Yesterday - which seems a long time distant now - I spent the day at a conference about whatever happened to Trust. This was hosted by the British Science Association which was holding its inaugural Huxley Summit. Scientists are not normally given to hyperbole and wild surmises but the tone of the whole day was without doubt quite alarmist.
Although 79% of people trust scientists to tell the truth, the public isn’t especially interested in hearing that truth. Fifty two per cent of people are ‘open’ to science but do not actively seek it out to answer questions and help them to make judgements. Twenty seven per cent completely avoid it. Why bother asking people who know what they are talking about? Just go with your hunches and emotions for what feels right.
Huxley was ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ who argued for the theory of evolution against the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. Huxley was an outlier who was convinced the truth was staring everyone in the face. Eventually his beliefs became orthodoxy until the nutty world of creationists came back from beyond the grave to re-grab the imaginations of many.
The problem we have now is that we seem to be living through a time where rational, evidence-based thought and argument appears to have gone out of the window on a gust of populist fervour and disgust. In this post-truth world, something is said - often in 140 characters - and it becomes so. The fact. Experts, institutions, charities, brands, all now suffer the trust deficit. Disenchantment has led to anger and that anger has led to events such as Brexit. The whole day was pretty sobering as scientists, academics, business people were unable to come up with all that much in the way of encouraging, practical answers to counter this.
And it matters because democracies cannot function without a fair degree of trust in institutions - not just elected representatives in parliament - but those parts of the government and business which run things on our behalf and try to sell us their goods and services. A degree of trust is the glue that hold things together. If cynicism is too widespread, good faith absent then things break down and darker forces can take hold. It’s simply not good enough to make wild attacks on the ‘liberal, metropolitan elite’ and lay all the ills of society at their door.
In a world where trust in the establishment - plus much else besides - has evaporated the answer would appear to be Donald Trump. Who would have thought it? The guy who would blow the whole thing up and start again. Well, now he’s been given his way and granted a chance to re-assemble and re-fashion a whole country - and, by extension, the rest of the planet - in his way.
There are precious few rays of light to be found in his election. (Not even the one that it’s a tragic collective decision that makes even the poor fools who went for Brexit look smart.) One that has been suggested is that, in a favoured phrase of the master of The Art of the Deal, is ‘everything is negotiable.’ Optimists, therefore, hope that the American people have got something off their chests but that Trump becomes progressively normalised once in office, once he is ground down by the reality of the political process and all its checks and balances - those built into the constitution and those that exist as the simple dead weight of inertia. This would make room for radical change and seriously stupid/dangerous policy moves very difficult. Radical change or, indeed, much change at all is going to be tough to get moving.
Of course, his mad idea of The Mexican Wall will not get built. How’s he ever going to ban all Muslims from entering the country? But the possibility of Trump’s entire to-do list being watered down or neutered across the board is wishful thinking. He will have four years of trying and history shows that Presidents get a remarkable amount done despite attempts to foil them. He doesn’t welcome being crossed and has a complete lack of respect for the points of view held by others whom he coarsely dismisses. He has shown himself to be impulsive, impatient, irrational and reluctant to listen to advice. He is like a furious child. And kids can resort to extreme measures to get their way.
He feels he is the master of The Deal - super smart, cunning, wise, a supreme tactician and able to get one over the opponent. Deals are zero sum games in which he can never be the one who gets shafted but always gets his shafting in first. And deals are no big deal. His lack of imagination won’t allow him to see the potentially awful consequences of just another day’s work.
As The New Yorker suggests: ‘He is governed, above all, by his faith in the ultimate power of transaction—an encompassing perversion of realism that is less a preference for putting interests ahead of values than a belief that interests have no place for values.’
Even if he doesn’t get very far this sort of modus operandi has the potential to wreak havoc at home and abroad. Dan DiMiccio, a former steel producer and now member of Trump’s Economic Advisory Council suggests when dealing with China in a trade negotiation the USA should behave like an aggressive patient in a dentist’s office: ‘Here’s how the patient deals with the dentist: sits down in the chair, grabs the dentist by the nuts, and says, "You don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you."’
Trump - the guy who knows how to get shit done - is the first occupant of the White House never to have served in the armed forces or held public office. The world of business from which he comes works very differently from public office and politics, as many of those who go from business fast discover as they are frustrated by not getting their own way reasonably quickly. Politics is the art of the possible, not Donald’s will. And grabbing Chinese politburo members by the balls may mistakenly be thought the kind of show of strength the Chinese respect.
One of the things I find oddest about him is the number of times he uses the word ‘beautiful.’ It came into his acceptance speech when talking about the ‘potential’ of real estate projects he had known and the potential of people. The Trump presidency - ‘It’s going to be a beautiful thing, ’ he promised.
We’ve also had a ‘beautiful’ wall, one of his ‘beautiful’ hotels or ‘beautiful’ golf courses. He even wants a Syrian safe zone to be ‘beautiful.’ For someone who talks ugly - both in terms of content and the terse, ineloquent way in he expresses this thoughts as he jabs around with that little right finger - and behaves ugly, this grates in the extreme. There is very little of beauty in Trump.
One thing, however, has given me a small smile today. And that is the words of a prayer offered by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury for the US President elect. Welby prays that Trump ‘be given wisdom, insight and grace as he faces the tasks before him.’ Carefully chosen qualities with the accompanying deliciously deft implication that Trump’s maker - divine or otherwise - fell well short of imbuing these traits into their creation from birth.
The last six months has shaken us. And that shaking is set to become even more rigorous. Hold tight. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Image source: Gage Skidmore