Gerard Howlin: Trump may be a charlatan, but he's also a prophet

Gerard Howlin: Trump may be a charlatan, but he's also a prophet

President Donald Trump. By this time next week he may have lost office, but the dislocation he articulated and manipulated may be the harbinger of an age. Picture: AP

There is galloping enthusiasm for an end to Trump next Tuesday. Opinion polls are against him. Early voting by mail and in-person favours the Democrats. 

Their majority in the House of Representatives seems assured, and a majority in the Senate within reach. Georgia, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat since 1976, or even Texas with a similar history of abstinence, may be in play. It is heady stuff, but it may miss the point.

This day next week we will wake up not to the end of a shambolic presidency but to the beginning of something more fundamental. That’s assuming he does lose. Trump will have lost office, but the dislocation he articulated and manipulated may be the harbinger of an age. 

Covid-19 demonstrates the stress on what we assumed were the deep foundations of institutions and patterns of behaviour we took for granted. Historically, if there is a vaccine next year and a return to something resembling an old normal, the virus will have been a blip. But it is also an augur.

For us, firmly situated in an Anglophone world, we are bookended culturally and economically by the United Kingdom and the United States. These were our key points of reference. It was an enormous achievement from Ireland to reposition within what is now the European Union. 

It validated our statehood and allowed us bridge between different interests in ways that maximised our advantage. Lest that be misunderstood as sweeping vagueness, there would be no Covid payments in this pandemic were it not for foreign direct investment keeping the economy afloat. 

That’s a crude summary of a deeper analysis. But as it is the lunch we are eating today, I hope you don’t mind my mentioning it.

If we are fortunate and Covid-19 is just a blip, the merciless consequences of an aging population and global warming are not. Brexit and Trump, are a shared language in what appear to be very different cultures. 

The USA is a federal system of 50 states, but has a robust constitution, a wise separation of powers and a very strong central government. A collapse in self-restraint at the top, has left the institutions intact for now.

In the United Kingdom an unwritten constitution has been unable to withstand the tensions of devolution. Unrestrained political toxicity poured into open drains between different administrations within a formerly unitary state that disabled a system of government that prided itself as a model of peaceful evolution. 

Its own mythologies aside, what allowed Whig and Tory cohabit in the 18th century, landed gentry and industrialists in the 19th, and left and right in the 20th, has been undermined by sham nationalism in the 21st. 

Institutionally Britain is broken.

The culture of Protestantism and first the fact, but afterwards the shadow, of empire bound together a disparate heritage. Along with the void left by both now, is a physical and metaphorical rustbelt. Globalisation, for citizens of nowhere at least, is nirvana if often an aimless one. 

Education, knowledge and access to services are a substitute for the communalism of belonging to something. But for those left with little or nothing, they can only mark their territory with the flag of St George, vote for Brexit and focus on others as the cause of their relative decline.

Neither the defeat of Donald Trump next Tuesday nor the arrival of Brexit on New Year’s Day, will change the fundamental causes of what initiated either. A big Biden win will besiege those people politically. It will double down on their sense of threat and isolation. Joe Biden’s biggest hazard could be the hubris of his party. It would take a lot to reunite those 50 states again, in any circumstances.

The reality is we are closer to the carbon-free future we aspire to for 2050, but for now are destined to fail on, than we are to the fall of the Berlin Wall. What is being piled high as heritage is pollution and debt, for an inextricably declining cohort of the young, working and able-bodied to bear.

How to reimagine a common purpose, pursue long-term goals and simultaneously achieve a deep reorganisation of economic activity is the challenge for a generation. It is a generation which by dint of its declining numbers of able-bodied workers, must bear an ever greater load. 

To those of us who are a little older, or perhaps much older, our epitaph will be as the most selfish and sated generation in human history. None of what we purport to abhor came from nowhere.

What Trump and the advocates of Brexit share is an eerie gift for demonising. This was always there, but in ways that were partly terrifying but also limiting, was largely institutionalised in church and state. Now there are no limits. There is no curatorial accountability. 

Lynching is the new thing. It’s the normal tone of conversation on social media. The criteria are not the worthiness of the objective, but the pitilessness of its advocates. It makes no distinction between left and right, or even between right and wrong. All means are justified by the end, and arbitrated by their own author. It is the ultimate disaggregation of the community.

As the community has dissolved, political parties, trade unions and churches enfeebled, politics has been individualised into single issues. New transitory mass gatherings come and go with bewildering speed. Carrying forward a broad policy framework and sustaining public civility is more challenging just at the moment fundamental change is required. 

Simultaneously, the disjoint between a superglobal elite, national governments and local communities has cracked open. How to rethread those links credibly, to rebuild cohesion, and restart hope is the work of now. 

A better future is possible but it won’t be a reset of the past. The rust belt of the American mid-west and the English north-east are communities of place. Vastly broader are like-thinking communities of people who are fearful. Where there is fear, politically there is prey.

If you told me the fountain of eternal youth was in front of me, I would walk around it to get past untainted. Far from being crumbly, I enjoy life a lot. There is a sweet spot in human history, and I think I am about in the middle of it. 

But nothing stays the same. Covid-19 aside, these are the good old days. Too long an enjoyment of liberty has caused it to be taken for granted. 

Donald Trump is unquestionably a charlatan but he is also a prophet. He is a seer for our age. 

His great achievement, the one that will remain after him, is that he showed what could be done and how to do it. 

What was unthinkable is now a template. We should not think it won’t be used by others.

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