Our new 9th of November moment: What Trump and the US presidential elections teach us about the future

Louisa Slavkova

Written for MPC-Voice


At least 3 times in history the world woke up to be a different place on November 9.


On November 9, 1938 Nazi military forces ransacked Jewish shops, schools, hospitals, synagogues in a pogrom against the Jews throughout the country. The so-called Reichskristallnacht, an euphemism later used by the perpetrators, was the beginning of the Holocaust, it foreshadowed the coming of a genocide. History would teach us only later on how many millions stood by - in Germany, in Europe, in the world - a silent majority of bystanders. The lesson that followed the end of WWII was supposed to be a ‘never again’ – never again to genocide, to racism, to demagoguery.  

On November 9, 1989 the Berlin wall came down and put an end to communism. Liberal democracy and free market economy prevailed as the better alternative for a world that aspired to reunite. The East was rushing to catch up, the West was eager to help install democracy, rule of law, and freedom to choose. A new order, based on liberal ideals, embedded in multilateral institutions and interdependence was replacing the old one. The rise of democracy in the 1990s was nevertheless followed by a slow but steady decline in the 2000s. The implicit assumption that liberalism would win its ground on its own was unfounded. There is both naïveté and arrogance to such expectations. Naïveté in thinking that the work on freedom could ever be totally completed, and arrogance in othering those, who do not share the same values deeming them “deplorable” or “irredeemable” (to use the words of Hillary Clinton)?. As the Irish poet Yeats reminds us often “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

On November 9, 2016 Donald Trump became the president elect of the United States of America. The American silent majority, on which everyone was betting in the last days before the vote to be in support of Hillary Clinton, proved pundits and pollsters wrong and the ”Big Brother” effect right.  People simply did not want to admit they were voting for Trump, just as “Big Brother” viewers are reluctant to admit that they are fans of the reality show.

New Realities

Donald Trump is not the candidate of change that the angry and disappointed with the status quo wished for. He is what they got in an attempt to punish the system, the state, the parties, the establishment, the ‘elites’, globalization and even political correctness. Trump cannot cancel free trade deals over-night - these renegotiations will certainly take years. He is also incapable of changing the fundaments of the economy in a month, a year or even two. In addition, his plans for the economy are expected to raise debt even further. He will have to learn the lesson that running a state where people are your boss is very different from running an enterprise . I doubt he will deliver on any of his promises but instead could succumb to what other populist leaders do – witch-hunting, abuse of power and even authoritarianism. 

Traditionally, many Americans wish for less state but yesterday they voted for someone who not only sounds statist, but also claims that only he can fix America. Such political contradictions aren’t a surprise in the world we live in. The Brexit vote and rise in referenda proved earlier this year that not facts, but feelings rule affairs  -  feelings of being left behind, not necessarily of being economically disadvantaged or even worse off. Being an Eastern European and dealing with people’s nostalgia for communism – a time many people imagine in a way it never really was – I am aware of how important it is to take people’s feelings seriously, but also to act in accordance to them.

Soul-searching needed

One lesson for the community of shocked today is to start taking people and their concerns seriously, but also to act on countering those sentiments in society that call the worst in people, including othering or discrimination. Another lesson goes for the major parties, and especially for the Republican party. The Grand Old Party (GOP) abandoned its principles for the sake of power and the unity of the party. It allowed for Donald Trump to rise and only in the last few months of the campaign parts of GOP took a firm stance opposing him. The Republican party should be in a soul-searching mode, rather than celebrating. There is time and there are ways to place the party on the right side of history and lift principles before it, even if that meant a split or working closely with the Democratic minority in Congress. 

A third lesson goes to the millennial voters, especially the ones who use social media and networks as a replacement of traditional parties and politics. They don’t wish to follow leaders, but would rather follow ideas. I hope the ones who didn’t vote for Trump (54% of all millennials according to the polls) realize that he is largely a product of the same social media. It is fair to add that he became a product traditional media as well, due to their hesitancy to recognize early on what he stands for, and consequently granting him unlimited coverage and publicity. Millennials who think that one can run the state as a start-up through trial and error, experimenting on the go and even getting paid for it, are just wrong. Hopefully the 45th presidency teaches the lesson that it is actually good that the state cannot be reshuffled as easily.

So far social media has not engaged in soul-searching. The more social networks become a tool of politics, the more important it is they analyse their own role and take responsibility. Accountability is expected from every instance involved in politics. In addition, the more difficult it becomes to gather accurate data for opinion polls and the more accurate data social networks obtain, the more capable and equipped they become to actually help make more accurate predictions and better tailored policies and politics. 

Nevertheless, the US campaign also showed that the Internet has a built in lie detector that needs to be promoted and exploited in a more rigorous manner. The ability to instantaneously fact-check what politicians are claiming to be true or false is incredibly valuable and turned into one of the hallmarks of the US presidential campaign. Of all the candidates, Donald Trump was certainly the one proven wrong the most. This consequently begs the question, why didn’t people care?

Looking ahead

In this new context and at such an early stage, guessing rather than predicting is what we are left with. For us in Europe this is both a threat and an opportunity. It is a threat as the president elect has made strong statements for reducing the US support for NATO. If none of the events of the past few years convinced us of the importance of staying together as Europeans, it is this moment of feeling completely left alone, that should. Questions about who will seize leadership in the EU and about enhancing our military capacities will be at the core of the discussion. But as we, the 27 EU member states will somewhat slowly be drafting our way forward, it is equally important not to give in to any type of Schadenfreude – no one is immune to populism and no people deserve a populist leader, who shows no respect for the liberal state, its institutions and its citizens. The US being weak and self-absorbed is bad for Europe, because this will result in more vacuum in places where conflicts won’t resolve on their own. It would also widen the existing ones, opening space for contesters who wish to see the Euro-Atlantic bond as an ever looser partnership.

For the smaller Eastern European countries, the bet is even higher – a looser EU after the Brexit, a less reliable NATO after Trump and more politicians who would aspire to be like Trump make us more vulnerable and more susceptible to foreign meddling .

History seems to come back to us on November the 9th. As long as we haven’t learned our lessons, history will be repeating in cycles, some worse than others, reminding us how important it is not to take liberties for granted. In Eastern Europe we thought history came to an end a few times – in 1989 and with some of ours NATO and EU accessions. We, too, had to discover that everything is possible and nothing is for granted. Defeating populism isn’t impossible, but for that a bit more than conviction will be needed.