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Donald Trump is no accident

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
November 27, 2019

The US president is often called a "populist," but Alexander Görlach writes Trump's election was a reaction to the populist who occupied the White House before him.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump

In less than a year's time, elections will be held in the US, and the question is already being discussed of what the country might look like when the populist, Donald Trump, is no longer in power. This is the general problem in the context of populists: They usually don't deliver anything substantial. As a result, once they have vanished into thin air, frustration about the political system and democracy tends to be greater than before.

However, in view of the current situation in the US, this perspective is incorrect. Donald Trump is not the populist many consider him to be. On the contrary, Barack Obama was the populist who did not deliver — and Donald Trump is the reaction to him.

Read more: Understanding the populist narrative

This news may sound as shocking to many — as it does to the author of these lines — that there are also "good" populists: Those who don't seek to capitalize on marginalization but invoke the spirit of community. What they have in common with the "bad" populists is that they simplify reality to a degree at which no objective policy is possible anymore.

What did Obama actually claim we could accomplish?

"Yes, we can" was a mantra of the 2008 election campaign, the pious and well-intentioned desire to transform America positively after the leaden Bush years. But what exactly was to be accomplished never became clear. The country was supposed to renew itself, but how?

Then came the financial crisis and the opportunity to build something new on the ruins of the Lehman Brothers scandal. But Barack Obama only made use of the toolbox of a learned politician: He saved the banks, but not the hundreds of thousands of homeowners who became homeless. Not a single one of the bankers who caused the chaos ended up in prison for it. The book and the feature film "The Big Short" tells that story in detail.

Alexander Görlach
Alexander GörlachImage: Harvard University/D. Elmes

Many Americans found all this deeply unfair. And if you, like many of them, had to move into a small basement room with your parents-in-law or siblings in order not to end up on the street, then the idea of the nation as a family that ensures fairness seems attractive. This is Donald Trump's message: "America first" means first of all "fairness for us Americans." A cosmopolitan agenda only works when there is fairness in the home arena.

Read more: European populists don't need Donald Trump, but they like his support

Barack Obama only hammered the final nail in the coffin of a paralyzed policy by remaining stuck in the old political paradigms. The US was once the country with the highest level of mobility. People moved from Alaska to Florida for a new job. That's over today. The 2008 crisis intensified what had been smoldering in the country for some time: rising inequality.

Today, the US is the least mobile country in the free world; the land of opportunity is a distant memory.

Fairness for America!

It is important for the future of democracy in the US to correctly classify the recent past: Donald Trump is not an operational accident, but rather someone whom his voters consider to be precisely the kind of person who can bring back fairness to the country. For the moment, the figures prove Trump right: Employment is rising, the economy is booming, and in international relations, too, especially with China, his supporters see that he is bringing back fairness.

The cosmopolitan liberals, among them the author of these lines, are going to have to digest it.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.

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