Donald Trump is not an accident but the culmination of long-term trends.

Donald Trump is not an accident. His rise to power has occurred at a time of profound global economic and political change, when the very nature of capitalism itself is in flux and the spread of democracy around the world is undergoing a dangerous reversal. This context is vital to understanding how a man who has made fun of people with disabilities, and called women fat and immigrants rapists, might still be elected President of the most powerful nation on earth.   

Given the current mood of anti-globalisation, it is easy to forget that within the last few decades industrial capitalism has brought about one of the greatest achievements in human history. Globalisation has allowed many developing countries, chiefly China and India, to integrate into the world economy as never before. In the last half century more than a billion people have escaped poverty due to economic growth in China and India alone. This is the fastest reduction in poverty in human history. While vast gaps in wealth persist between countries, the successes of China and India demonstrate that industrial capitalism, allied to a more equitable distribution of the fruits of economic growth, offers a viable route to a more equitable world.

Capitalism’s unprecedented success, however, has been accompanied by equally spectacular failure. Just as the benefits of capitalism have begun to spread more evenly around the world, a new form of capitalism, financial capitalism, has emerged. Unlike industrial capitalism which is based on trade in goods and services, financial capitalism is based primarily on making money from money. In the last few decades, the global financial economy has mushroomed to far outweigh the total value of the real economy. On the eve of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008, the daily volume of financial currency transactions had risen to almost one hundred times the daily volume of trade. The global market for financial derivatives had risen to more than ten times the gross national product of all the countries in the world combined.

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photo credit: Gage Skidmore Donald Trump via photopin (license)

The effects of the change in the nature of capitalism have been catastrophic. Financial capitalism has contributed to an explosion in inequality of incomes and the growth of a tiny elite, widely referred to as the 1%, to whom most of the profits from financial capitalism have accrued. And in the 2008 Financial Crisis, Western bankers, with the active assistance of politicians, bankrupted much of the financial system and left little option but for governments to bail them out. The ensuing crisis has lead to misery for millions of people who lost their jobs, faced reductions in incomes, or were left with debts that they could not hope to repay. And as unemployment and home repossessions spiralled upwards, the men at the helm of the major financial institutions responsible for the crisis were allowed to pocket their fortunes and walk away. The groundswell of public anger which this created is a major factor in Trump’s rise.

To make matters worse, economic disaster has been accompanied by a global political crisis. The steady advance of democracy around the world, which had been taking place since World War Two and culminated in the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, has gone into reverse. Between 2000 and 2015 democracy broke down in twenty seven countries, among them the pivotal countries of Russia and Turkey. The brutal responses of dictators across the Middle East and North Africa to the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring further reinforced this authoritarian revival. The persistence of tyranny in the Arab world has crushed the hopes of millions across the region for peaceful change, and fuelled an escalation of the sectarian war within Islam between Sunni and Shia. It also led directly to the brutal wars in Syria and Libya. The resulting flood of refugees into Europe, alongside the targeting of European civilians by Islamic State, has provided a conducive environment for xenophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In this atmosphere, Trump’s campaign strategy of stoking widespread public fear while posing as a strongman protector against dangerous alien forces is proving to be a formidable strategy.

Trump’s rise to power can be seen therefore as less an accident than as the skilful manipulation of popular discontent at powerful global forces and the inability of existing political elites to provide American citizens with the security and prosperity they demand. Tragically, but predictably, a Trump Presidency would serve only to further increase American’s sense of insecurity and economic vulnerability, as well as posing a fundamental threat to the current world order.

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8 thoughts on “Donald Trump is not an accident but the culmination of long-term trends.

  1. Excellent post, Ian.

    This is a fantastic picture, by the way. Yeah, all those Women for Trump. Just look how enthusiastic they are.

    Did I ever share my colleague’s, Dr. Burkle’s, research paper on the curious increase, since the end of Cold War, in the number of political leaders with narcissistic psychopathy? If not, here it is.

    There is also something else afoot in Trumpism, in addition to all the political and economic reasons you’ve illuminated here — it is darker and it defies rational explanations, veering toward the (psychotic) expressions of death instinct and narcissistic rage that comes with it.

    We’ve seen it before — we, Europeans of a certain age, who have experienced the wounds of lethal governance by narcissistic psychopaths. But we — Americans — cannot talk openly about this character defect in our presidential candidate, because ethics.

  2. Thanks for your comment Emma. And thank you for the paper. I look forward to reading it and I will post a comment to you when I do. I really appreciate it.
    I agree that there are layers to the Trump phenomenon and it’s difficult to lay them out separately and clearly. The circumstances I have pointed to in this post are one layer. There is then a second layer which comprises the policies that Trump champions – policies aimed at restricting US multinationals from operating globally, a stricter immigration policy, a US retreat from global foreign policy alliances. These policy proposals attract a lot of support, and in a democracy it is of course entirely legitimate for a candidate to argue for them. That’s democracy. But there is a third layer, as you say, a much darker layer comprising the paranoia and hatred that Trump peddles, and the mass support his racism, sexism and xenophobia incites. It is this third layer that poses a real threat to democracy.

