking charge of a massively responsible and comprehensive job like running a country – let alone when that country runs a global financial and quasi-political empire that directly affects the whole of humanity. Trump will not PERHAPS be a structural setback for world affairs – through his bloated self-interestedness, indifference to the complexities of the whole and impotence in the face of the darker and divisive forces he is unleashing. He is that ALREADY. And worse it WILL GET (perhaps that is indeed a strong conclusion!)

But let me quickly move on to my previous qualification, and that is that this setback should come, in many ways, as no surprise or shock.

Hitler did not appear from nowhere. As we all (presumably) know, the grounds for his rise was firstly laid by the rise of ethnic nationalism and the crazy rivaling imperialisms of the late 19th century, all naturally imploding in the form of the first world war, which in turn threw Europe, and Germany especially, into severe economic hardship. From these ashes of despair, Nazism and Fascism arose, Stalin arose, and Japanese imperialism arose – all lead by these Strong Men who would save their nations and bring them back to greatness again! And hello, no surprise that all these railing lose cannons gave birth to another far more devastating world war. Only on the back of 50 million dead people did nations and leaders finally come to their senses, as they started to build credible international intermediary bodies, started to engage in more mutually constructive economic collaboration and started to introduce a more socially equitable politico-economic model (the “social democracy”). And for the first time in centuries the global mood turned decisively against dictatorships, and much less vulnerable to their seductive beginnings.

Even so, all was not quite well with the world yet. Across the Atlantic, the United States of America, while bearing the main flame of people freedom and power, acquired such extreme economic and military power that an unhealthy dependency developed on the part of the rest of the world, as well as imperial overreach on the part of Uncle Sam (yes, empire is not yet dead!). For good and for bad, the globe is locked into the far- reaching tentacles of America’s 800 international military bases, its 40 000 cross-national corporations and its often aggressive cultural infiltration everywhere. We know very well that if America sneezes, the whole world catches a cold. And with Trump, America is not only sneezing. It is coughing up. A serious global illness is looming.

From what ashes did Trump arise? From the ashes of rising corporate power, a power that since the twenties was abetted by successive American administrations as they willfully turned a country of Puritan frugality into a consumerist machine – consuming 25% of the world’s resources-cake, while only having 5% of its inhabitants. Such a consumptive economic model is psychologically, materially and mathematically not sustainable. This unsustainability was not felt in the first decades after the 2nd world war (at least by the “first world” – as the so called third world has suffered growing push-back since the advent of Western expansion). But the unsustainability is felt now. Everywhere. Corporations are basically economic dictatorships, laying the cultural groundwork for propagandistic information-sharing, unquestioning brand-loyalty and an addiction to hype over substance. Furthermore, the unbridled power that corporations have gained over the political process and regulatory frameworks (in other words, democratic checks and public accountability), has fueled its greed and competitive recklessness, bringing us all right back to the extreme inequalities that existed right before the first World War – as if we have learnt nothing! It brought us back to a world that is barren and ready for the cheap exploits of a Trump, a Brexit, a Le Pen, an Erdogan and who knows who else – there are many more in the waiting! (not to mention the one that has already entrenched himself as the bulldog of the globe: Donald’s hero, mr Putin). A world ready for conflict and mindless contradiction because of leaders not willing and able to be contradicted. A world in which the majority of us people (and yes, the justifiably aggrieved Trump supporters included) can only lose – economically, politically and culturally.

Will we have another world war? What will the increasing climate instability and calamities caused by global warming bring to our volatile 21st century human equation? How will a growing food crisis exasperate the pressures of migrations world-wide? Or what about the possibility that soon enough, this myopic and vindictive mr Trump will discover that, in stead of walking his well-trodden little path of suing his perceived enemies, he can now simply push an impossibly dangerous button and bomb half the planet to ashes? (I’m not adding any religious conflict or clash of civilizations to this list of possibilities. Through the dastardliness of the flailing ISIS and the fact that Christianity’s last power base basically sold their souls to a veritable devil, religion in its traditional formats has completed the process of disqualifying itself from being a credible motivator for human action on a broader scale – for good or for bad. We are in fact in dire need of an inclusive human spiritually that speaks from and to the realities of our time.)

What will happen? I don’t know. Nobody can really know, of course, especially not now. I just know that the American-led corporatist empire cannot last for ever and that Trump is both a necessary symptom and a possible agent of its demise, even if the exploitative amongst the super rich might temporarily enjoy one last greedy spurt of damaging growth, as their shady and self-enriching businessman-buddy wields the stick in Washington.

We are in for rough times. Tough times. History in overload. Yet again, we will also see our best coming to the surface in the fight to find a stronger and better-balanced middle ground, healthy middle-classes globally, a mediated political discourse (not a media-dominated one) and an understanding of ourselves not as an extreme end of life on earth, but as a median player, an interdependent, with no disabling split between body and soul.

American democracy might just well be strong enough, and strengthening itself fast enough, to prevent Trump from taking the States on a similar sort of path as Italy (under Berlusconi), South Africa (under Zuma) and – god forbid – Germany (under “die Führer”), and will hopefully at the same intensify the humbling battle against the root of our global illness today: unbridled corporate power. Otherwise Trump will not be the last dangerous conman-bully-gold-and-glitz American president, but the first. Are we ready to ride through all this in a more organic way, the path of minimum hurt and destruction?

I am still hopeful we can. Now more than ever, we need to get our creative senses together (as is well happening all over the world!); we need to avoid the temptation to run for easy fixes, escape-fantasies and violence; we need to look our pain AND the pain we cause – in the face, to feel our commonness with all of humanity and to rediscover our smaller scale localities and local communities, with both their sobering limits and their empowering gifts. At the same time, we need to get over our fear of global governance. Like all governance, it can go wrong. But this is no reason to refrain from building global political leadership, the only real antidote to a world overrun by borderless and cancerous financial interests.

As always, Joke and I trust that what we do with our art, will contribute to inspire a more flowing human existence – privately and collectively – rather than one that promises a glorious future and then ends in inglorious death (that Hitler movie.. “Downfall”, remember..)

We can only survive so many unwelcome shocks.

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