Monday, August 8, 2016


What is America today?  President Reagan spoke about the shining city on the hill. But then he was to the political discourse what Disney represents for movies. Do not misunderstand me, Disney was a game changer and movies are important.  President George W. Bush saw America as the blueprint for democracies worldwide. We know what became of that.  President Obama looks at America as the "cool power", averse to over-reacting and -reaching.  There is still Tocqueville, remember?

Now we have two presidential candidates with very different worldviews.  Mrs. Clinton represents continuity with a hint of more edgy engagement.  Trump sees America as needing to be protected by a circle of wagons, pursuing purely narrowly-defined goals.  The world, and to a large extent the United States, prefer Mrs. Clinton's experience to Mr. Trump's unpredictable vicious inroads into the insult.

Both campaigns are shrill and mostly negative. Mrs. Clinton has no alternative but to retaliate and Trump follows his killer instinct, which generally boomerangs.  Replace Hitler's statements about "Jews" by "Mexicans" or "illegal aliens" and one finds exactly the same narrative in Trump's more outrageous outbursts. 

Is the American spirit in jeopardy? No, it is on hold. President Obama chose distance over proximity and this mindset leads a large part of intellectuals and commentators--Democrats and Republicans--to snub what has become indeed an unwatchable spectacle. The moral compass has been sidelined and as a consequence America can no longer claim enlightened leadership, for the moment. The Obama years were, paradoxically so, often felt as years of aloofness. Trump is able to play on this yearning for direction, while Mrs. Clinton has to fight against nature--her "indirect" temperament--and against a candidate who often acts like a psychopath who cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes.

One shouldn't over dramatize though. There are enough voices speaking out against bigoted provincial, political and economical half-baked proposals. America has no choice but to remain engaged in the world, in strategic priorities, in trade and in leadership. The country cannot afford to become a small-minded Rotary Club gathering of the socially inept and the intellectually shunned. 

Mrs. Clinton's win will be about both continuity and change. The Obama moral construction will stay, but the more unpleasant avatars of those last years will be taken up, rather than being relocated in an intellectual purgatory. Soft-power no longer suffices in this theatre of rogue actors and hard-core threats.  Hard-power will have a come back, and so will hard talk, so that polite self-restraint can no longer be confused with nonchalace. America, and the Western world in general, pass through a crisis of shaken self-respect. The saboteurs of the former creative Western concept were able to infiltrate the core ideas of the former Atlantic charter. We need more Churchill, not less. 

Trump is supposed to be a "transactional" type of character.  If everything becomes a deal, everything risks becoming equal.  The world cannot become a level playing field. It is a battle for the soul. The trenches are a thing of the past. There are, as President Obama rightly argues, "dumb wars" indeed. But there are also battles that need to be won. There are necessary, moral challenges.  ISIL, the Assange's of today, cyber-aggression, monetary manipulation, among others, need to be fought by specific, tailor-made means, which exclude no option while forecasting none either.

Candidate Sanders should not be forgotten. He highlighted the shortcomings of globalization and of an American economy which is seen as being unable to correct the concentration of income in the hands of a small financial elite.  Actually, the US macro-economic data are good. Russia, the other BRICS  (India excepted), the EU, MERCOSUR are stuck in structural recession, aggravated by falling oil prices. The US problem is one of distribution and of a stubborn income stagnation for the middle class. Mrs. Clinton will have to engineer an economic model which goes further than the usual infrastructure and tax incentives. Small enterprises, start-ups need encouragement. Executive pay, concentration of too much for too few, cannot remain off-limits.  She will also have to resist the excesses of the anti-globalization, anti-free trade camps. The TPP is of vital importance not only for trade with Asia (minus China)  but also for making the "pivot" to Asia real.  On climate change she is on the right track.

The danger of a populist revolt is real.  Most revolutions are started by few before being taken away or stolen away by many. If the starting point is creative, the tumult can still make room for correction, where needed. If the premise is demagogic, the consequences might be nefarious. In the case of Trump there is the story of an individual who followed a business pattern so aptly described in Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Christo. The pattern is one of short-term opportunism and profit taking, rather than one of long-term vision.  Paradoxically, the man in the Fifth Avenue gilded cage has followers among the frustrated white working class who see salvation in a businessman who played financial "hit and run" and who has never shown any empathy with any of them. His catastrophic, pessimistic message resonates nevertheless in households stuck in an empty narrative which becomes an echo chamber for political frustration.

The next presidential election is existential because it is less about competing programs than about a clear choice:  a claim to destiny versus accommodation with narrow mindedness. The candidates are no visionaries.  Still, one suggests writing a new chapter, while the other talks about closing the books.

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