It will never happen. This is what many of my friends on both sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly told me over the last several months when I asked about their view of a Trump presidency. So outrageous was the idea that it was not even considered a subject worthy of discussion.
Now, I will admit, most of my friends are like me: quite well-educated, mainly liberal minded individuals with good jobs and decent earnings. They are part of an intellectual elite that reads papers like this one and is well represented in the corridors of political power. They are creatures of the Enlightenment believing in the power of reason and reasonableness. If it has taught us nothing else, Trump’s ascent to the Republican nomination has taught us at least one thing – people like my friends and me are hopelessly out of touch with the bulk of the voting citizenship.
My friends have now changed their tune. The Americans among them now say “Well, that’s just the Republican activists. In November the American people will see sense” (i.e. they will think just like I do). Among Europeans, the hackneyed and arrogantly superior phrase “Only in America” has started to re-appear. Maybe we somehow haven’t yet noticed (or we have simply blanked from our minds) the rise of Trump-like politics across Europe. Maybe the European versions are not quite as theatrical as The Donald himself, but they are of a similar ilk. The mainstream response has been an increase in grand coalitions to try to stop the insurgents. It is an approach that is reminiscent of corporations that, running out of ideas and unable to innovate and remain relevant, resort to mergers as the only way left to stay alive for that little bit longer.
So here’s a perspective. Traditional political parties are a sunset industry with plummeting membership and support. They are set in their ways, disconnected from the public whose trust they have lost, stuck in a mindset and language that is hopelessly outdated, and with no idea as to how to understand and empathise with the concerns of today’s voter, let alone find ways to address them. They are dominated by a cosmopolitan elite that, steeped in belief of internationalism and a market economy built on the foundations of Western liberal democracy, cannot contemplate a different world. A world where globalization goes into reverse. A world where free trade is the enemy of the people rather than their route to prosperity. A world where capitalism and market economies run out of steam and lead to societal disintegration rather than prosperity and social cohesion. A world where the politics of identity fractures societies. A post-materialist world where deep-seated emotions and cultural and religious beliefs start to become more important than how much one can consume and how many electronic gadgets one can accumulate. A world where the Western liberal democratic model is something to be derided rather than emulated. A world where, to stand up for what they believe, increasing numbers of people are willing to blow themselves up in city centres killing dozens and maiming hundreds. A world where the most effective military power no longer lies with nation states and their disciplined and expensive armies but with dispersed and highly flexible armed groups. A world where ten billion people fight each other on the streets for their share of rapidly disappearing resources. A world where the European Union disintegrates and Europe is of marginal geopolitical relevance, once more a vassal squeezed between two superpowers.
I know. It’s a caricature. It’s blown up, theatrical, exaggerated and maybe even laughable. It will never happen. Well, that’s what they said about The Donald – all sixteen of the highly regarded, politically experienced, reasonable, rational, intelligent, well-educated, capable and well-funded mainstream candidates who started out fighting him for the Republican nomination. And the Republican leadership. Look at where they all are now.
When I was learning my first principles of marketing, I was told that one of the greatest dangers was an excessive belief in one’s own product. It blinded you to your weaknesses and made you ineffective. This is now a problem with mainstream politics. If we are to avoid or at least mitigate the march to the type of world I have described above, the first task is to accept that the product of mainstream political parties is irretrievably broken. The next task is more difficult. Can parties re-invent themselves from the ground up? Can they, like the best corporations, work to make themselves obsolete before others make them obsolete. Can they emerge as something new that is more appropriate to the contemporary world? Can the focus be changed from trying to make small improvements to patch up a broken product to a focus on trying to come up with one that is imaginative, new and relevant. This is a gigantic task that will take years and decades. The question is what will it take to embark on the process of reinvention? Is there yet sufficient motivation to start now or do we need a few more Trumps before we all start to believe it?
Decades ago, Berthold Brecht ironically proposed a “solution” to political paralysis – that governments should dissolve the people and elect another. Do mainstream parties today also feel that’s the only solution? I’m not optimistic that they yet have another.