Oxford-style debate: Morning-after reflections on the ephemerality of Trump

Michelle Mielly, Grenoble Ecole de Management. Author provided

This article, the third in the Oxford-style debate series based on the motion “The impact reflected by Trump is here to stay”, argues against the motion, focusing on the fleeting, transitory spirit captured in Trump’s presidency. The second article in this series “A Toast to Trump’s New-Wage America… And Tomorrow’s Hangover”, expounds the economic rationale for the motion. Here is the response to the second article.


Foreword

I ask you to vote against the motion that states “The impact reflected by Trump is here to stay” for three main reasons. First, deep and implicit biases cause us to overestimate the power of this current phase of our political life, and therefore predict the future impact incorrectly and irrationally. Secondly, emotions played a significant role in the US elections and aftermath. The viral nature of social media’s reach resulted in an emotional contagion that has intensified the polarisation of Republicans and Democrats and their perceptions of the impact reflected by Trump. Third, the impact of Trump is much more ephemeral than we think today because research on social norms demonstrates that we can focus our efforts to shift social norms back in another direction through the use of the same social media tools led to Trump’s rise.

Trump’s entry into the White House came as a surprise to many, particularly highly educated, urban voters who scoffed at his blustery hyperbole and confidently noted the 4-point lead that Clinton enjoyed in the polls up until Election Day. Now, 20 months and much disbelief later, we can ponder what has happened so far, and the potential impacts.

There’s no denying that Trump’s rise to power has changed the face of American politics and taught us something about the fragility of our democracy – and the power of the unexpected. The rise of a real-estate tycoon turned reality-TV star to the highest office of American politics indeed evoked unparalleled emotions on the left and the right in the US. The heated emotions that this spectacle continues to raise actually parallels a longstanding, legitimate frustration of a large portion of American workers who lost their jobs to offshoring, outsourcing, or automation and saw their wages stagnate or decline for decades. My colleagues have established these facts very well in their arguments on the “great decoupling” of income and growth.

What’s more, the “hyper-polarisation” of the American electorate has been going some time now; and as early as 1998, critics like Richard Rorty condemned the erosion of the Democrats’ support for the poor and the working classes, predicting that sooner or later the American left would witness a spectacular rise in “Weimar Republic-like” populism. Critics noted in 2014 that the Democrats were not so different from Republicans in their increasingly cosy relations with the super-rich patrons who support the party and ensure its financial backing. In hindsight then, the 2016 election of Trump should not have caused such surprise. It is a logical consequence of the divisive, rancorous relationship between the Republicans and Democrats. As recent electoral research has demonstrated, the only thing new here is the degree of negativity that each side is feeling for the other – and it has increased.

Our opponents argue that the effects of Donald Trump’s ascension will be long-lasting and indelible in our political landscape. We would like to examine this perspective, and the arguments behind them, and bring a different set of issues to the table. Because we have no way of knowing what will happen in this volatile Twitter-populist presidency, we cannot predict if the effects will be long-lasting, but with my colleague Gazi Islam, we’d like to think that they are not as long-lasting as you think today…

Impact bias

Biases begin in early childhood, when we start to understand what social groups we belong to, and internalise assumptions about our role in the world around us. In other words, we have learned a lot of the biases from our immediate community, which is human and part of our survival.

Another aspect of our survival instinct is to overestimate the importance of events at the moment they occur. We see our survival differently depending on our political tendency, as recent research on Conservatives’ vs. Liberals’ brains has demonstrated. Behavioural science has taught us that decision-making and prediction-making under uncertainty mobilises our emotions, which often lead to irrational choices and false judgments. We also tend to overestimate the enduring impact of emotion-causing events, and set a value on those events. Otherwise known as the impact bias, people miscalculate what will happen in the future based on how they feel in the present. Today we are overwhelmed with hyperpartisan information on social media and in the news, and we tend to react before we think.

It is therefore first important to recognise the powerful role of biases in our political identities. The question is not “are we biased”, but rather how are our biases impacting our emotions and political passions?

The role of emotions

We have experienced acute emotional contagion in our American political identity. Trump has used emotional rhetoric to inflame both sides of the spectrum, with the campaign vitriol lingering over friends and family members who no longer speak to each other at the Thanksgiving table, or families breaking up over their political differences.

It has been demonstrated that social media had a huge role to play in these emotional break-ups, and unwittingly, we now know that those Twitter tweets and Facebook posts were being created and shared by humans and bots alike. Meme farms in distant countries churned out images and fake news to fan the flames, and many of us kept on re posting, liking, and sharing them – or being outraged by them. Angry online groups pitted fellow citizens against each other as the new enemy to take down. Interestingly, while we were squabbling and infighting, we helped a more traditional enemy, the Russians, infiltrate and influence our election. We were the unwitting accomplices of Russian hackers.

With the passage of time, other events will occur that alter or change the current emotional state and the focus will shift to other issues. Social media can be used to accelerate that process.

I’d like to remind everyone that just as we were influenced, we can counter influence. The emotional roller coaster that brought Trump into the White House can be the same one that takes him on the ride all the way outside of the White House in 2020.

The volatility of social norms

The third point is that if we maintain a struggle to not let this be the new normal, then we can appreciate the fact that social norms actually change much faster than biases, which are persistent and implicit. Elizabeth Paluck’s work on social norms and the impact of the voice of authority has shown us consistently how important it is to have community leaders who model a given behaviour or attitude, either condoning a leader, or condemning his or her actions. She shows us how easily social norms can shift if figures of authority enable (or disable) the shift. Whether in studying bullying, genocide, or Supreme Court decisions, the recognised voices of societal authority hold great sway over what is normal, or not.

This means that norms, unlike biases and emotions, can be used for the common good (or common evil). The very forces that helped propel Trump to power could now be the same ones that set the stage for his downfall. Trump uses Twitter like a celebrity, and his campaign managed Facebook well for fundraising – which in turn propelled him into the White House. The more that authority figures across the world use those very tools that brought Trump to power, the more they can counter his impact, which could be very short-lived, if we can shift the norm.

We are against the motion that gives Trump enough legitimacy to have a lasting impact. We are against a motion that acknowledges him for anything other than a colourful comic figure vying for the spotlight, an entertainer “performing” the act of presidency. Lest we make him the “norm”, we must continually struggle to refocus on what’s next after Trump.

We are in a critical period of history, amid a major political and democratic crisis. Yes, Trump is a symptom of that crisis. But we must think about what we can do practically to not let Trump become the new “normal”. We have to explore civic actions that will enable us to counter his influence and deny him that privilege.

To sum this up, we can look to Antonio Gramsci who, when jailed by Mussolini during the period leading up to World War II, noted in his Prison Notebooks, that a crisis

“consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.

In today’s unsettling interregnum between our dying past and the new future we will embrace, morbid symptoms have appeared. But we have at our disposal the means to treat them.


The next article in this series, “Trump, Society and the Perpetual Feedback Loop”, will argue for the motion: “The impact reflected by Trump is here to stay”.

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