This Is Not About Trump

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


(“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”)

I blog about business and social stuff, not politics, but sometimes they merge. Also, I have a definite liberal bias, but will do my best to overcome it here.

I was ‘lucky’ enough to have lunch in a small group with Donald Trump about ten years ago. Not long enough to get to know him of course, but during the meal he seemed a pretty regular type of person – friendly, engaging and intelligent (his hair was orange though, that was very weird). After the lunch, the media came in, the cameras went on and he morphed into that brand building celebrity. And that remains my guess: In order to create his own success, Donald Trump gives us exactly what we want. After the last election, he blasted the Republican Party for not embracing progressive immigration reform. Then he became politically ambitious, listened carefully, decided what was needed to win, and Mexicans became rapists and trade deals became evil. Don’t blame or congratulate Donald Trump for what he espouses. He simply said what enough people wanted to hear to get him elected.

And what people want to hear in the US seems to be exactly what so many want to hear in England with Brexit, and right across Europe. Who would bet against Marine Le Pen today? Can Angela Merkel survive? The changes rolling over both continents seem to me to be the most profound and potentially transformative of our lives.

I’m no economic historian, but my entire life has occurred amidst the opening of trade and international relationships, both social and economic. The world has been getting to know and do business with one another and inviting each other into their ‘homes’, in every respect. This has been no accident, of course. After the wreckage of World War Two, various global institutions and agreements were purposely established to try to end centuries of war, and to equalize economic advancement around the world. The goal of the EU is both peace and economic growth. This blog is not a lecture, everyone knows this history; it’s just hard to argue – after 70 years of relative peace and prosperity – that it hasn’t been very successful.

It just hasn’t been very successful lately. Incomes have stalled, economic inequality has increased, technology and trade and other pressures have created winners and too many losers, and the losers are justifiably angry. But the solution they are demanding is almost certainly the wrong one: the closing of borders to trade and immigration. We are retreating back to isolated nation states, and ethnic conclaves. Back to politics briefly: If the situation was reversed, with Hillary espousing a platform of trade barriers and cancelling NAFTA, stopping immigration by building walls, and strengthening ‘law and order’, while Donald was the status quo candidate, who would have won? At the risk of offending many, perhaps misogyny wasn’t so much a factor: 53% of white female voters backed Trump. But race? The data says that race was a very big factor. My big worry is that while we are focused on the symptom named Donald and the victim named Hillary, we are not focused on these seismic economic and social dynamics in western societies that could fundamentally change everything.

I would argue that we need to stop being distracted by personalities, tactical distractions and false issues, and focus much more about the societal storm clouds that are gathering. The entire post Second World War ‘openness and tolerance’ ethos is being challenged, and if it falls, we will not get it back. People are angry, and retreating into isolationism, protectionism and xenophobia. The politicians are responding in kind, because that’s what politicians do – but this is not about them, it’s about us.

This seems a critical moment in the history of western democracy. Nothing is perfect, but neither is anything permanent. We better not take our relative social and economic success for granted, because when change comes, it happens fast and irrevocably: Arab Spring, the fall of the USSR, or the Great War, none of which anyone thought would actually happen right up until they did. People are often slow to react to threatening changes, because it is too hard to acknowledge the potential consequences. But denial is a bad strategy. Our kids could have a very different world from the one their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

Politicians are followers. They will not decide our future, we will. This is certainly a time for greater individual leadership at every level. Whatever your views, we all need to raise our personal perspective and get more seriously and thoughtfully involved with the big issues and with building a society that we believe in. Complacency is deadly and fear of a little confrontation is just plain weak. Stand up and advocate for your beliefs, respectfully but energetically. We must hash it out and find the right common ground now, so that we aren’t at each other’s throats later.

For certain, we need to slay this ogre of racism or it will destroy us. On that front, there can be no compromise.

A final thought: Even those of us who are more liberal might want to wish Donald Trump some success. Because if he fails and the collective bitterness is even worse four years from now, I’m not sure we’ll like what could happen next.

Thanks for reading.