Lessons to learn from Trump phenomenon

Less than a month into his presidency, United States leader Donald Trump has managed to stir controversy and outrage on a grand scale. There is and will likely continue to be considerable debate over whether he has a strategy behind his actions. What is not debatable is that he has dominated headlines globally and is forcing governments to rethink norms.

President Trump is often miscast as an agent of change, but he is in fact a symptom of deeper political forces, including identity politics, economic politics, values politics, education politics and geopolitics.

Identity politics can be triggered when the social make-up of a country is changing rapidly, usually from large-scale immigration.

Economic politics primarily concerns marginalisation by changes in the economy. Inequality and skills obsolescence are not merely data points but also political hinges that shift opinion and sentiment.

Values politics arises when social norms are subject to rapid change or when such change is abrupt.

Education politics has to do with a state having two systems that operate in parallel but with diametrically opposed results. Having a failing public education system alongside a thriving private education system reinforces the perception of a divided society.

A protest sign at a Miami rally last week against Mr Trump's travel restrictions on people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Identity politics is visceral and animal-like, and once awoken, is difficult to put back into its cage, says the writer.
A protest sign at a Miami rally last week against Mr Trump's travel restrictions on people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Identity politics is visceral and animal-like, and once awoken, is difficult to put back into its cage, says the writer. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Finally, geopolitics. In this context, the sense of one's country's place in the world is relative to its relationships within the international arena. Perceptions of whether it is being respected, cheated or mistreated can stoke visceral nationalistic feeling.

Mr Trump is a symptom of not just one of these forces but all of them, interacting with and exacerbating one another. He entered the political arena only recently and his genius - one can be faulted for calling it that, but he did win the greatest political prize with relative ease - lies in his exploitation of the momentum behind these forces and in placing himself at their confluence.

There are several lessons to be drawn from the Trump phenomenon when understood within the framework of these five forces.

First, political leaders and their parties have to deal with issues on a practical level and not be limited to high-flying ideas and theories. Failing to maintain a connection with the working class cost the Democrats their traditional support base. Policies need to be translated into tangible day-to-day benefits to the individual citizen and not merely appear desirable at the concept level. Former president Barack Obama's leadership was strong on ideas and philosophies, whereas Mr Trump focused on feelings and perceptions. When politics is too notional, an opportunist like Mr Trump will come along to make it marginal.

Second, maintaining a large political centre is in the interest of all mainstream political parties. This is a complex and challenging enterprise that requires broad and persistent progress on the economic front. A growing middle class with a healthy sense of optimism is critical to ensuring a broad political centre that then forestalls politics being cornered into margins. The middle class needs nourishing and taking it - or any other class - for granted is a cardinal sin.

Third, alongside inclusive economic growth, to maintain a broad political centre, it is also essential to pace the change in social norms. This is, of course, highly contentious and endlessly debatable. What is not debatable is the recognition that changing longstanding social norms often results in political pushback. While this should not dismay progressives, neither should it surprise them that the pushback can be severe and sudden.

Fourth, policymakers who accede to rapid changes in the social make-up through immigration make the mistake of assuming a stable society is a self-enacting phenomenon. This is far from the truth. Societies are fragile and do not react well to abrupt changes, especially on the ground, where the world suddenly looks and feels different. This is human nature. Special efforts need to be made to integrate newcomers and consideration needs to be given to pacing and managing the optics of change.

Fifth, managing the internal perception of how a country is being treated on the international stage can be a double-edged sword. It is better for a country to be modest about its importance to the world than to exaggerate its importance and risk building up unsustainable domestic expectations of its influence or engender extreme sensitivity to how a country is perceived as being treated by others.

The lesson from how rapid changes in social make-up ravage other societies and how countries struggle to manage the tone and degree of nationalism is that identity politics is visceral and animal-like. Once awoken, it is difficult to put back into its cage and is not amenable to rational arguments. Its language and its meat can be brutish and blunt.

We can thank Mr Trump for bringing to clarity these five powerful forces and the lessons - indeed, for being the lesson himself. Whether these lessons are learnt, and what is done about them by political and civic leaders, will decide whether the future is Trump-like or Trump-lite - but there is very little hope of it being Trump-free.

•The writer is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Lessons to learn from Trump phenomenon'. Print Edition | Subscribe