My first reaction to Trump's election was shock. I felt numb, and it took a week or so for me to internalize that the man I thought would not and could not ever win is in fact the new president of the United States of America. One can thus only be tentative in trying to understand what just happened, let alone what is now in store for America and the world.
Trump has been so aggressively disruptive and divisive that he has ushered in an era of what historians would call the "strong man" -- men of force and violence who break through conventional norms and political constraints with such force that their personalities dominate the collective energy field. This is what felled the Roman Republic, what brought Fascism to Germany and Italy in the 1930s, Putin in Russia and Erdoğan in Turkey - men who break the rules by sheer force of personality and cunning, generally in a deceptive and coercive way. Rarely are they constructive. One thing is for sure, we will not have politics as usual in a Trump presidency.
The first thought that struck me was that Trump is to politics somewhat like what climate change is to weather. With Trump's election, America has just had an "extreme weather event," with more to come if the cause is not constrained. The question is whether Trump as president can now ride the tail of the disruptive tiger he created as candidate. To succeed, Trump must do what so many politicians have done - realize that the strategy that got him elected must not be his strategy for governing.
What Trump and the American public must realize is that the more true disruption he initiates, the greater the probability of his success. Trump could be one of our greatest presidents if he understands this and acts accordingly. If he does not, he will fail, just like Obama did. In fact, it was Obama's failure as president that made Trump's election possible. Consider the following:
The political and economic system in America is dysfunctional and needs to be disrupted and transformed. This was true eight years ago in the aftermath of The Bush Administration with its disastrous wars in the Middle East and the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression. It is even more true today after eight years of political paralysis and polarization. The Washington swamp now, as then, needs urgently to be drained. New thinking and policies need to prevail. This was the challenge and tragedy of Obama. He failed to be the transformational president he was elected to be. His tenure was characterized much more by temporizing than transformation. Obama's failure lies at the root of Trump's rise.
Now it's Trump's turn. Like Obama eight years ago, he knows disruptive change is needed. The public knows this. The world knows this. Even Washington knows this. Disruption was his central message. Hilary Clinton did not understand the need for disruptive change and this is the central reason why she lost. Bernie Sanders did understand and had the Democrats had the wisdom to nominate him, we would no doubt be heralding in the transformational politics of President elect Sanders. But this was not to be.
As has been widely noted, Trump was elected by the same undercurrent as resulted in Brexit - his election is the result of a public fed up with politics as usual and demanding radical change. Unlike Obama, however, who was elected on a positive vision of the audacity of hope, Trump has been elected on the strength of negative emotions and divisive rhetoric. This is what empowered Brexit - anger at EU bureaucracy and fear of immigrants. Understanding this, Trump unleashed all manner of racist, xenophobic, sexist and exclusionist forces during his campaign. This was the energy that swept him to victory. Now unleashed, these forces must be dealt with or the current polarization will deepen and America could devolve from disruptive politics into revolutionary violence. America is at a moment of very grave peril. Negative forces, once unleashed, are not easy to control. They empower the strong man but they damage the moral fabric of the country.
Trump's greatest danger at this point is to forget the reason he was elected and rather than acting disruptively to drain the swamp, appoint its alligators as his closest advisors and ministers. This was Obama's mistake. He came in with a transformational message then proceeded to appoint the old guard and make endless compromises with insatiable Republicans. He could not fulfill his mandate from the people and transform the system because he surrounded himself with mediocrity and conventional thinking. A natural statesman, Obama squandered his mandate with petty political compromise.
Trump seems to be making the same mistake. He is appointing the very people he should be draining out with the swamp. Even worse, he is appointing fringe conservatives who reinforce his most dangerous tendencies. He is surrounding himself with people that represent the toxic forces he unleashed with his demeaning and incendiary rhetoric. This is not disruption. This is reactionary politics of the worst kind. Trump is ignoring Einstein's axiom, that the consciousness that produced the problem cannot solve it. Only new thinking can.
