Donald Trump’s first year in office seems to have been marked, above all, by his verbal incontinence. America’s tweeter-in-chief kept several continents rapt with his early-morning offerings. In his lack of inhibition and tact, Trump is the opposite of Barack Obama. At the same time, Obama’s decorum managed to conceal many unpleasant realities, which we would have had to confront sooner or later. Trump has expedited this confrontation — and, hopefully, inaugurated a new age of progressivism.
For one thing, it’s now clear that the election of a black man as U.S. president didn’t usher in a “post-racial” age. Obama’s own tenure, punctuated by police shootings of unarmed African-Americans, revealed the insidious tenacity of racism: how it remains entrenched in institutions and policies decades after the end of formal segregation. With Trump in the White House, the potency of white supremacism can no longer be hidden.
The gains of the feminist movement never seemed as secure as under Obama, who appointed women to several important positions and anointed Hillary Clinton as his putative successor. It was easy to believe that as Margaret Thatcher put it, “the battle for women’s rights has been largely won” and that women in the workplace only needed to “lean in” a bit more. The systemic oppression of women seemed a problem for backward Muslims to resolve.
The election of a self-confessed groper to the White House, and his advocacy of similar offenders in politics, has helped bring to light a squalid netherworld in which even well-educated and affluent women find their dignity under perpetual assault.
On climate change, Obama undid some of the damage caused by the Bush administration’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Trump has reversed these small gains by pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and appointing a notorious climate science denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The struggle for a sustainable future now appears as formidable as it always was before being clouded by the premature euphoria generated by Paris.
Trump’s election also showed that the rising tide of globalization had not only failed to lift all boats, it had concentrated wealth in a small minority. The results confirmed what even the financial crisis of 2008 had failed to highlight: that unregulated markets were prone to dysfunction.
“There really is,” Ronald Reagan said in 1982, “something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate.” Such unexamined ideological faith in free markets and trickle-down economics has shaped too much of mainstream journalism as well as politics and business in recent decades.
It may once have been possible to dismiss inequality as the pet obsession of a few left-leaning economists, such as Thomas Piketty, and street agitators like those involved in the Occupy movement. With Trump, the terrible political consequences of inequality stare us in the face, along with the challenges of generating broadly beneficial economic growth.
Most importantly, a volatile man’s proximity to the nuclear button and his promise to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” underline the perils of an imperial presidency, of concentrating in an individual the power to destroy life on earth.
Trump’s Twitter outbursts appear to freeze time. One day is like the rest in its quantity of provocation and outrage. But time is actually running out, and it is best to look beyond Trump’s social media antics and build on his rare and strange achievement. For he is the man who has taken off the presidential disguise Obama wore too well; he is the vital saboteur who is unmasking a social, political and economic system in an advanced stage of decay.
Trump is also making clear with his ineptitude that it’s up to concerned citizens to come together and fix this system. Other public figures, such as mayors, have already assumed political leadership on the issue of climate change. Trump’s opponents, on both the right and the left, are having to develop more creative and effective strategies. Feminism, broadly defined as a project against male domination, is again becoming a vigorous movement.
And Trump’s dangerous economic remedies, such as protectionism, have focused our minds, like nothing did previously, on the urgency of building what Lawrence Summers earlier this week called “the new economic foundation we so desperately need.”
We forgot, in the complacent era now just past, that all the fragile successes of the modern world — the building and consolidation of democracy, the extension of rights to women and minorities, and the victory over nasty prejudice — were the result of struggles. Created by human will and collective effort, these advances weren’t the result of some abstract or providential process which, like markets, had been left “free to operate.”
It has been Trump’s historical role to jolt us out of a profound amnesia and complacency, and into fresh thought and action. For this overdue awakening, if nothing else, the 45th U.S. president deserves our gratitude.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.” Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.