Belmont Club

Half the Puzzle

It helps to think that

Polls have shown that 6 out of 10 voters dislike both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  Their paradoxical position as standard bearers of their respective party tickets is not because they represent a clear choice of political alternatives, but because of the perceived absence of them.  Neither is a candidate in the traditional political sense.  Anis Shivani at Salon puts it this way: “Hillary Clinton can’t defeat what Trump represents” which is a rebellion against “neoliberal globalization” that is looking for a leader.

Americans, like people everywhere rising up against neoliberal globalization (in Britain, for example, this takes the form of Brexit, or exit from the European Union), want a return of social relations, or embeddedness, to the economy.

His idea is that the election is really a referendum.  The voters want their country and jobs back.  They understand the status quo elites, left to themselves, are never going to give it back. Therefore they are turning to Trump not in the function of a leader but as a wrecking ball for what they don’t want.

James Taranto makes a very similar argument to Shivani’s.  He writes citing an article by Walter Russell Mead that “Trump is the purest expression of the politics of “NO!” that I personally can recall. He’s the candidate for people who think the conventional wisdom of the American establishment is hopelessly out of touch with the real world. He’s the little boy saying that the emperor, or in this case, the aspiring empress, has no clothes. What energizes the Trump phenomenon is the very power of rejection: people who think the train is about to head off a cliff want to pull the emergency cord that stops the train even if they don’t know what happens next.”

The election of 2016 makes no sense unless it is judged from outside the system, because the system itself is on trial.  From that external vantage this negation is not nearly as pointless as its critics make out.  While it’s true that nothing Trump (or Hillary) has proposed will likely solve the major contemporary problems or repair the chaos Obama unleashed upon the world that is beside the point.

The  reset with Russia which turned into a new Cold War; the pivot to Asia which morphed into a faceoff with China; the Arab Spring that became a tragedy of Biblical or should one say Quranic proportions are catastrophes that are largely irreversible.  There is about as much chance undoing these blunders as unscrambling an egg or regaining an airplane once one has jumped from it.  Nor is there much chance of “bringing back the jobs” fled to foreign shores in the short term.  Protectionism is unlikely to do it because the cure for a hangover of excessive government spending, demographic collapse and too much debt can never be quick or cheap.

Thus to elect someone to fix things under those circumstances makes little sense. If the post-World War 2 era has been smothered in its dotage  by an Obama administration which underestimated the difficulty of  replacing it with something better, the more rational thing to do is redo the system rather than apply some patch. The “no” to which Taranto refers is simply a refusal to refuse to pour good effort after bad and is not nearly so negative as it seems. Perhaps the best metaphor for the 2016 election and the other upheavals that Shivani refers to is a that of billiard break or the reinstall of a virus afflicted operating sytem.

As both Shivani and Taranto note things have reached the point where people are willing to ask for the deck to be re-cut and a new hand dealt out.  Crucially for the first time in 200 years the warmed over 19th century Marxist ideology of Sanders or Barack Obama’s first term is no longer the default template for the future. People may not know what they want, but they know what they don’t want.  A genuine leap into the unknown is now within the realm of possibility.

This suggests the winner of the 2016 contest will likely be a transitional figure rather than a harbinger of a lasting tendency.  The winner is more probably going to be overwhelmed by events in this period of flux.  But that doesn’t matter. Their task is to stop “the train even if they don’t know what happens next.”  And ‘what happens next’ is a question that can only be meaningfully asked once crucial missing piece becomes available.  What exactly that is, is unknown.

Frank Partnoy’s “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay” is about the value of waiting. His examples range widely, and so does the time scale of the delay involved: the elite baseball hitter’s ability to wait the extra milliseconds to “find” a pitch; the comedian’s ability to wait a few seconds to deliver a punchline; the skilled matchmaker’s advice that blind daters suppress their snap judgments and wait a full hour before deciding whether they might want to go on a second date; the innovative company’s ability to hang on to creative ideas, for months or even years, until they pay off. “We are hard-wired to react quickly,” Mr. Partnoy says. “Modern society taps into that hardwiring, tempting us to respond instantly to all kinds of information and demands. Yet we are often better off resisting both biology and technology.”

We may be in one of those situations where we must wait for history to move.  The situation is made somewhat more complicated by the fact that we don’t even know what we’re waiting for.  The consolation is we’ll know it when we see it.

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