Politicians have a habit of overstating the importance of the moment. It is in the interest of their egos that they present themselves as standing with one foot on the fulcrum of history around which the entire course of human affairs turns. Yet perhaps they are also right in that moments do indeed matter. Decisions do have consequences. This “simple” causality is part of that philosophical problem that will always remain intractable: a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and the world does indeed change in that moment.
If you consider causality in this way, questions such as the extent of Russia’s interference in the American election become almost trivial to answer. Of course they “interfered”, in the very same way that you, I, or, indeed, that butterfly in Tokyo “interfered”. The Russian genius was in recognising that the vast unfiltered stream of social media could be re-appropriated by their bots. The world, they knew, is no closed system, and, slowly, Americans are realising this too.
In a deeply interconnected world, we are “opinion” and we can all influence opinion. A tweet, comment, and even this article nudges fate in the very same way as raising the issue of Russian interference in the election during the election will have influenced voters. Such is the nature of cause and effect. It’s not even a matter of “will the Russians be back” (that frankly risible question asked by so many senators during recent hearings). The Russians never went away. Russian interference is already shaping the next American election simply because we’re talking about Russian interference.
In so far as “everything affects everything” is the natural business of causality, we realise that America today is different to the America of some theoretical Clinton presidency. We must also accept that the election of Donald Trump changed the world. Nothing will ever be the same again…
Except, of course, we also know that all of the above is not entirely true.
Causality is one of those romantic fictions we enjoy because it takes us to a place of metaphysical mystery; the bumbling happenstance of Back to the Future time travel or the twisted past, present, and futures of a Philip K. Dick short story. It might be the case that the fate of mankind does rest on the habits of East Asian butterflies but we also know that this does not tell us the whole story.
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Butterflies in Tokyo aren’t as significant as butterflies in Washington and neither are as significant as the flapping of the Eastern District of Virginia Attorney’s office or a story floated by The New York Times. Russia might have meddled but let’s not suppose that America hasn’t the power to meddle back. In other words: human affairs are more likely to be influenced by human affairs and we should really stop worrying about the negligible effects of butterflies.
Amid all the hullabaloo of Trump’s disastrous G20 meeting, it’s worth reminding ourselves that this president is well on his way to becoming the least impactful president that America has even known. Thus far, history is not exactly grinding on its pivot because of the Trump presidency. The noise and fury of Trump’s first few months ultimately signified impotent sound and ineffectual fury.
The Donald is no “Tricky” Richard Nixon, who was, despite Watergate, a serious man who influenced the course of his nation and the world. Trump has squandered the power of the presidency to annoy liberal America, denounce the free press, and embarrass Republicans. His greatest “achievement”, really, is making very many Americans realise how deeply they care about their health insurance.
Trump’s is a dysfunctional administration, with many positions in his government unfilled and quite possibly never to be filled. America might be currently undergoing a roll back of regulations, including many that involve the climate, but, equally, there’s nothing to say that it won’t be followed by an equally swift roll forward under the next president. As for foreign policy: Trump has fired a few missiles into Syria and done little else that hasn’t been shaped by the will of others. In the Middle East he’s being led by Putin and on North Korea led by the realty that previous administrations have all ultimately recognised: that any solution will have to come through China, because no American president would subject Seoul to the artillery barrage that would undoubtedly result from any kind of meaningful strike on the North.
All of which makes one wonder: why do people continue to confuse Trump with America? Why do so many talk about the demise of America, as if some radical change has permanently affected the dynamics between nations?
Donald Trump may speak for America today and he might well speak for America tomorrow but at no point has he ever spoken for the ideals of America. He does not speak for American fortitude or American entrepreneurship. He doesn’t speak for the American spirit or the American Dream or American know how. He does not speak for America of the past; the ideal that Ronald Reagan described as a “vision of a shining city on a hill.” Nor does Donald Trump speak for America’s future. As for American greatness, does anybody seriously believe that ends with Trump?
Just as Trump doesn’t enhance America, nor does this squalid man diminish it. Naturally, it is in the interests of some to say that American is now no longer the leader of the free world but, really, this is just political opportunism that would make a convenience of America’s weakness.
When Angela Merkel said that the EU should “take its fate into its own hands” and get used to not having America there to lead, it was not such a profound statement denoting change. Europe had always wanted to be a power unto itself and, in that, Germany has always been the lead power inside that bloc. Donald Trump merely provides a chance to restate European identity. It is nothing more than that. It would also be foolish to confuse one man’s sulk with the isolationism of a nation.
Not all of us have given up on America or even blame Americans for their current plight. America remains the nation that many of us look to in terms of culture and science. America is the nation of Apple, Microsoft, Google, SpaceX, and Tesla. Even as Trump insults, sneers, and sulks, the world carries on around him. Americans still look out to the world, speaking to us, sharing and exchanging ideas, jokes, stories, and, indeed, friendship. America is still the nation it’s always been: that problematic enigma of liberty and reactionary politics, anarchy and over-governance.
This, lastly, is worth remembering. American democracy is still a relatively new experiment in human history; very much a work-in-progress. When America emerges from these difficulties it should have learnt an important lesson about its Constitution, written by human hands and consequently not without some very human flaws. They will know more about an electoral system dangerously exposed, both in terms of its over reliance on antiquated machines but also in terms of how it allows rich iconoclasts to emerge. They might even look again at a system in which staff working in sensitive government positions undergo psychological testing but its presidents do not. They might even learn to spot the dangers of a system that relies, as a last resort, on an electoral college that so spectacularly failed to act on warnings raised back in December.
And, perhaps, it’s in this sense that Trump might well have lasting significance. If the fluttering of Trump’s wings are to be significant at all, it is because it will have taught America to protect its democracy properly. He will have shown them how naive it was to assume that freedom is ever so easily won. If so, America will emerge stronger than it has ever been.