Donald Trump as the mirror of Ukrainian revolution
This article was written for the Ukrainian reader and this translation reflects the difficulties presented by the cultural differences. It by necessity presents a rather simplified and condensed overview of American political history with the main focus on the Republican party. The reason for the article was the need to refute the profound belief of the Ukrainians that successful countries have better people, not better political and economic systems.
Every time I stumble upon the phrase "the Trump phenomenon" I can’t help but laugh. My brain immediately retrieves from the depths of my memory the old joke.
A man, who triumphantly bursts into the doctor’s office, exhibits his sexual organs and proudly declares:
- Doc, look here, when I walk, my scrotum rings loudly! I must be some kind of phenomenon!
- Well, well, my dear, - the experienced doctor calmly replies, - you’re no phenomenon. You’re, my friend, an ordinary ball ringer.
In other words, a ringer becomes a phenomenon only when others believe it. And from this point of view, the unexpected rise in the Republican primaries of one Donald Trump, a pathological liar and narcissistic braggart, is a phenomenon. Not Trump himself, but the angry mob as a potential threat of ochlocracy to even a stable and mature democracy.
It’s worth mentioning that 200 years ago the American founding fathers feared the most exactly this version of democracy, where the angered by life hardships plebs using their superior numbers could give power to an unscrupulous demagogue-populist with all the dismal consequences. Therefore, certain mechanisms in the American system were established, designed to minimize the possibility of such man coming to power, as well as a possibility of absolutism, in case the same man still is able to get around obstacles and become president.
Thus, the promises by Trump, and other candidates (this election cycle and in the past), that, once in office, they immediately would order this and undo that, and will increase this much, does not correspond with the reality. President is not an absolute monarch. With the effective division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, not to mention the press and public opinion, without the broad support and consensus, it is highly unlikely. Although, of course, it is always possible o make lives of many people harder.
If there is a phenomenon it is the old one. It has been known since the first ancient democracies, as a confirmation that human nature everywhere is always the same. There is always a sufficient number of people ready to reject the rational for the emotional, out of a sense of personal frustration. And this is very important to understand. Most people perceive the world not through comparative graphs of GDP or statistics on per capita income, not through sociological research or historical analysis, but through their own feelings.
And those feelings are incredibly simple: either I feel good because I deserve it, or I do not like my station in life, and that is the fault of others. You can point all you want to the actual figures of economic growth (despite all the challenges presented by the recent crisis,), to the might of the US armed forces, the level of freedom and opportunities, but not every American sees it that way. He may not fit into the social changes around him, may not feel himself a part of the global economy, about which he does not care, can not understand either America wins or loses its wars on terror. The political squabbles of the past decades, that dropped the esteem for legislators well below that of the bathroom mold, allowed the mass media to convert it into a reality show based on personal attacks, while the ubiquitous Internet spins them until it all becomes the white noise. It all gradually added up to the frustration of the tired mind. And as a desperate wife after 10 years of a failed marriage, the mind begs: "Please, tell me anything good."
And here comes a hero on a white horse, or in a gold limousine, or a blue helicopter, and says: "Let’s make America great again!" As a Ukrainian you live on the outside and know that the United States are and always been the greatest country in the worlds, because you have something to compare it with. But not all Americans believe that. Everyone hurts his or her own way, therefore my frustration is always more important to me than all of your proper arguments.
It is possible to trace a certain correlation between the increasing democratization of any society, the depth of expansion and penetration by all kinds of media in everyday life, with the rise of populists. Those demagogues who do not even find it necessary to hide the fact that they lie. Why, since their audience wants to hear that it is great, to have its tummy and behind the ear scratched, to hear that someone else will pay for everything.
In this regard, Russia's Putin and Italy’s Berlusconi are not much different from America’s Trump. It’s not an coincidence that they all have a genuine mutual admiration for each other. But these three Teflon Pinocchio, whose lies somehow grow not their noses but their approval ratings, only complete the long process of decline of common confidence in the institution of state and its representatives around the world. This decline can be justified, but it doesn’t matter in the end as much, as the fact that it generates resentment of the status quo. "Quo" is usually impersonated by the traditional political elite. The one that often makes every effort to undermine its own credibility by showing not just lack of understanding, but its open unwillingness to understand the source of social frustration. As a result, professional politicians, the aristocracy of democracy, get gradually overtaken by the so-called down to earth guys and TV personalities, whose main advantage is that they use a plain language any simpleton can understand, expressed in very simple sentences.
The dumbing down trend has been going on in the Republican Party for a while and steadily down. From the battle hardened general and cautious but fair President Eisenhower, (whom some right wingers back in the 1950-s already called "a communist"), through the controversial politician and human Nixon (nicknamed by history the Tricky Dick), through the not sophisticated (despite years of leadership in the actors guild and governorship in California), yet not stupid Ronald Reagan, through George W. Bush, (not much of an idea man, especially in the first term), to Donald Trump, who shows not even a hint of any political or economic program, other than the assurances " I’ll do anything ‘cuz I’ll just do it!"
