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The Trump Phenomenon & American Politics

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                                          June 22, 2016

 Most often, history comes up with surprises in the social and political realms, and with the advent of history’s enigma people are puzzled and have a hard time understanding the power nexus, more so the emergence of “unlikely” individuals and ascendance to the highest echelon of power relations. The reason why people are confused and puzzled with respect to such kind of historical irony, for the most part, emanates from their existential expectations and assumptions that only wise and astute individuals should wield state power. Contrary to this assumption, however, many foolish, crazy, and retarded individuals have assumed power and became the leaders of their respective countries in the distant past, the medieval era, and in our modern period. Examples abound in human history, but suffice to mention some of them: Nero of ancient Rome; Ivan the Terrible of Russia; Hitler of Germany; Mussolini of Italy; Pol Pot of Kampuchea; Mobutu of Democratic Republic of Congo; and Mengistu Hailemariam of Ethiopia.

From the above brief analysis and the current mood in American politics, thus, it is not surprising that Donald Trump has now dominated the landscape of the American electoral process and became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. Also, it will not be surprising that Trump would become the next president of the United States, unless Hillary Clinton and her supporters alter or reverse the current conservative electorate tide and win in November.

Back in February 2016, in response to Noam Chomsky’s remark on the rise of Donald Trump, a commentary posted on Facebook and elsewhere, I had my take among hundreds of other commentators. This is what Chomsky said: “We owe the rise of Trump to fear and the breakdown of society,”1 and I responded as follows:

I am in full accord with Professor Chomsky’s opinion/analysis but we should begin to view American politics in the context of Real Politic and centrist politics that virtually govern the United States in all dimensions. The rise of Donald Trump should be attributed to “fear” and “helplessness” as the good professor aptly puts it, but we should also admit that Trump is appealing not only to desperate Americans who lost their jobs due to outsourcing but also to conservative Americans (and the majority of Americans are conservative). Thus, if Trump ascends to power, he would definitely employ domestic and foreign politics that would reflect Real Politic, but given the nature of American political culture he would be forced to implement centrist politics. Incidentally, even if Clinton became president she would be operating within the framework of Real Politic and centrist politics. The only candidate that would be different is Bernie Sanders; he is a wonderful man but history is not in his favor; reality sets in: corporations govern America and they will make sure that Bernie never comes near the White House.”2

One other commentator by the name Robert Corradino responded to my remark by saying, “profound, pap, but profound”3 and I extended gratitude to him then, but in due course of my readings on American electoral politics, I came across plethora of diverse opinions on Trump that I will discuss below. Before I do that, however, I like to make crystal clear the nature and characteristics of American politics.

As I have stated in my reply to Chomsky, to which I got a constructive feedback from Corradino, American politics tout court is dominated by three political ideologies: Realism, Liberalism, and centrist politics. Realism or Real Politic, first expounded by Machiavelli, advocates “reality of concrete historical circumstances” but what Machiavelli infused in his paradigm and some historians and politicians miss is ‘ethics’, because he combines ‘virtue’ and ‘fear’ in his political theory; the former implies ethical values and the latter coercion or the use of force.

Modern day American neo-liberalists, however, abandoned the ethical component of Machiavelli’s theory and squared in rather on the national interest (Realism) reinforced by the ubiquitous maxim, “America has no permanent friends but permanent interests.” Within this framework of political ideology, thus, the US realists revel in the employment of coercion, the use of the military and nuclear development, including preemptive strike in real or perceived wars.

By contrast, although liberals are the same like the realists in many ways, at least theoretically they are in favor of diplomacy as opposed to coercion and they also tacitly agree  that humans by nature are essentially good, a proposition that the realists very much doubt. Based on the controversial and contrasting views on human nature, the realists followed Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan in which a sovereign (or ‘a strong political leader’ in modern parlance) presides over a disorderly (or ‘crisis’ that I will discuss later) ‘state of nature’. The realist rationale by extension means ‘dominant global power in a unipolar world’. The liberals, by contrast, followed John Locke’s The Treatise of Government and embraced ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ although they too advocate “American global leadership,” a less intimidating phraseology compared to the “naked aggression” of the realists.

