President-elect Donald Trump studied economics in the 1960s, as a wannabe logician who was also an heir to his father’s fortune. But as a politician he has become a rhetorician who expertly frames his message to suit the audience. His key targets in the recent election were disaffected white males in the politically pivotal post-industrial states. His message is to make America great again. The means to do this, according to Trump, is to revisit the twentieth-century industrial capitalism that made America ‘great’ before. It is the legacy of this American Dream of bloated materialism and waste that is now choking the planet and seeing rapid depletion of non-renewable resources. Any mimicry of the American Dream, now to be reinvigorated for 320 million people, will place the world population of 7.5 billion at further unacceptable risk.
Beyond such global concerns, Trump’s proposition of autarky and trade barriers as a means to deliver for all Americans is seriously flawed. While Trump studied economics, any semblance of the logician has disappeared: he deploys a convenient narrative blaming Washington—code for the American political system—for a stagnant economy characterised by growing unemployment, underemployment and discouraged workers. The result is increasing poverty and crime, inequality, hopelessness, and polarisation between the super-rich (his team) and the disaffected white middle classes, as documented by the real logician Thomas Piketty; the super-poor, black Americans and Native Americans barely rate a mention.
The problem is that the economic system is destined to collapse because of key internal contradictions. Trump promises to generate ‘jobs and growth’ by reindustrialising the rust belt—but how, when more and more jobs in manufacturing and services are performed by robots and artificial intelligence? What will the people actually do?
For forty years now a dominant neoliberal trope has conditioned Americans and others in the West to focus on individualism, materialism and a belief that the simple cocktail of entrepreneurialism and free-market capitalism can deliver to all. It’s just a matter of individual agency—there are no structural barriers or discrimination; there is no history: it all ended in 1989.
This is a lie, one that has been supported by the centre left and social democrats, who have also failed to acknowledge the crisis of global capitalism, being somehow caught in a dream that they could manage growth while keeping exploitation and inequality at bay.
The dominance of such a narrative has meant that collectivism, the non-material, the spiritual, and a focus on the social have not just declined but have been endlessly derided by corporate and political elites, often in close cahoots with a compliant mainstream media, forming a hyper-privileged plutocracy.
Trump the power-hungry rhetorician will prove an unmitigated disaster as he surrounds himself with like-minded operatives. We hear too much about how he might hurt Australia, but what about the world? Where will the disillusioned American voters turn next? As the majority will not escape feeling some pain caused by the Trump administration, there is the possibility that charged progressive social movements can resurrect from the ashes genuine plans on key issues: de-consumption, renewable energy, universal basic income, better race relations and revival of the social. The economic system needs fundamental recalibration to ensure meaningful activity, decent livelihoods, greater equality, and the building of engaged, more caring societies.