Interestingly enough, the continuously deteriorating Republicans still handily beat the continuously improving Democrats. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was arguably no better than Nixon. Then, starting with Reagan, the Democrats had a fighting chance only when managed to look not too smart. Such smarty pants were swept away by the American voter. Bill Clinton successfully hid his education and experience, winking at the ladies and blowing the sax, while the third independent candidate, the predecessor of Trump, another billionaire Ross Perot, helped pull enough votes from Bush the Elder. Barack Obama, in spite of all the nuances of race and the suspicion of secret Mohammedanism, had to fight the accusations of elitism. But the nerdy military heroes Al Gore and John Kerry indeed lost to, well, not so heroic or intellectual Bush. Trump’s success in the Republican primaries is rather natural. The curve of irresponsible behaviour goes down, and after several previous failed attempts at politics, the reward finally finds its hero! And if we recall how extraordinary the previous Democratic presidents had to be only to overcome their quite mediocre opponents, the chances of final victory for the irresponsible and unscrupulous Trump don’t look too far-fetched.
How does it relate to Ukraine? Frustration. The only thing that unites Ukraine with the United States is the sense of frustration among the sufficient part of general population. The US has no Ukrainian problems with economy, corruption and war. Yet it still has frustration! And the mistrust of the government institutions and their representatives! And the feeling that the standards of living have deteriorated, and the war is lost! There is almost a religious belief that everything must be changed radically and immediately, that it is imperative to give power to new people with the same almost religious belief that everything must be changed radically and immediately! An unbelieving know-it-all may point out that dramatic and immediate changes are actually hard, even impossible, to implement, but what does he know, no one will vote for him!
We have already spoken on this subject in the article "Revolution of Frustration: Reflections on the second anniversary of the Maidan," from which I quote:
"Frustration is the common denominator of all social calamities… (American, French, Russian revolutions began not because of hunger, but out of frustrations with the authorities)… Poverty and suffering in themselves do not cause frustration or lead to protest, if accepted as inevitable part of life ... <> The question is not real progress or change, but the perception of reality."
Frustration is an emotion we feel when we cannot get what we want. But in a free, open, competitive society, it is inevitable. As taught the Buddha, the reason for suffering is desire. Consequently, the viability of a modern society depends on its ability to put in place mechanisms to control the level of frustration. Attempts to shrug off its manifestations on the basis that they come from the ignorant, narrow-minded people (as in the case of Trump’s supporter, and not only his, by the way) not only naive but also dangerous. In recent decades the same kind of people from different cultures were most active and consistent in opposition to social change in the entire world. We live in a period when the words “crazed state” describes the reality in a dozen states.
But the US is a country where the permanent frustration lies at the very heart of public discourse, it has the system that arose in reaction to any external and internal stimuli. Ultimately it uses any negative social and economic phenomena as inoculation against the future ills. America is constantly stepping into something bad, no doubt, but very rarely in the same spot.
Ukraine has no popular frustration control, aside from gas subsidies and buckwheat gifts during the elections. Its political and economic systems do not provide special mechanisms to deter an ambitious demagogue with pile of money. It has been so far, oddly enough, very, very lucky with its oligarchs, who did not produce yet a Donald Trump. All because they still play the old game of economy and politics.
Trump, on the other hand, is known for bathing in the media spotlight for decades as a celebrity on par with athletes and actors, as the owner of the beauty pageant "Miss Universe" and is famous for the leading role on the popular reality show The Apprentice. He is not a politician, and not even a businessman, but a celebrity who plays by a different set of rules. Never before the words of Shakespeare rang truer:
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players." And if a pile of money connects with a famous face ready to please the public by saying whatever comes into mind as long as it pleases this very public - Ukraine will have its own Trump. Maybe it has one already.
Frustration, however justified, is a poor response to any challenge. Yes, it can lead to a revolution of sorts, to the overthrow of a hated ruler or the election of a beloved Fuhrer. But the real solutions are the result of deliberate, painstaking work by the government’s executive and legislative branches. How, for example, they did in America recently, where after many years the industrial production started to return home, with no fireworks and fanfare.
Without such an organized hard work any revolution would be a disappointment. As in another old Soviet joke:
Before the Russian Revolution, the overall frustration caused with the regime prevailed. Meanwhile, one young detective chased one young revolutionary. After the revolution things had changed, and now the revolutionary chased the detective. But in the era of the effective manager (as Russian President Putin calls Stalin) both spent wonderful 20 years breathing the refreshing Siberian air. Then followed the stagnation, the perestoryka, then the collapse, poverty, and the general harsh reality of the early 1990-s. One day, the very old detective ran into the very old revolutionary, who was forced by the crippling poverty to sell perogies from the tray on the market place.
- Well, admit the truth, - the detective sarcastically addressed the revolutionary – Do you still think that our Father Tsar would not let you sell those damn perogies?
What has Trump to do with it? Just the fact that the ability to make and sell perogies never did any harm to anyone anywhere.
I would like to disappoint those who hope that Trump as president will do something, as well the others who fear that as president he'll do just that.
Donald Trump is not and never was a Republican per se and is de facto an independent candidate. He may well be the next president, given that Hillary Clinton, also, does not shine much this year. She lost her moment to Obama in 2008.
Once in office, any Trump’s big mouth promises, often ignorant and contrary to the Constitution and international law, simply would be realized due to the restrains of the system, mentioned in the article.
. Impeachment, however, is still a thing, and without a real compromise with both parties President Trump may not last very long. It is not a TV show or a supporters rally, and the sheer loudness of voice does not matter.
Judging his rhetoric, Trump would not be able to achieve even a semblance of compromise with anyone. His hands will always be tied. That, barring the impeachment, may force him to become a surprisingly timid and weak, manipulated by everyone half-term president.
It is hard to be a team player