After a year of demonstrating a profound lack of knowledge about international politics, shamelessly boasting about not paying income taxes, inciting violence against his opposition, publicly accusing Mexicans for being rapists and murderers, insisting that a wall should be built to stop immigration, ridiculing a disabled reporter during a campaign speech, and denouncing members of every race, ethnicity, and sexuality apart from white heterosexual males, the tasteless and morally repulsive Donald Trump was named the 45th President of the United States of America.
Trump’s success largely rested in the hands of a frustrated working class, who for decades felt their careers and lives were being threatened by the assimilation of immigrants in American society. These working class citizens came to distrust the government establishment that routinely failed to resolve the goading poverty they faced. Over time, the citizens’ intense dissatisfaction with the status quo led them to support radical routes of reform. Trump is effectively a racist, misogynistic, orange Frankenstein’s monster of a President, brought to life by the groundswell of popular discontent amongst Americans bruised by the dislocating effects of globalisation and multiculturalism.
More frighteningly, the cancer of Trump’s ideology can be seen materialising throughout the Western world. A similar surge of middle-class social malaise fueled the United Kingdom’s secession from the European Union in February 2016. Britain’s exit from the EU - otherwise known as ‘Brexit’ - was a movement was born from the zeitgeist of a stagnating England, riddled with persistent economic woes.
Additionally, Marine Le Pen, a far-right politician of the Front National party who is campaigning for French presidency, has been gaining in polls. Like Trump, Le Pen appeals to working class voters with promises of economic protectionism, along with proposed bans on Islam and immigration. When the US election results were released, she stated in a press conference that Trump’s victory marked the start of “a great movement across the world”.
These three examples are testaments to the failures of democracy. Specifically, the inherent irrationality of human voters, who can be easily swayed by emotionally charged populist rhetoric, and who often vote without considering the manner in which policies can affect their countries in the long term.
The cataclysmic events of Brexit and Trump, and the candidacy of Marine Le Pen, not only endanger the equilibrium of the Western world, but can also cause tremors in the global political and economic landscapes. When taken from a wider perspective, the madness plaguing Western politics can be understood through a traditionally Eastern, or specifically, Chinese construct: the dynastic cycle.
The dynastic cycle is an important political theory posited by both ancient and contemporary specialists of Chinese history. The theory posits that any dynasty, or ruling government, undergoes three main stages.
In the first stage, the dynasty rises to power by filling the vacant seat of power left by the previous dynasty. Provided that the dynasty can maintain a level of internal accord, it will then proceed to the second stage: when it will reach its political, cultural, and economic peak. However, competing foreign interests and the spectre of internal decay are bound to destabilise the dynasty in the long run. As a result, in the third stage of the dynastic cycle, the party declines due to unmitigated social unrest. Ultimately, the fallen dynasty is ousted by a new dynasty, whereupon the dynastic cycle begins again.
How do modern Western powers figure into this dynastic cycle? Here, Western powers will be used to broadly refer to the countries of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. If the governments of the Western powers can each be considered a dynasty - regardless of the divisions between parties vying for control - then the dynastic cycle serves as a perfect analogy to illustrate the condition of Western politics.
The first stage of the Western powers, or their respective rises to global prominence, occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries following the events of the Industrial revolution. Dramatic improvements in technology enabled the West to exploit lesser developed regions in Asia and Africa to their economic advantage. Over the course of the next century, Western powers maintained military dominance following the events of World War One, World War Two and the Cold War. For years, Western powers maintained an indisputable cultural, political, and economic hegemony over the rest of the world.
With time, however, this dominance gave way to stagnation and its concomitant unrest. The Western powers found themselves slipping from the apex of their glory primarily due to economic changes. As non-Western powers were introduced into the global economy, lower to middle class citizens in the West found themselves bitterly competing for jobs with immigrants and with foreign workers. Like the Chinese dynasties of antiquity, the West found the impetus of success to be a double-edge blade. The forces of globalization that enabled the Western rise to prominence crippled the citizens of lower to middle class citizens, who bore the brunt of the change.
Now, Western politics have entered the third stage of the dynastic cycle. The disquiet turned rage of the lower and middle classes has finally found an outlet in demagogues such as Trump, the various proponents of Brexit, and Marine Le Pen. Indignant population groups of every kind have rallied in their respective attempts turn against ‘The Other’, the certain group purported to be the source of all societal ills. On the rise is xenophobia, in which animosity towards a foreign minority often leads to persecution of or discrimination against the minority group. When the minority group protests for rights, the animosity towards a minority group only increases, which can continue indefinitely. This vicious cycle can be seen in the constantly evolving secular conflict between Whites and African-Americans in America as well as the religious conflict between Whites and Muslims in France. The accumulative effect of widespread violence is seen in an apostasy from existing government order. In a 2015 conducted by CNN, 75 percent of Americans say they are “dissatisfied” with the way the nation is being governed and 69 per cent are “somewhat angry” about the way things are going in the country,
While the consequences of Western dynastic decline affecting Western powers do not necessarily include a nuclear fallout, they do include much more insidious effects. In the short term, including the present moment, the decline of the West has led to the dramatic polarization of society and subsequent tensions between the political left and right. In addition, the increasing disorder in society can reverse the steps taken towards a social equality between race, ethnicity, and sexuality that past leaders have tried to achieve. The danger of society regressing towards racism and sexism is especially real given that the election of Trump validates the lies, verbal abuse, and degrading comments that he made during his campaign. What is occurring now in the Western world is not a short-lived war of ideas, but a gathering political apocalypse that marks the end of the nature of politics as we know it.
All in all, what does this mean for Hong Kong? Although Western politics lies beyond our control, we can extract lessons. Today, when our own politics are less than stable and appear to be on a threshold of a new order, lessons can be drawn from the recent US elections - it is important that as students we are aware of the nature of politics and the role that it plays in our lives. The dynastic cycle explains the success of Trump, the radical political movements taking over the Western world, and perhaps our own domestic situation.