Searching for A Method in Madness: The World-View of Donald Trump

Is Donald Trump mad?

That's the question that popped out in my mind as I engaged with the very unlikely New York Times piece When The Leader of the Free World is an Ugly American ,which argues that Trump's Foreign Policy approach is consistent - contrary to the claims made by the Foreign Policy establishment in America and elsewhere - with the longstanding American approach that put the American national interest above everything else. It is powerfully argued, and maintains that the Liberal commentators may be getting fooled by their own rhetoric of globalism. Can this indeed be right that there is method in Trump's madness, or what is portrayed as madness?

Indeed, it is rather easy to convince myself that Trump is mad if I look at Facebook. A number of Facebook posts confirm a number of psychologists said so. Indeed, we are at a time of implosion of Facebook itself, proving that it may be just showing you what you already believe. So, more you click on posts that claim Trump is mad, you see more posts that says so. Madness is indeed in the eyes of the beholder!

Yet, that Donald Trump may have a world-view would be a claim too far. This is the US President who is onto his third National Security Adviser and second Secretary of State in fifteen months, someone who has rattled Nato, set off a Feud in the Gulf and what is going to be a Trade War with China. All this is bewildering to those who believed that all the big questions were settled after the World War Two, or at least after the collapse of Soviet Union. For them, Trump is the process of wrecking a world order which was meant to live happily ever after!

Then, there are the others, as always, ready with a conspiracy theory. There is supposed to be dossier that Putin holds on Trump about certain things Trump did in Moscow, and apparently that allows the Tsar Redux to call the shots. For them, Trump isn't mad, but a 'Manchurian President', mind-controlled by someone else. Indeed, they are perhaps the only ones who would be surprised if it came out Trump did something dirty in Russia: He has been self-declaredly doing those things in hotel rooms ever since he came of age. Madness, for once, looks like a more plausible explanation!

This is not to deny though that there was some Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections, favouring Trump over Clinton. It's the impact of that interference which is really in question. However, the outrage about it is also hypocritical, because those outraged regularly interfered with other people's elections, using methods nastier than just Facebook manipulation or hacking embarassing emails, which shouldn't have been written in the first place. Everyone seems to agree that Russians have a grand strategy, but deny that Trump is capable of having one.

Here is my alternative explanation. I offer no data, just conjectures. I make the case, after the NYT article, that there may be method in Trump's madness, and it may be more consistent with American foreign policy than it appears. However, one should indeed take what I say with a pinch of salt. This is not meant to be an answer, only a question, only a way of seeing. The point of this presentation is not to prove any point, but just to contribute in a conversation - and start a different debate less silly than one about proving the madness of Donald Trump.

The roots of the current predicament, I shall argue, could be found in the 'roaring nineties', after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of the end of history. This meant the countries on the other side of the 'Iron Curtain', and those sitting on the non-aligned fence, fell in line into an unipolar world. As USSR broke into disarray, the EU was solidifying a common market, and Dollar was triumphant everywhere. The American government, on the verge of running out of money, suddenly discovered that they can borrow money at an ever-lower rate, as the countries around the world want to lend to America in the hope of safe-keeping. The Capital Costs in America, and by extension, in Europe, plummeted, and a technology boom got started. And, indeed, with Internet, Submarine Cable and a new way of doing business, came a wave of globalisation, extending the supply chain across the world, drawing new countries in search of ever lower costs. This set off Globalisation 1.0, where developing countries benefitted enormously by joining the global supply chain.

But this may not have been the start of a new era but a late flourish. The logic of lower costs drove technology forward, and transformed the business landscape. There is a trade off between global and the local, and the businesses disengagedthemselves from local communities and social responsibilities as they sought out global supply chain chains and ever greater margins. The flow of cheap capital, which continued to flow in greater amounts after the Asian Crisis in 1997, eventually led to an uncontained Asset Price inflation, creating a boom-bust cycle that came crashing down in 2008.  This should indeed have been a defining moment - the very occurrence of crisis was proof that the Liberal Economic system was in trouble - and yet, its response, after the initial crisis management, was not a policy-shift, but rather more of the same - even cheaper money! This was a possible moment to review and renew the social contract - that was precisely the Obama promise - but instead, Europeans and North Americans basically carried on doing the same. This is because the ideas of the Nineties, and the people who believed in them and benefited from them, were so powerful, and no one had a plausible alternative idea that could work within the Globalisation 1.0 framework which seemed so successful. Everyone seemed to see that the economy was living on borrowed time, but hoped, after Louis the Fifteenth, that their time would somehow pass.