Absent new thinking, and accentuating negative social and political impulses without a truly disruptive strategy, Trump, already a bully, may well become a tyrant. The inevitable result will be a consolidation of the national security state at home and alienation from the international community abroad. Rather than "making America great again," Trump could ignite deepening dysfunction and polarization of America domestically and catalyze further American decline internationally.
If Trump seeks to govern with exclusionary aggressiveness, reinforced by aides, advisors, and officials all sharing the same radical views, he could very easily repeat the folly of George W. Bush, who elevated neo-conservative ideologues like Richard Perl and Paul Wolfowitz who fomented then persuaded him to launch the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, egged on by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others. Many of these people and ideas lurk behind some of the people Trump is onboarding into his Administration.
It is interesting to note that 9/11 framed the Bush presidency and Trump was elected on 11/9. Unconstrained, Trump could be the Bush administration on steroids with even more disastrous results. The Bush legacy boils down to the Patriot Act, the folly of two disastrous wars in the Middle East, and economic collapse at the end of his presidency. Trump could easily turn the national security state into a coercive presence domestically, create havoc through aggressive action internationally, and ruin the American economy with ideological rather than practical policies.
Key to Trump's success is to transcend his own and the right wing's negative impulses and embrace true disruption, not fringe reactionary politics. He can do this in three critical areas:
Frist, he campaigned promising to "rebuild America." This is critical. American infrastructure is as run down as American politics are dysfunctional and needs focused attention and massive investment. Trump's promise to invest in America's infrastructure is reminiscent of FDR's New Deal. He must be as bold as FDR and make American renewal his centerpiece. He's a business man. He could initiate an "Invest in America" campaign and travel worldwide to bring investment into the U.S. He would be perfect for this role. After decades of decline, this disruption would revitalize the American economy and create jobs on an unprecedented scale.
Second, Trump has promised disruption in world affairs. The most disruptive act Trump could make is to ignore the conventional thinking about Russia and Vladimir Putin as the enemy and reach out to Putin, hold a Summit as quickly as possible, and jointly work together to settle the civil war in Syria and stabilize the Middle East by transforming it into a Free Trade Zone. Imagine Trump and Putin doing to the Middle East as what happened in Europe after WWII. It would be a brilliant act of statesmanship.
At some point, the Middle East has to do what Europe did, and that is stop fighting across the board and transform those energies into creating a free trade zone. If Trump and Putin could be this imaginative and focused, they would go down in world history as truly Great. Working together, they could significantly disrupt world politics for the good if they aligned themselves to do so. Without something this disruptive, Trump will merely deepen the crises challenging the global community because of his ignorance of the nuances of history, culture and international politics. Only new thinking and bold action will serve Trump in foreign affairs.
Third, Trump must be disruptive with even himself on the most critical issue of all - climate change. From the appointments so far, it seems he is condemning America and the world to reactionary thinking and retrograde policies - the consciousness that produced the problem. If he blows it on climate change, no matter what he does in the other areas, Trump condemns America and the world to a disastrous course. History will judge him harshly if he misses the greatest challenge in the world today - that humanity must re-align itself with the larger ecology and learn to live sustainably with the planet we inhabit.
The timing of Trump's presidency means that he will preside as the most powerful leader in the world right at the moment when history is coming to a great reckoning. Never before in all of human history have we collectively been in such danger, at the center of which is runaway climate change. We need a leader, a true leader, who will lead the world at this critical moment. Trump could be that leader if he has the creative intelligence to morph from strong man into transformational leader.
Greatness is within Trump's grasp if he leaves the campaign behind and re-invents himself as president. His selection of staff and his early actions on the world stage will either open up possibilities for true disruptive change or drown him in the murky waters of the Washington swamp at home and enmesh him within the web of international intrigue abroad. If he does not develop early disruptive momentum, it is very likely that Trump, like Obama, will succeed only in perpetuating the dysfunction, not solving it.
Only disruptive transformation will suffice to ensure the greatness Trump seeks and the world needs -- solving the two most critical challenges in the world today: the Middle East and Climate Change. If these two critical challenges could be solved, and virtually everyone on Earth knows they need to be, we would have begun peace on earth and would be living sustainably with our planet. This is the moment when Trump could really save us all if he could embrace the fullness of the moment.