Whatever the question, Trump is not the answer



Donald Trump infiltrating the Republican Party

The American sociologist Robert King Merton is not a household name. But he is one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. An unassuming professor at Columbia University, Merton, who died in 2003, pioneered the scientific study of human society.

He is perhaps most famous for his exploration of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Each of us will have experienced its effects. We do something for the right reasons, but the outcomes are often different to those we expect.

A classic example of the law in action can be seen in the current state of the British Labour Party. Those who signed nomination papers for Jeremy Corbyn, to ensure a full range of voices were heard in the leadership debates, never believed this would result in his election.

Much the same thing is happening in the United States where Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party and is in the process of destroying it from within.

Whatever you think of their politics, the Republicans are one of the great political parties of western democracy. Among their presidents they number Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the greatest of them all, Abraham Lincoln.

Richard Nixon (although a crook) transformed the west’s dysfunctional relationship with China, and Ronald Reagan (by no means a towering intellectual) presided over the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war.

A President Trump would make the most recent Republican incumbent of the Oval Office – George W Bush – look like a master craftsman of the democratic arts.

Trump should have been taken down in the US Primary elections. These are designed to weed out the rubbish from the field of candidates. No-one imagined he had a chance. Then the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in. Much the same thing happened in the Brexit referendum.

David Cameron – recently branded one of the worst prime ministers in British history in a poll of politics academics – never believed the vote would be won by a bunch of right-wing conspiracy theorists with an inferiority complex about Britain’s relationship with Europe. But it was.

Trump’s brand of negative, misogynistic politics is tailor-made for the Twitter age. It’s easy to lie in 140 characters – Tweets, sound-bites and slogans strip away the detail, the context and the facts.

And they play to an audience that is looking for simple answers to complex problems; that believes nobody is listening to their voices, and which sees the elite getting away with murder.

Lost on them is the nonsense of a multi-millionaire property developer portraying himself as an anti-elitist man of the people.

Trump is on the ballot because people have exercised their democratic right to put him there. It cannot be contested that the exercise of democracy is a good thing. Yet the unintended consequence of giving people a voice is that they may misuse it. Or worse, their legitimate fears and worries might be exploited.

History is filled with those who exercised power through the exploitation of democracy. In the last century Adolf Hitler rose to power by taking over and then undermining the democratic process.

It is instructive to look at the Merton’s analysis of why actions and motivations that are inherently good can lead to unintended consequences: ignorance, making it difficult to predict outcomes; failing to analyse problems properly; putting short-term interests ahead of long-term goals; making decisions to address problems that don’t really exist; and making decisions on the basis of outmoded value systems.

That final one is the most dangerous. It is what is fuelling Trump’s cry of “make America great again”, and it was the underpinning basis of the xenophobic, anti-European, Little Englander campaign that it taking us out of Europe,

For those of us looking on (in horror it must be said), the consequences of a Trump presidency are all too apparent. If he governs the country the way he has governed himself over this past 18 months, God help the free world.

His core vote – and he has one – has been sold a vision of a resurgent America on the side of the little people against the forces of global capitalism. If they buy into his dream, their vote will have the same unintended consequence of those who claimed Brexit would make Britain great again: a currency in free-fall, an economy unfit to meet the needs of working people, a society riven by racial hatred and abuse.

Having given us candidate Trump, the US electorate appears to be the only force capable of stopping him. Let’s hope they do.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News