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Why I’m optimistic about Trump

By John Lloyd | November 22nd 2016
US president-elect Donald Trump

I’m a Donald Trump optimist. Like the many who don’t support him, I am alarmed that he won. But I don’t believe he will be as bad as the worst fears. It’s a very modest definition of optimism, but I think it’s the best liberals can come up with.

The worst fears are widespread, serious, and may yet prove to be well founded. Still, my main reason for “optimism” is America’s tradition of liberty, its ineradicable pluralism - and (to sound a populist note) the American people.

Those who view a Trump presidency pessimistically believe his election to be “nothing less than a tragedy”. Some see a fascist in the making. The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen, drawing on her experience of Vladimir Putin, wrote that rule one of survival under authoritarian rule is to “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says”.

France’s Le Monde’s editorial was heavy with warnings of de-globalisation, trade wars and mass unemployment in the United States and Europe. The chief editor of the German weekly, Der Spiegel, Klaus Brinkbäumer, wrote that the United States had elected “a dangerously inexperienced and racist man”. In The Guardian, Gary Younge wrote that Trump “represents the incoherent, inchoate and ill-informed rage against the fallout of neoliberal globalisation”. There was a welcome in Europe, and it was led by far right leaders like Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, who sees in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” a model for France.

I’m more than a little scared, but also an optimist for the following reasons: First, a fascist leader needs fascists. There are some in the United States, and they — the Ku Klux Klan and others — have welcomed Trump’s election. But most of his voters aren’t in that camp. Fascists want a strong state to crush opponents and to provide jobs. Trump’s people, working, middle or upper class, want less, often much less, state.

Second, the Constitution of the United States is one of freedom. Freedom, both constitutional and civic, is the common currency of politics, with the right professing to value it more than liberals. The Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which allowed unlimited corporate spending on elections, was argued on the basis of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.

Third, US media, traditionally supposed to function as watchdogs over the government, are not in good shape. They are embarrassed by their over-reliance on polls, which all but guaranteed a Clinton win. Few major publications emerged from the election with their credibility unscathed. The relatively free practice of journalism will remain powerfully influential. Top American reporters and editors set world standards, and won’t abdicate from a self-defined, and democratic, duty to hold power to account.

Fourth, Americans are famously adaptable. They’re less bound by tradition than their European counterparts. This election is widely viewed as a reflection of the nation’s bigotry and xenophobia, but it could also be seen as the “discovery” of the nation’s alienated white working class in a way that has some parallels with white America’s “discovery” of a much more radically disenfranchised African American population in the 1960s.

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Fifth, Trump may not be as quick to disrupt international agreements. Trump has Republican majorities in both House and Senate, but not Republican assent to all his policies. Party legislators may agree that other NATO members should pay more toward maintaining the Alliance — some Europeans accept that — but many Republicans support NATO. Indeed, within days of his election Trump committed himself to maintaining a strong relationship with the Alliance during a meeting with President Barack Obama.

The fate of pending trade agreements, particularly the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asia, is less clear. But even if the Republican Congress refuses to ratify the treaty, it’s not unreasonable to think that Trump - who met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York on Thursday - might be swayed by those like distinguished Japanese political scientist, Yoichi Funabashi, who argue that the United States would be ceding the Asia-Pacific region to China’s economic expansionism if Washington doesn’t participate in multilateral trade agreements.

This faith seems to me to be justified by tradition, Constitution and the record of American actions in intervening on the side of freedom, even if at times disastrously. All bets are off if the world falls into a deeper recession, and the threatened decimation of jobs brought about by advanced computerization and robotisation actually materialises. But in that case, the bets are off everywhere, including in an enfeebled and already economically stagnant Europe. Until such a dismal eventuality, American liberals must now trust the Constitution, with its checking and balancing institutions, its guarantee of free speech and a free press, and above all the American people, including those they blame for the Trump victory.

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