Convivium: Ray, a few weeks in advance of voting day in the U.S., you wrote a very well-received piece on what’s being called “post-truth” politics. You made the point that truth went sideways almost at the outset of this election, and nobody seemed to care. How does that thesis stand up against the outcome that we saw on Tuesday? How big a factor do you now think “post truth” politics were in getting Donald Trump to the White House?
Ray Pennings: The way I read the result is two-fold. One, I actually think this was an anti-establishment, anti-institution vote. I think it's the failure of political parties to elect candidates that reflect the best of democracy. I think even many of those who voted for Trump actually said, "I'm voting against the others. I'm not necessarily voting for Trump." That was a resonant theme throughout. It was a campaign in which voters chose against the Deplorables or the entitled elite. Which leads to my second point – in such a context, words and platforms don’t matter. The currency of that debate is not reason or empathy – from either side. It’s about disgust for the other.
It became a matter of being for or against. It's interesting that the campaign itself didn't rely on policies, on words, on the usual debate. It was, "Are you for us or against us?" The question was is who's the "us" and who's the "them?"
Convivium: So any truth is the truth regarding whether I'm really angry or not. It was a subjective truth based on my internal rage-o-meter. It wasn't the truth of what the candidates were saying.
RP: And the rage wasn’t simply directed to the candidates. They became symbols for institutions that are seen to be out-of-touch with their constituencies. Voters did not simply vote against Hillary. They voted against establishment politics, business, media, the academy, etc. And many who are part of the establishment don’t grasp what is happening. I was at an event the morning after the election having a conversation with a number of Ottawa-based government employees. They were in disbelief at it all and floating what usually would be considered irrational fringe conspiracy theories. Usually, conspiracy theories come from the fringes, from those outside of the establishment. Their reaction was not something you would have ordinarily expected from senior policy people. But the regular tools for making sense of what happened did not apply. It struck me how different the worlds of “us” and “them” can be.
Convivium: What kinds of things were said to prompt your observation?
RP: In the notion of "post-truth" politics, they no longer believed entirely what was being told to them. Even when it came to Hillary being unable to give her concession speech on Tuesday, they were openly musing as to why. There was speculation that it might be a medical issue, and if so, why wasn't it being covered? They were all piling on with no basis for any of it, and it just struck me that this is what political debate has come to. It becomes about who's "us," who's "them," and who do we trust?
Convivium: It’s a state of disbelief in which you just disbelieve everything?
RP: We seem incapable of reasoned argument when we disagree. We only hear things that reinforce our points of view, and we don't engage the arguments that differ with us, even as far as the election went.
Convivium: The sentence I was struck by most in Hillary Clinton’s concession speech was when she said: "We have seen our nation as even more divided than we thought." My immediate response was: how could you not know? You've been in politics for so many years. How could you not know how divided America was?
RP: It speaks to the echo chamber that politics has become. I think back to the economic collapse of 2008. Many people who lost their homes are still dealing with the financial consequences. They perceive the banks, the finance people, as having gotten away with it all. Governments got back to normal, to their regular routine. The impact on ordinary people just wasn't part of the narrative in a meaningful way. There has been a disconnection between media, government, business, the academy, and those who are suffering. We saw that in the vote. The urban-rural divide was starker than I think it has historically been. It turns out that voter turnout was slightly down and much is being made of the voters who supported Obama but did not come out for Hillary. I don’t have data but I suspect a similar number of those who supported previous Republican candidates stayed home as well. It is just that their votes were replaced by people who ordinarily do not vote.
Convivium: Moving past Election Day and the Inauguration to when a Trump presidency gets to work. Do you, as someone who travels a lot in the U.S., have confidence that Trump can heal some of those divisions? He didn't cause the divisions but he certainly took advantage of them. Can he heal them?
RP: Let's give the man his due in terms of reading public opinion. He has been doing that for years. From the crassness of some of his reality television to the World Wrestling Federation stuff to pageants and all the rest, he has a finger on the popular pulse. I find much of it quite distasteful but clearly his shows have generated huge audiences and he's made his millions based on them. He has room to touch some of those buttons and to read the public mood.
My own sense is that the easiest thing for him to do is to undo things. Breaking stuff is easier than building stuff. My guess is that to give credibility to this notion of change, we may see a fairly rapid, public, symbolic cleaning of the house. If I were someone whose position relied on an appointment by the President, I would start dusting off my resume today and getting ready. The question is not what happens in the first year. The question is what happens in year two, three, and four when you get past the undoing and now have to build the capacity.
After divisive elections, time and effort is required to rebuild common purpose. If people believe in the country, believe in America and the values it represents, that has to include a willingness to work together and call the President “our President,” regardless of whether you voted for him or not. On the flip side, that's going to have to be earned and reciprocated. Is Trump going to be the Trump of the very gracious victory speech on election night? Or is it going to be the Trump of the very partisan, divisive, crass rallies that paid no attention to what was really happening, and were about fomenting anger and discord?
Convivium: Conrad Black, who obviously lived in the States for a number of years – in fact for a couple of years longer than he necessarily wanted to – made the point that if Trump doesn't get this right, it's not going to be just people who are going to go away mad. Some of them are going to go mad and there is a very real social risk not just of more anger, but of serious violence. Do you share that concern?
RP: I'm not sure we’re at a position where we can say that. Can I see a path that might lead to it? Yes. That's why I think you will see a fairly dramatic first year because there needs to be perception of action and doing it differently than everyone else did. Trump cannot proceed on an incremental agenda. Now, the Republicans do control the Senate and Congress. It's one of these rare times when the one party controls all three. But is the Republican party united enough to make use of this in a constructive manner? Trump’s biggest challenges may be trying to find a way of working with those who are wearing the same team colours.
Convivium: Should we, on this side of the border, be as concerned around his internationalist agenda: the threat to rip up the trade deals, to build the wall with Mexico, to change long standing relationships such as those of the NATO countries?
RP: My sense is he'll move faster on immigration concerns than he will on trade concerns. It’s easier to do immigration unilaterally. That said, whether it's what's happening in Europe in terms of the difficulties in getting CETA acknowledged, Brexit, and now Donald Trump as the U.S. President, the global drive towards open boarders and trade is sputtering. For Canadians, that is a challenge greater than for most. With 60-plus percent of our economy dependent on trade, we’ve benefited from trade more than most. But the winds globally are moving in a different direction. Trump is giving expression to global trends that are more nationalist and protectionist. But it’s not just Trump. The world is moving that way. And we will have to adapt to that changing world, which now will include President Trump.
Convivium: You have written eloquent pieces about the sustaining power of social conservatism, of the re-emergence of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” for re-ordering society. You’ve written of seeing signs of cracks in the secular, and a return to broad, traditional understandings of things. So, as a social conservative yourself: Is Donald Trump a social conservative?
RP: This is where the “post-truth” politics comes in. First of all, Trump’s campaign was about the power of the State and him being the one to fix it. His rhetoric was “I can be a strong man.” His campaign was about the powers of government being able to fix problems. That said, I think he will learn quickly in terms of the limitations of what government can do, and my sense is that his base, while they'll look for some symbolic things, actually wants less government. There may be a sense in which he is rewarded by government not doing certain things.
Liberal democracy depends on a certain set of virtues for people to participate. The irony is those virtues are created in what are inherently illiberal institutions such as families and faith communities. I would say wherever you are in the spectrum, people would say we need more virtue in politics than we've seen over the last six months. Where does virtue come from? I think virtue and character are going to be significant conversations in the years to come.