American politics, of course, is not just realism and liberalism; as I have argued earlier, it is very much characterized by centrist politics. For the most part, modern US history, and the executive branch of government presided over by the president, has been following centrist politics like a norm.

On top of the nature and characteristics of US politics that I have attempted to analyze above, America is blessed with a rich democratic culture and plethora of democratic institutions. A good example of the latter, for instance, is the system of checks and balances, a fine system of separation of powers, by which the branches of government are made accountable, transparent, and responsible. For example, the president is the commander-in-chief of the armies and can dispatch the army to a war zone, but he can’t do so without the consent of Congress; and in the event the president violates the law and sends troops without notifying Congress (unlikely scenario), the legislative body can systematically halt his military ventures and expenditure by not financing it. Finance is within Congress jurisdiction, but beyond finance Congress can also order the executive branch authorities to testify before a committee of the Legislative body in regards to transgression of power or any wrong doing; Congress can even impeach the president for inappropriate conduct.

Now, we can conveniently discuss the Trump phenomenon in the context of Chomsky’s remark, my commentary, and other views entertained on the emergence of a business tycoon in American politics. What kind of persona is Trump? A significant number of media outlets, pundits, and other commentators saw Trump as unqualified for the office of the presidency, mainly because of his temperament, arrogance, and vitriolic language. Some individuals like Deepak Chopra view Trump as a man who is emotionally and mentally retarded.4           Chopra, of course, is way out of line and indisputably wrong in comparing Trump to a three-year old retarded child. A man who singlehandedly established a business empire possibly cannot be unintelligent, let alone retarded as Chopra claims, and on the contrary it shows how shallow Chopra’s observations of a complex socio-political reality is and the nature of individuals and/or groups that are immersed in it.

Fellow republicans like Mitt Romney are vehemently opposed to Trump as well; and most of them seem to convey messages to the public regarding Trump’s inability to run a government and/or become a political leader; Paul Ryan, Congress spokesperson, was hesitant to endorse Trump; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is worried in regards to Trump’s dearth of knowledge on issues. Both, however, concede that the American people have spoken and that Donald Trump is the nominee. In a similar fashion, but more harshly, the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders attacked Trump on many of their campaign trails as he has done unto them. There were even protestors who attempted to vilify Trump, but their efforts were counterproductive. The more Trump was vilified the more votes and supporters he got from the American people, and in some states he enjoyed landslide victories.

All the above stated critical remarks on Trump, however, are not relevant to our present discussion or to the central thesis of this essay. The one commentary that comes very close to the tenets and analysis of this paper is the one reasoning presented by the filmmaker Michael Moore, and he puts it quite elegantly as in the following:

There is an excellent chance that Donald Trump will become the next president of the United States and Americans need to take that very seriously…He knows how to manipulate a dumbed-down population…The populations of schools has been wrecked, and the news media is just insipid and stupid and does not give the people the facts about what is going on.  …He is not stupid as he looks…you should take it seriously. He knows the manipulation that is going on here, and the use of propaganda and the way he is doing it is just brilliant in the way that he is succeeding and has succeeded.”5     

Michael Moore got it right, but it is important to systematically analyze why strong men like Trump emerge during economic and political crisis in which a state of exception regime is established subsequently, but the question remains: Do we have a crisis in the United States now? In the micro sense of the term, we don’t really have a visible economic and political crisis (except for the intermittent inflations), but in the macro sense, an underpinning crisis has been going since the coming to power of Obama, and this unique American crisis was manifested as a backlash to the first ever black president who was portrayed as “Muslim” and a “communist” as well as a citizen “who was not born in the US”. None of the above characterization of Obama has a grain of truth, but the majority of white conservative Americans believed in the falsification of Obama’s background. Moreover, the charlatans, racists, and relatively unenlightened Americans were frightened by Obama and they have gone out of their way to establish militias and began to swagger around pompously while at the same time exhibiting hatred to an African-American president; they even unnecessarily displayed their guns in public places like bars and restaurants. Other frightened elements were also organized and rallied around the so-called Tea Party. It is this kind of perceived fear that ultimately galvanized a conservative upsurge and sentiment in the United States from 2008 to present and this is what I call crisis in the macro sense. And it is this kind of crisis that became conducive to the emergence of Trump, and he would have not enjoyed a propitious moment in the electorate had it not been for backlash-cum-crisis that I have discussed above.

