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17 March 2017

Donald Trump – A Work in Progress

Out of despair, insight. A comment from a despairing American friend of mine suddenly helped me to understand Donald Trump and his context. “If Thomas Jefferson had foreseen Donald Trump”, he said, “he would have told his fellow revolutionaries that they must stop fighting immediately and make peace terms with George III.” There was further gloom. “Trouble is, and despite Jefferson, the Enlightenment only had shallow roots in the United States.” Thus an intellectual blue-stater, more influenced by Hollywood than he would ever acknowledge, looks down on the plain people of middle America: the Donald Trump electorate.

That said, and forgetting Donald Trump for a moment, my friend was right, more so than he realises. This is about the long-term failure of the Enlightenment. In turn, that was partly responsible for the thirty-year failure of Western policy which threatens us with decline. If the West’s will to power and ability to exercise power are gone beyond recall, anarchy and destruction would loom over the entire planet.

In recent years, the world has been turned upside down. Old assumptions and old certainties no longer work. This means that there are no grounds for Western geopolitical self-confidence. At the beginning of the Nineties, we were invited to hail the new world order and the end of history. How hollow those phrases sound now. If they are ever recalled to mind, it is with bitter irony. Forget optimistic slogans: we are now in the era of the unknown unknowns.

Yet none of this is Donald Trump’s fault. The President is dramatising the problems, not creating them. He had no hand in the West’s failures in the Middle East. He did not create the threats to American jobs and living standards from automation, robotisation and globalisation. He is not responsible for the immigration pressures from the huddled masses in poor countries. He cannot be blamed for the failure of the European single currency, or for the West’s inability to reach a post-Cold War modus vivendi with Russia. Men who regard themselves as much wiser than Mr Trump and who have the academic credentials to prove it, if not necessarily the record of practical successes, ought to scrutinise their own motives. They clearly have an aesthetic objection to a Trump presidency: that is understandable. “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Washington to be born.” Yet it may also be that they are angry with him because he is forcing them to confront their own failure.

This failure is not always blameworthy. Some of the challenges which face the West may be beyond the capacity of anyone to surmount, even Donald Trump. In the meantime, Mr Trump is at least forcing them on to the agenda. The wiser men usually prefer not to think about the insolubles, rather as the Eloi tried to ignore the Morlocks. But even if he might seem to resemble a Morlock, Mr Trump is a great stimulator of thought. Not just thought; action too. On at least three problems, he might even be able to rescue the West from some of the Enlightenment’s minor failures.

My gloomy friend seemed to take it for granted that even if his fellow-Americans had not been worthy to receive the message, the Enlightenment had been successful in Europe. That, alas, is untrue. If one considers its high expectations, it has failed. This failure has been associated with the most tragic period in human history and may well lead to the destruction of the human race. But it should all have been so different. For countless millennia, and despite great cultural achievements, much of human life was a wretched business: nothing but the animal struggle for food, warmth and sex at a slightly higher technological level. Countless numbers of individual lives were a cry of pain.

Then everything changed. This began with a paradox. The Reformation and the wars of religion greatly enhanced the scope of individual freedom: not an outcome which most of the major participants would have sought. That laid the foundations for the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, which caught fire in free Britain. There were crises and wars: there always are. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” But by the end of the nineteenth century, it did seem as if there had been a decisive and irrevocable break with the long dark age of scarcity and oppression. It appeared that men had learned how to live in advanced societies. The rule of law was basic. Once it was in place, forms of Parliamentary government and democracy could follow, creating a constitutional order which would guarantee stability, freedom and growing prosperity, made possible by the great expansion of economic activity and trade. Progress seemed assured: the Whig interpretation of history appeared to have triumphed – and no wise Tory should have begrudged its success. Any sensible person would rather be governed by Macaulay than by Joseph de Maistre.

 

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