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(September 29, 2018)

We might be witnessing an inflection point in the history of politics around the world. After initial fear, misgivings and paranoia about Donald Trump, it seems many are now fascinated by what he represents. Books upon books are being written on the subject. Bob Woodward’s recent bestseller, Fear, is one such work. But while this book and many other works bring to us what is wrong with the Trumpian politics, there is one recent tome that does full justice to the objective study of the phenomenon. Major Garrett’s book Mr Trump’s Wild Ride is littered with CBS News reporter’s insights as he went about covering first the campaign of candidate Trump and then his presidency. References to his ‘lingual inflation’, his perception of media’s ‘reflexive bias’ towards the administration and the author’s characterisation of the administration as ‘Cirque du soleil on acid’ (LSD) makes it an enjoyable read.

But there comes a time when we get deeper appreciation of what is different and perhaps most successful in Trump’s political model. “Trump is the first President never to have held a public office or to have led armies to victory in battle… He is a hero and an antihero at the same time. His long history of self-promotion and fascination with tabloid culture fits more seamlessly than we might want to admit into our current selfie and social media mind-set and mania—a place where relentless self-branding can be a path to notoriety, infamy, riches and at times all three.” Relentless self-branding and lack of experience go hand in hand. This is where Twitter, WhatsApp and social media became all so important.

But the mention of Trump administration will be incomplete without reference to the worldview of Steve Bannon, the White House’s former chief strategist. Nor will it help us in drawing lessons or conclusions for our own country. In his first public appearance since Trump’s victory, Bannon presented Trump governance model as three verticals “national security and sovereignty, and that’s your intelligence, the Defense Department, Homeland Security”, “economic nationalism” and “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The last when juxtaposed with the first quantity we mentioned, relentless self-branding makes a lot of sense. Is it not what is happening around the world? A movement around a charismatic leader, with constant self-branding and the promise of cleaning the Augean stables of governance, governance that has largely failed to deliver for the common man in the street. A small man’s revenge.

Now the question is whether this is only a momentary cycle or permanent state of affairs. Remember America is a First World country. Even if you are disaffected there you still probably are better off than those struggling in parts of the Third or developing world. Again, when America won freedom from its colonial masters it got plenty of time and room to develop its own administrative architecture. Other post-colonial nations were not as lucky. If Americans are wary of their administrative state it can safely be assumed that the dwellers of the developing nations are too. Remember, in Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson highlight the difference between extractive and inclusive institutions. Inclusivity brings prosperity for all and the nation in question. In the former colonies, state formation has been difficult. Means the state institutions have largely remained extractive. That in turn implies that in the midst of resulting poverty there remains a desire, a demand for aggressive reforms, and a change that brings down the old structures and builds new inclusive ones.

But the current political trend seems to be bigger than this omnipresent demand for reform and the short supply of actual deliverables. There is a bigger issue at hand. Social media has made societies flat and boundary  less. You can pick up your cellphone or any device through which you operate your social media account and immediately reach anyone around the world or across the class spectrum of society. Does that mean we are moving in the direction of a classless, boundaryless society? Certainly not. It only means that with the passage of time in struggling to achieve homogeneity the scope of public discourse becomes too large to handle. It becomes a blind man’s elephant. And in this new emerging system you expect immediate access to authorities and immediate action. Your charismatic leader, motivated by the self-branding exercise, then has to be accessible on social media all along. Interactions change, governance and government priorities change and politics changes. With all this change, the news cycle shrinks. Ergo, first the newspapers and TV sets were replaced by webpages, now they are supplanted by apps and social media handles. You do not have patience to sit through an hour-long news bulletin to access the information you need, nor the time. So you reach given channel’s website, app or social media account and watch the required minute-long clip and are done. Death of television and newspapers as we know it. Unless you are an incorrigible optimist and want to call it an evolution of these mediums. But the truth of the matter is the smartphone you carry in your pocket has replaced your televisions and newspapers.

So in view of this supply and expected demand for reforms and changing pace of life how do politicians cope? Trump ran on the promise of draining the swamp. Means the promise of removing the corrupting influence of the middleman. But in more vulnerable societies it might be taken to imply the removal of middle management. A bureaucracy devoid of hierarchy. Flat and perhaps accessible.

We took a while in reaching this conclusion but it seems that Trump and the wave of new leaders emerging around are not the exceptions or flashes in the pan but the rule. So yes, the answer is that with the shifting sands of politics something fundamental is shifting in politics around the world. And the change might be more palpable in the developing world.

When you look through this prism the new Pakistani government’s emphasis on reform, austerity and restructuring bureaucracy starts making a lot of sense. Whether it will deliver in the end, still remains to be seen. But there are a few caveats. Unlike the developed world, developing societies can dismantle existing structures with relative ease, but rebuilding is usually so time consuming that it is abandoned half way through. Then there is the need to understand that we and the entire world are in the territory Rumsfeld called the ‘unknown unknown’. For a long time we thought the Indian economy had arrived. But now experts like Raghuram Rajan are disputing the economic model since inception. We need to be cautious.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2018.

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