We Live in Interesting Times (02/03/2017)

A Chinese curse says “May he live in interesting times.” In a 1966 speech, Senator Robert F. Kennedy said: “Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.” Are we living out the Chinese curse or are we living in “the most creative of any time in the history of mankind”?

At a recent academic conference in the United States, a well-known scholar responded, “We are living in interesting times,” to my question about his perception of President Trump. Did he mean the curse or the creative part? Or both? After all, times of high risk and uncertainty are also periods of enormous creativity and opportunity. While many bemoan the uncertainty (chaos?) surrounding Donald Trump’s first month in office, the Dow Jones average has hit record highs. Many business leaders who predicted catastrophic declines in earnings after November 8 are riding the crest of renewed optimism. (How long this euphoria will last is another question.)  
The first month of the Trump presidency has certainly been “interesting.” His style has shaken traditional presidential protocol. His Twitter pronouncements have ranged from the banal to the vengeful and the absurd. His press conferences have ranged from the serious to the comic and the pathological. (The latter diagnosed by several eminent psychiatrists.) To say the least, his first month in office has been highly unconventional. If Barack Obama was perceived as “No drama, Obama,” Donald Trump has been constant drama, and not very high drama at that.
While Trump has been “interesting” and dramatic, the reaction to him has been neither “interesting” nor dramatic. While there have been marches and media outrages, my observation from the visit is that those who are against him are still not well organized. The Democratic Party has yet to develop an opposition plan. Whether from the shock of losing the election or the simple inability to rally all the elements anti-Trump, the opposition has done little to assert a united front that will lead to significant change. The Republican Party has stood united behind the president; the Democrats have had little effect as the opposition party.
There is a considerable difference between organizing a march and blocking an unqualified nominee for office. There is a considerable difference between writing letters to the editor or circulating petitions and stopping gerrymandering or fortifying the rule of law. A passion for the political needs to be expressed in implementation and results. The Democrats are howling; the Republicans are moving forward with their agenda.
The Republicans were well prepared for the 2016 election at the local level. Their control of both houses of Congress as well as many state houses and governorships are a reflection of timely local advocacy. The presidential victory was the icing on the cake.
The role of the United States in the world in all of this is not a major concern for the moment. While President Trump has proposed a significant increase in military and security spending, he has proposed to offset this spending with decreases in funding for domestic programs and foreign aid. After all, he was elected on a platform of “America First,” and his understanding of that focuses on a narrow view of domestic improvement. For the moment, he is not the international visionary of Republicans such as George H.W. Bush or the Rockefeller Wing of the Party.
What does mean for Geneva? A decrease in U.S. foreign spending will reflect a disengagement from the world by the United States. Increased spending on the military and security apparatus will leave a vacuum in soft power and a lack of U.S. leadership in multilateral institutions other than NATO. My concern in these matters was not shared by most of my colleagues. They saw politics as being very local, even in an interdependent world.
We do live in interesting times. Are we cursed, or are we living in the “most creative of any time in the history of mankind”? Trump has certainly been destructively creative in his first month. Too bad someone like Robert Kennedy is not around to show what constructive creativity would be like.

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