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Thank you, Donald Trump

September 05, 2017

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MUCH as many are finding it hard to say anything good about Donald Trump, it cannot be denied that he has delivered the world a much-needed wake-up call. Gone is the complacency about a whole host of topics that had seemed firmly settled — democracy, capitalism, globalisation, trade, to name a few.

Fresh thinking has been unleashed on a number of other issues — climate change, identity, immigration, terrorism, among them. There was dire need to rethink many of these and if the world required Trump to revitalise the debates, it has only itself to blame. In large measure, Trump is an outcome of not paying heed to what was going on under our noses but escaped attention because of the ideological biases of prosperous and uncaring ruling elites.

The ‘boiling frog’ analogy comes to mind: a frog dropped in boiling water will jump out but if placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it would not perceive the danger and be cooked to death.

The American leader’s cavalier attitude has unleashed fresh thinking on a number of issues.

With the continuation of the mainstream status quo, had Hillary Clinton been elected president of the United States, there is little doubt we would have died in any number of ways because nothing would have changed till it was too late. Either climate change would have overtaken us before we reacted to its dangers while countries continued to bicker amongst themselves; or the neo-imperialist wars in the Middle East would have been intensified with the penchant for regime change to promote American values; or globalisation would have continued unabated enriching a few and reducing the rest of the world to a state of precarious uncertainty.

With Trump, we have been dumped into boiling water. Many of the simmering threats are being desperately examined anew, some, ironically, because Trump has a much more cavalier attitude towards them.

Take global warming, for example, where the Trump team is stocked with climate change deniers. It is precisely because the threat is now so in one’s face that activists have shed their complacency and are seeking new ways to revitalise their efforts. The same is the case with many other issues in which there has been a surge in theoretical revision, community activism, and grass-roots mobilisation. South Asians ought to look particularly carefully at Professor Amartya Sen’s critique of electoral systems based on the first-past-the-post criterion, a key contributor to Trump’s success.

One way to think of this radically new environment is in terms of a lottery. The status quo offered an almost sure bet of muddling through for another few decades before ending in catastrophe. Trump offers a 50 per cent chance of instant extinction (his itchy fingers are on the nuclear button) and a 50pc chance of a revitalised political and social order in which many of the existing pathologies would have been addressed.

Without the threat of imminent chaos, it is unlikely the resistance would have been galvanised in quite the manner that is now under way. Complacency and inertia would have continued to characterise the prevailing order with its almost inevitable consequences.

Consider, as an example, prevailing attitudes to democratic governance compared to its unremarked degradation. While Fukuyama hailed liberal democracy in the West as the end of history, Huntington lauded Ayub Khan as the ideal leader for the modernising world that was not ready for democratic rule. Richard Holbrooke characterised the backwardness of developing countries as follows: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists. That is the dilemma.” Fareed Zakaria was even more to the point: “Consider, for example, the challenge we face across the Islamic world. We recognise the need for democracy in those often-repressive countries. But what if democracy produces an Islamic theocracy, or something like it?”

The fact that democracy had produced a Hitler much before it produced any racists or fascists in the developing world was overlooked but now that it has produced Trump in the heart of the developed world, the doubts about the way democracy has evolved are out in the open and no longer considered the exclusive problem of backward non-white populations. American democracy in particular has morphed into a plutocracy quite at odds with its original design.

Or take the flip side of this alleged lack of fitness of the often-repressive countries, the unchallenged belief in American Exceptionalism. This rebirth of the white man’s burden in the age of neo-imperialism argued that the world needed to evolve towards American values while assigning a divine responsibility to the US for the purpose. Enlightenment was to be bestowed on the rest of humanity, making it fit for democracy through selective regime changes and by saving its women from the clutches of oppression.

As recently as a year ago, Obama had declared with pride and conviction that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being.” Now, barely six months into the Trump presidency, the veil has been ripped off American values regarding women and minorities and the reality of the US first policy that has wreaked havoc in the world exposed for all to see. As a result, European countries are already envisioning a future with a severely diminished political and ideological leadership role for the US.

Nearer home, ordinary Pakistanis, if they pause to reflect, should also be grateful to Trump for calling out their country’s selective cat-and-mouse game with terrorism. Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has been unsuccessful at best and at worst has imperilled the future of the nation via its economic cost, social damage, and political isolation. It would have continued unchallenged but for Trump raising the ante by laying aside the niceties and evasions that characterised the US-Pakistan dialogue under earlier presidents. The new bluntness and proposed regional realignment offer a glimmer of hope for an overdue questioning and a review under duress of Pakistan’s damaging security paradigm.

The world may not survive Trump, but if it does, many, including long-suffering Pakistanis, would have a lot to thank him for.

The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lums.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2017