Wed, Mar 09, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Unravelling the mysterious riddle of Donald Trump’s appeal

The US economy is growing and the unemployment rate is low, but many feel excluded from the prosperity and blame their inequality on foreigners

By Joseph Nye

Donald Trump’s lead in the race for the Republican Party’s nomination as its presidential candidate in November has caused consternation. The Republican establishment fears he will not be able to defeat former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. However, some observers worry more about the prospect of a Trump presidency. Some even see Trump as a potential American Benito Mussolini.

Whatever its problems, the US today is not like Italy in 1922. The US constitution’s institutional checks and balances, together with an impartial legal system, are likely to constrain even a reality-TV showman.

The real danger is not that Trump will do what he says if he reaches the White House, but the damage caused by what he says as he tries to get there.

Leaders are judged not only on the effectiveness of their decisions, but also by the meaning that they create and teach to their followers. Most leaders gain support by appealing to the existing identity and solidarity of their groups. However, great leaders educate their followers about the world beyond their immediate group.

After World War II, during which Germany had invaded France for the third time in 70 years, the French leader Jean Monnet decided that revenge upon a defeated Germany would produce yet another tragedy. Instead, he invented a plan for the gradual development of the institutions that evolved into the EU, which has helped make such a war unthinkable.

Or, to take another example of great leadership, former South African president Nelson Mandela could easily have chosen to define his group as black South Africans and sought revenge for the injustice of decades of apartheid and his own imprisonment. Instead, he worked tirelessly to expand the identity of his followers both by words and deeds.

In one famous symbolic gesture, he appeared at a rugby game wearing the jersey of the South African Springboks, a team that had previously signified South African white supremacy.

Contrast Mandela’s efforts to teach his followers about a broader identity with the narrow approach taken by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Unlike Mandela, Mugabe used colonial-era grievances to build support, and now is relying on force to remain in power.

In the US, while the economy is growing and the unemployment rate is at a low 4.9 percent, many feel excluded from the country’s prosperity. Many blame rising inequality over the past few decades on foreigners, rather than technology and it is easy to rally opposition both to immigration and globalization. In addition to economic populism, a significant minority of the US public also feels threatened by cultural changes related to race, culture and ethnicity, even though much of this is not new.

The next US president will have to educate Americans about how to deal with a globalization process that many find threatening. National identities are imagined communities in the sense that few people have direct experience of the other members. For the past century or two, the nation-state has been the imagined community that people are willing to die for and most leaders have regarded their primary obligations to be national. This is inescapable, but it is not enough in a globalizing world.

In a world of globalization, many people belong to a number of imagined communities — local, regional, national, cosmopolitan — that are overlapping circles sustained by the Internet and inexpensive travel. Diasporas are now connected across national borders. Professional groups such as lawyers have transnational standards. Activist groups ranging from environmentalists to terrorists also connect across borders. Sovereignty is no longer as absolute as it once seemed.

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