    • Emma, I have read Frederick Burkle’s paper on ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century’ that you included the link to in your comment above. I highly recommend it to other readers. It is an important paper which explains how prevalent people with dangerous personality disorders are, and how they have an incredibly detrimental global influence. Thank you again for sharing.

      • Great! By all means, Ian, do share that most excellent and important paper far and wide. I am certain that it is only going to grow in importance with time.

        I just hope people read and learn to recognize these characterologically defective individuals and keep them away from positions of power.

  3. Interesting paper. ASPD and psychopathy are NOT synonymous.

    ‘Antisocial personality disorder (APD) is a broad diagnostic category found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV). Antisocial and criminal behaviors play a major role in its definition and, in this sense, APD is similar to sociopathy. Some of those with APD are psychopaths, but many are not. The difference between psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder is that the former includes personality traits such as lack of empathy, grandiosity, and shallow emotion that are not necessary for a diagnosis of APD. APD is three or four times more common than psychopathy in the general population and in prisons.’
    Snakes in suits

    In other words ASPD effectively describes low-functioning criminal psychopaths and ordinary criminals. Although many ‘leaders’ in that article might be described as having ASPD perhaps a lot of them were far more sophisticated and weren’t listed. I also notice that nearly all the ‘leaders’ described in the article came from the third world. Where were the ‘leaders’ from the ‘first’ world? And in particular the high-functioning charismatic psychopaths whose psychopathy is relatively well-hidden? Might I suggest Bill Clinton, G.W.Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and now – as perhaps a narcissistic psychopath – Trump?

  4. More thoughts:
    In 1913 the top 0.1% in the USA owned 25% of the wealth, so extreme wealth inequality is not new (figure 1, http://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/SaezZucman2015.pdf)

    ‘The persistence of tyranny in the Arab world has crushed the hopes of millions across the region for peaceful change, and fuelled an escalation of the sectarian war within Islam between Sunni and Shia. It also led directly to the brutal wars in Syria and Libya. ‘

    More like – Western foreign meddling led directly or indirectly to the Mujahedin, Al -Quaida and ISIS, whilst failure to plan led to post-Gadaffi war in Libya. Syria – God knows, but it’s arguably a client state where a proxy war is being fought.

    Fully agree with a lot of the other stuff you wrote.

    • Thanks for your comments Bob. Your explanation of the difference between ASPD and psychopathy is totally correct and very useful. To be honest, I am beginning to see the term ‘malignant narcissism’ which refers to a combination of psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder as perhaps the most useful term to use to capture the different dimensions of dangerous personalities. These disorders usually co-occur after all.

      I totally agree with you that wealth inequality is not new. But the high levels of inequality that prevailed in the early 20th century were a major factor in two World Wars. High levels of inequality undoubtedly cause social unrest, as we saw then and are seeing again today. It seems we have learned little though, as demagogues scape-goating minorities and preaching hate seem to be winning again now just as they did back then.

      On US involvement in the Middle East, I agree totally that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have worsened an already bad situation. But when I was researching the history of the Sunni-Shia conflict, I was struck by how much of it could be written without the US, or Israel for that matter, being included at all. That is not to absolve them of blame for the roles they have played at various times in worsening the conflicts across the Middle East, but it does seem that the major antagonists are Saudi Arabia and Iran. My reading is that until they sit down and reach some form of accommodation, the conflict at the heart of the Sunni-Shia split, and the wars of the Middle East, will continue. I wonder if you agree?

      • ‘But when I was researching the history of the Sunni-Shia conflict, I was struck by how much of it could be written without the US, or Israel for that matter, being included at all.’

        ‘but it does seem that the major antagonists are Saudi Arabia and Iran.’

        Interesting. I wish I had more knowledge on the interplay of the religions and cultures in the local areas and the wider area. I wonder how many people of ill-will (psychopaths) are in the controlling hierarchies in the religions, cultures and nations involved ….

        Keep up the good writing!

        In case you’ve never heard of them here are two (still alive) sites that I recommend:

        psychopathsandlove.com – poetic, gentle look at the harm psychopaths do to people
        lovefraud.com – gritty, been going since 2008, writes about dealing with psychopaths in our lives and also highlights people exhibiting psychopathic behaviour in the news.

        There are plenty of other sites, some no longer updated, some writing about narcissists. There are also a few sites written by psychopaths.

        I’ve recently discovered Elizabeth Mika, writing on media.com She has some excellent articles, which can also be found on her own website goodmarriagecentral.wordpress.com/ The ones I’ve read have been about Trump and among other things have explained how he represents the repressed shadow side of the idealised view that many Americans have of themselves.

        Just in case you’ve missed out on reading them:

        The Mask of Sanity, Harvey Cleckly
        Snakes in Suits, Babiak and Hare
        Without Conscience, Hare

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