Another strange observer and commentator on Trump is Putin, the president of Russia. In an interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN (6/19/2016), Putin called Trump a “brilliant” man in the context of Trump’s will to restore good relations of the US and Russia and also in contradistinction to the seemingly new cold war atmosphere. While many Americans and other people around the world have perceived Trump as a war-monger, Putin on the contrary seems to be at ease with him, and he even implied that the coming of Trump to power would bring peace and that Russia and the US would also be in good terms to each other.  Putin’s evaluation of Trump obviously undergirds Russia’s national interest, which squarely falls within the Realist foreign policy agenda, and the ultimate objective is that Russia would be in good position to promote its interests by dealing with the “lesser evil” (a Trump leadership that is ready to talk with the Russian leadership) than Hillary Clinton who might continue the American policy of challenging Russia at its turf, that is neighboring Ukraine and other ex-Soviet Union nations.

One curious political motive that we need to investigate and critically examine is why Trump became a nuisance among diverse political groups, including the republican establishment. Is Trump part of the establishment or he is against the establishment? The latter concept could have a dual meaning: 1) the elite, the “filthy” rich, the less than 2% wealthy Americans who control the US and global economy are part of the establishment; 2) people who wield power at all levels (municipal, state, and federal) are part of the political establishment. Trump belongs to the first tier of establishment and he is against (at least for now) the second tier of establishment, or more specifically the Washington establishment.

The reason why people in the second tier of establishment were terrified by Trump is the fact that he has shaken their foundations; it is quite obvious why the elected officials in Washington vehemently opposed Donald Trump. However the more they opposed him, the more challenge came to the Republican party and when they continue to oppose him, conservative Americans (apparently stronghold constituencies of Congressmen and women) may not vote on their behalf in the next round of elections. Ultimately thus, the Republican leaders were compelled to resolve two major problems: 1) to overcome the division within the Party and unify it further; and 2) to counter the Clinton momentum that could possibly take advantage of the infighting within the Republican Party; and they have no choice but to support their presumptive nominee and defeat Clinton in November.

If Trump wins and become the president of the United States, what kind of president is he going to be? This question can be answered in the context of the US political culture and the political edifice that has been characterized by constancy and change throughout the history of the United States. Trump could have his own ‘style of politics’ but he could not impose his own will unto the decision making process in light of the checks and balances system that we have in the US, and whether he likes it or not he would abide by the rules that govern America and the parameters of the constitution; otherwise, he will be impeached. In the final analysis, like all his predecessors, Trump will find himself at the center, not withstanding his intimidating ultra conservative right-to-right agenda; there are no extremities in US politics; centrist politics govern America and solutions are found in the center, not in the polar opposites of extreme right or extreme left.

One of Trump’s idols perhaps is Ronald Reagan and we recall that Reagan came to power in the wake of the Iran Hostage crisis and the relatively weak Carter Administration, but before he assumed power he was feared as a war-like ultra right demagogue. However, after Reagan became president of the United States, he adopted a center-to-right politics in Washington but there were times when he favored center-to-left politics as well. The latter was manifested in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 that was signed into law by Reagan, by which he gave amnesty to 3.2 million undocumented immigrants in the US. In the same fashion, Trump would tone done his current rhetoric of building a wall between the US and Mexico and come up rather with a middle ground solution to illegal immigration.

