Jefferson and Lincoln anticipated Trump. What’s next?

30 December 2016

Donald Trump is not a new phenomenon in the United States, just an extreme form of an ongoing one. For years theatre has been prominent in the country’s public life, although never quite like this. This latest farce may be entertaining, but it could prove to be disastrous. The so-called “leader of the free world” will soon be a loose cannon loaded with nuclear warheads.

The winner of the presidency loses the election (although not, conveniently, in four key states—kind of makes you wonder).   The great tax evader is expected to stop the evasion of taxes. He accused his opponent of giving speeches to the very bankers who are staffing his new administration. A hunt is already underway in the Environmental Protection Agency for whoever has dared to protect the environment. And please welcome ”clean coal” back to an atmosphere near you.

This is quite literally business as usual. Just look at the stock market: it’s having a ball.

Business as usual began early in the Republic. It was barely a quarter century old when Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength...” A half century later, Abraham Lincoln “tremble[d] for the safety of my country….  Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow…until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.… God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

Instead, two decades later, the Supreme Court granted corporations the right to personhood. Not your usual personhood, however: corporate persons do not go to jail when they commit a crime (otherwise the ranks of the great enterprises would have been decimated by now). More recently, for anyone who missed its message, the Supreme Court granted these persons the right to fund political campaigns to their heart’s content. Do you think Brazil is corrupt? Its corruption is criminal, and is being prosecuted. The corruption in America is legal, and therefore beyond challenge: the U.S. Supreme Court legalized bribery.

There is noble America and there is nasty America: on one hand, the America of World War Two, the Marshall Plan, and the upholding of basic freedoms; on the other hand, the America of repeated incursions all over Latin America and into Vietnam and Iraq, and at home travesties from McCarthy to Trump.  Yet even rather liberal commentators have been blindsided by noble America. “Somewhere in the back of their minds, a lot of people seem to be realizing that the alternative to a United States–dominated world . . . is a leaderless world” (Thomas Friedman).1 “To regain the identity it enjoyed during the Cold War, the United States ought to become the leader of a community of democracies…. [It] would still need to retain its military might, but this strength would serve to protect a just world order” (George Soros).2 Shall we all sit back and hope that Friedman and Soros will not have to eat their words?

Guess what? Nasty America is on its way back in. Indeed, 2017 is looking to be the year of the bullies: Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, and the rest. Will people around the world who care about this planet and our progeny finally realize what has been going on and do something about it?

What has been going on is imbalance. Private sector forces now dominate the “free world” much as public sector forces dominated the communist world of Eastern Europe. In the name of globalization, “free enterprises” ride roughshod over free people and sovereign nations. Something is rotten in the state of democracy.

No wonder so many people are angry about globalization. The trouble is that they don’t know where to turn, so they vent their rage indiscriminately—in favor of the likes of Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen. The world is on fire and the inclination is to pour oil on it (all too literally in the case of climate change). Many of the more  established people don’t turn to reckless leadership; they are just waiting for corporate social responsibility to fix it—as if CSR will compensate for all the CSIrresponsibility we now see around us. These people should be taking tranquillizers (on patent). 

How to escape what Albert Einstein defined as insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? There may, however, be a silver lining in the Trump election: it issues a wake-up call, that we shall have to do things differently, sooner or later. Given his latest Twitter pathology about the American nuclear arsenal, sooner looks better.

Doing things different is possible. Imagine, for example, a council, a coalition, and communities.3 The Security Council of the United Nations is an insecurity council, arguably a war council. All five permanent members have large arsenals of nuclear weapons and histories of bullying—whether in the form of colonialism or belligerent incursions. They are also the five largest exporters of armaments in the world. Aleppo is their most recent accomplishment. Imagine instead  a Peace Council, made up of democratic nations with no nuclear weapons and no recent history of belligerence. Vested with legitimacy by concerned people all over the world, such a council could shift the whole thrust of international relations.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) each have their own cause: human rights for Amnesty International, the environment for Greenpeace, the medical consequences of calamities for Doctors Without Borders. Yet these problems share common cause, namely the imbalance that distorts the world today. Imagine if a coalition of respected NGOs issued a compelling vision forward—a manifesto for action to restore balance—around which these concerned people everywhere, left and right, could coalesce.

One message of the Trump, Sanders, Brexit, and other votes is that never before have so many regular people been prepared to act on the resentment they feel. With such a vision to replace the deceptive rhetoric of populist politicians, there could emerge a groundswell of people in communities, connected around the world, intent on restoring decency and democracy. They could pressure their governments to legislate and regulate for better balance, promote an international Peace Council, and support businesses that act responsibly while targeting those (and governments) that do not. We should be using the marketplace, with boycotts, to let the sellers beware.

Is any of this utopian? All of it is. But that makes none of it impossible, not when the alternative is to hope for the best. Everything in Donald Trump’s behavior indicates that what we see is what we are going to get.

It must have seemed impossible in 1776 that a popular groundswell could create a new form of democracy that would change the world. Thomas Paine, pamphleteer for that effort, did write that: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And so they did. And so we can.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Some of these ideas are elaborated in my 2015 book Rebalancing Society

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1 Friedman, T. 2009, February 25. Paging Uncle Sam. New York

2 Soros, G. 2004. The bubble of American supremacy: The costs of Bush’s war in Iraq. New York: Perseus Books, pp. 167-168.

3 These were discussed at greater length in an earlier TWOG entitled “We couldn’t vote, but we can act.