This allowed the fissures to develop within the Developed economies: Banlieues of Paris, ghost towns of Northern England, Belgian ghettos and Appalachian villages were suddenly spaces outside, without any remedies to be found in the broken democracies that would elect only those who had financial resources to run increasingly sophisticated and costly campaigns. This phenomena is now much discussed, and cited as the reason behind Trump and Brexit. However, this could equally be seen as the decisive turn in the fortunes of democracy, which thrived in the post-war years on the promises of across the board prosperity. There can not be a government 'by the people' when it's not 'for the people', and it was easy to see it backwards. Indeed, this is, paradoxically, both the reason why billionaires are suddenly in politics, and why Trump got elected. But it is new kind of politics when democracy is no longer an end in itself.

However, there are two other things that were transforming the world at the very moment when the legitimacy of democracy collapsed. Those are climate and technology. Climate - now warming up - opened up vast spaces of Siberia, Upper Mongolia and China's Western deserts, creating a new space for expansion and settlement. At the same time, the Arctic routes became navigable, altering the possibilities of trade. It is also altering people's livelihoods in many parts of the world, and sending out Refugees in search of livelihood, putting strain on settled national configurations and creating new kinds of politics. This phenomenon is rather overlooked in the Liberal Worldview, which can't really connect the cheap Supermarket Cod with the furore about Refugees yet, treating all comers as criminals or scammers. The inverse of it is a new kind of faith, which transposes the struggle for survival into an ideological form, and which is transported through the common language of deprivation and disconnection among the minority ethnic communities, which are an integral part of a Liberal world.

Technology, too, were disrupting itself, as it created the economic possibilities of local manufacturing, reduced the dependence on fossil fuel and brought out dying cultural identities that were being steamrolled in the broadcasting culture. Suddenly, the world pointed to a more fragmented, local world, than the flat global one that the Liberal Economics is built around. And, together, all of this is a profound change, an alteration of long term economic trends as it existed for last two hundred years, setting off a 'second machine age', or, even more significantly, a reversal of long term cycles lasting five hundred years, when the global balance shifted from Eurasia to the Atlantic World at the end of Fifteenth Century (with Columbus reaching North America and Vasco Da Gama finding the sea route to India), as Eurasia becomes the theatre of prosperity all over again.

This isn't new: Obama was speaking about 'Asia Pivot' to contain China's rise, but his understanding of the world was perhaps coloured by Altanticist intellectual environment he belonged to. Not so Trump, very much a global businessman, whose work intuitively followed the spread of consumption over the last two decades, and who may see a new scramble for Eurasia, in which America competes rather than collaborates with Europe, as the new policy reality. His appreciation of Putin may be based, not due to a dossier or gratefulness for electoral help (gratefulness is not one of Trump's virtues), but rather the fellow feeling to a possible ally in checkmating China. Obama's wishy-washy rhetorical Asia pivot is matched by Trump's wishy-washy rhetoric of European appeasement, whereas his actions, including his recent imposition of tariffs on Steel and Aluminium, are directed, in substance, less toward China and the Asian producers, and more towards Germany and the European ones (Canada and Mexico are exempt in any case). 

Does Trump have a grand, long term, strategy like that when he can't even keep his staff for more than a few months? Possibly not, but he is following his street instinct of what he thinks is best for America from his own personal vantage point, and some of these ideas are surprisingly easy to grasp intuitively than from within the Liberal logic built around proving the opposite case.

Thus, if one stops looking for ideological comfort in democracy, linked financial markets and familiar institutional and cultural frameworks, and instead look for commercial and political opportunities in a fast growing market, Trump's approach may make more sense. From his street-smart vantage point,  using America's military dominance as a leverage to get a prominent position in the world's fastest growing consumer markets make abundant sense; guaranteeing European or Japanese security indefinitely, for him, is an unnecessary financial strain for America - worse, it is about subsidising potential commercial and political competitors.

In summary, we are in a brave new world, where fundamental transformations are underway. President Trump's apparent madness may be symptomatic of an America searching for new leverage, and exploration of a policy shift from the Atlantic to Eurasia, from a Liberal Equilibrium to a new period of unleashing creative destruction in foreign policy. The discontinuities of personnel notwithstanding, there is a certain consistency in his methods and messages; certainly more consistency than his predecessors, who spun webs around themselves in proclaiming peace (and Obama getting a Nobel Prize) and bombing people, promoting democracy and then crushing the movements when they did not throw up predetermined answers, and allowing a new Russian resurgence and ceding space to China in Asia and Iran in the Middle East. Trump isn't palatable to the rest of the world, but he is predictable, and should perhaps be viewed as one last flourish of a world system in crisis.


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