Trump is a business leader and a real estate savvy and obviously not a sophisticated political persona, but he would hire the most talented politicians and professionals in running the government. I suspect that Trump knows this too well, but since he is more like a roaring lion than a cunning fox (the Machiavellian fox) his top advisors should rather be persons with high caliber, astute, and with tremendous clout.  It is this kind of advisors that are going to formulate policies for him and render him the ABC of politics; and in light of the latter reality, the Mitch McConnell rationale that Trump “does not know the issues” becomes untenable.   But, McConnell’s worry should not be dismissed altogether, because Trump will face a major challenge in delivering a coherent foreign policy even if the latter is to be made ready for him by his advisors.             

As Ernesto Stein et al argue, “Policies are complex undertakings. Bringing any particular “policy reform” to fruition is a process that involves multiple actors through many stages of the policy process. It requires specific responses from economic and social agents, and therefore necessitates several forms of cooperation and positive beliefs about the durability and other properties of the policy. That is, policies require a great deal more than a magical moment of special politics to introduce “the right policy” in order to produce effective results.”6

If all goes well, the business tycoon-turned-politician will be exposed to the complexity of policies and their implementation following his induction to the presidency; his mentor advisors will introduce him to 101 on foreign policy and other aspects of governance.  

By way of conclusion, I like to address the views and stance Trump would have on Africa. When Donald Trump was confronted by some media outlets and pundits as a bigot and racist, he responded by saying that he is “not a racist”. May be he is not a racist, but there is no doubt that he has racial prejudice against minorities in the United States, other ethnic groups, and Africans. His remark on African leaders has some truth but his contention that “Africa should be re-colonized” manifests the height of arrogance and ignorance of history.

According to NAIJ, an online blog on Nigerian Daily Newspapers reports, responding to a question from a South African journalist in Nebraska, Trump said, “It is shameful for African leaders to seek exist from ICC. In my view, these leaders want to have all the freedom to oppress their poor people without anyone asking them a question. I think there is no short cut to maturity and in my view Africa should be re-colonized because Africans are still under slavery. Look at how these leaders change constitutions in their favor so that they can be life presidents. They are all greedy and do not care about the common people. When I saw them gang up against ICC yet they can’t even find an amicable solution for the ongoing quandary in Burundi. I thought to myself these people lack discipline and humane heart. They can’t lead by example. The only thing they are interested in is accumulating wealth from poor tax payers.”7   

I am not in a position to defend the corrupt African leaders, but Trump’s contention of “re-colonizing Africans” is simply out of historical context and reflects only an ignoramus cliché of former European colonizers who came up with the idea of neo-colony and are still extracting African resources. On the other hand, Trumps rationale of the re-colonization of Africa is not surprising because it fits very well into the ambition of imperialists and disgruntled philosophers like Hegel who argue that ‘Africa does not belong to history’ when in fact history began in Africa. The continent of Africa is cradle of humanity and civilizations; all major civilizations of antiquity (Egyptian, Nubian, Kush, Ethiopian etc.) and the medieval period (Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Zimbabwe etc) flourished within Africa. All human beings all over the world have their roots in Africa; they have the same mitochondria DNA (transmitted from the mother only) that has descended to all humans from the great grand daughters of Lucy or Denknesh (Ethiopian name for Lucy). I highly recommend Mr. Trump to watch The Real Eve a documentary put out by Discovery Channel, so that he can absorb a refined history of humanity and redeem himself from racial prejudice.     


1.     Matt Ferner, The Huffington Post, February 26, 2016

2.     Ghelawdewos Araia response to Noam Chomsky, Facebook, February 2016

3.     Robert Corradino, Ibid

4.     Deepak Chopra, interview with radio host Alan Colmes, Fox News, 6/10/2016

5.     Reported by Sandy Fitzgerald, NBC News, Friday 10 June, 2016

6.     Ernesto Stein et al, The Politics of Policies, Harvard University, 2006, p. 15

7.     NAIJ.com, Donald Trump Attacks Buhari, other African leaders, May 22, 2016 

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) 2016; Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org The author is a Columbia University alumnus and professor of African and African American Studies at Lehman College, City University of New York.