How did he – Trump – get there?

05 November, 2016
As appeared in The Star Online

WHATEVER happens in the United States Presidential election next Tuesday, the Donald Trump phenomenon is the strongest signal coming out of America.

It is not just an aberration, something transient, but a disturbing condition which is a bad omen for the future of the country and America’s leading position in the world.

The sustained support he has obtained on base and isolationist arguments represents a substantial part of the American people.

The erudite analyses on how Trump has got to where he has, many of which look at the sorry state of the Republican Party that nominated him, miss the point of the malady in the society at large. Indeed the bitterness, anger and attitudes Trump has been able to galvanise precisely sneer and snort at these kinds of analyses which do not get it.

The intellectuals are talking among themselves, as they always have done, whereas Trump actually talks and reaches out to the people below. The intellectuals, like the elites generally, are the ones who are isolated.

Being politically correct, they do not take up issues in clear black and white. How many have said openly and loudly the American Congress is racist in hindering Barack Obama’s presidency? They may come out and join the chorus of indignation when the police shoot and kill defenceless blacks, but how many come down hard on institutional racism in the police force?

There is a lot of racism in America, in high and low places, in check-and-balance institutions, and with guns. Trump speaks to this constituency when he equates any attack on the police as an “attack on us” (USA! USA!).

When he calls into question Obama’s birthplace and birthright, something that has run through the whole of the first black American presidency, it is something that Trump just took up from so many such previous racist assertions.

The moment you touch down in America and go through immigration, you see strained racist welcome, and not infrequently you experience outright racist sentiment. It does not matter if you have invested hundreds of millions in the US and created so many precious jobs – as happened in the case of a large Malaysian investor. What matters is that you are not white.

There is this kind of ready constituency which supports Trump. It may be an uncomfortable truth to other Americans, but they are being disingenuous in denying it.

In the Trump campaign the racism has been particularly harnessed against Hispanics and Muslims. His great big wall along the border with Mexico to stop illegals from stealing into America and his “stop the Muslims from coming to the US” may sound like so much rhetoric, but there is enthusiasm for them in this constituency.

Erudite commentators who have adopted US citizenship years ago have to find acceptance for their views not only by protesting their commitment to America but also by declaring they are lapsed Muslims. You have to be a supplicant to earn the points.

Of course it is often pointed out that much of all this has come about because of the huge income disparity that has developed in America, leaving behind a substantial part of the American population who see the fat cats in Wall Street, Washington or Los Angeles thriving in temples of wealth, power and privilege. Many, furthermore, have lost their manufacturing jobs while huge bonuses continue to be handed out to master-of-the universe bankers and top corporate leaders.

They find safe harbour in, readily, racism and xenophobia. Only Trump says it for them: hit out at Hispanics, Muslims and China, indeed at a lot of the rest of the world. How Americans can so easily get into this state, among those who are not already in it, rests on predisposition-in-reserve and on failure of political leadership.

The jingoistic and isolationist instincts are there. It is sometimes remarked the US attacks other countries to teach their people geography.

But it is in the failure of political leadership that most of America’s troubles lie. Many of the kinds of problems that give Trump his big base of support have not been addressed for so long.

Decaying cities, peeling infrastructure, lost jobs through competition and new technology, obscene income disparities – all lead to loss of hope and belief which only Trump addresses. He may give stupid and uncouth one-shot answers but address them he does. This Messiah.

In Washington they are fiddling their thumbs while Rome burns. This is not untrue. Just look at how Congress is only good at erecting roadblocks to policy initiative or implementation. Budgetary lock-outs. Social benefit freeze-outs. Foreign policy sacrifices. Much – not too ironically – based on the same kind of instincts that give Trump his support.

Not much thought is given to the next round of challenges that will come as China and Asia build up their technological and white-collar job capabilities where, it is argued ad nauseam, America still has the edge.

China is expected to have 200 million college graduates by 2030 – more than the entire American work force. With brain power also from other parts of Asia, there will be a challenge in hitherto American-dominant economic sectors. Financial and capital market dominance will also begin to be whittled away.

Someone like President Obama, who understands the strategic developments and their implications, and is open in engagement with the world, is accused of only being good with words and of trading away American exceptionalism.

He is actually only left with words because so many of his initiatives, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, are blocked by attitudes in the check-and-be damned system of government inspired by instincts, much of which is the base of support for Trump.

American exceptionalism, such as it is, in its turn is not being sustained by the kind of values, shallowness of thought and lack of effective governmental leadership that, alas, is characteristic of Trump America. It is not negligible – Trump America, I mean.

In these final hours of the US presidential race, President Obama recently said the fate of the world is at risk, if Trump were to be elected president. He also said the fate of America, of the republic, is at risk.

What he should also have emphasised, more than anything else, it is America that is at risk. And, although he cannot say it just now, it is at risk whether or not Trump gets elected.

How did Trump get there? America put him there.

All too often the discourse on America’s decline takes place in the context of the rise of China. But China really is not its cause. Most of it is self-inflicted – although of course China will surge ahead as the US gets into a deeper hole.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.