Anne Salmond: Trump no aberration

Opinion: In a winner-takes-all world, Donald Trump is not an aberration - he is the epitome of the cost-benefit calculating individual, writes Dame Anne Salmond.

The image show Donald Trump speaking at a rally outdoors: Trump has cast aside truth, justice and decency, and care for the environment. Photo: iStock
Trump has cast aside truth, justice and decency, and care for the environment. Photo: iStock

In July 1963, as a teenager filled with idealism and hope, I sat on the White House lawn. Together with a thousand other young AFS students from around the world, I’d been invited to meet John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States.

In the wake of World War I, those who’d lived through the horrors of war had set up the American Field Service, aiming to bring young people together in mutual understanding, with its motto: "Walk together, talk together, all you peoples of the earth. Then and only then will you have peace."

As JFK greeted us region by region, charging us with the pursuit of peace and goodwill, we cheered our hearts out. It was a golden time, and everything seemed possible.

Yesterday, I watched as another President, filled with rancour and fury, incited a riot on Capitol Hill. After weeks of denial and outright lies, rejected in one legal proceeding after another, Donald Trump unleashed a mob to try and overturn an election in which he’d been defeated.

Many people have reacted with disbelief, but perhaps this shift in American politics is not so surprising. During the 1970s and 1980s, a cult of the individual was unleashed from Chicago, as neo-liberal economic theory flew around the world like a virus.

Schools, universities, hospitals and many other institutions were recast as businesses in a ‘free market’; and students, patients and citizens as ‘customers’ or ‘clients’. Corporations were legally redefined as individuals, each seeking their own advantage. The living world itself was reframed as ‘resources’ for human uses.

In this seismic ideological shift, truth, justice and morality were marginalised. A winner-takes-all mentality weakened ideas of the common good, and service to the wider community. Radical disrespect for others and other life forms has contributed to fractured democracies, ravaged communities, climate catastrophe and collapsing ecosystems.

In this kind of world, Donald Trump is not an aberration. Amoral and self-serving, he is the perfect epitome of the cost-benefit calculating individual. In the pursuit of profit and power, he has cast aside truth, justice and decency, and care for the environment. He has trashed the law, and incited his followers to violence. Faced with a global pandemic, he and his like in other countries have utterly failed.

By now, it should be self-evident that greed and selfishness do not deliver health, happiness and freedom, but misery and chaos. Peace and democracy are fragile. They can’t be taken for granted, they must be fostered and fought for.

That is what JFK told us young AFS scholars in 1963. Today in Joe Biden’s plea for decency and tolerance, I heard echoes of that speech. Our own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has faced down mini-Trumps in New Zealand with her urgings for aroha and kindness.

That’s not weakness, but wise advice from leaders who, in the face of radical risks to human survival, are trying to forge new philosophies for governance. I hope they have enough time, and enough courage and support to make enough difference.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology in the Faculty of Arts. She was New Zealander of the Year in 2013 and was appointed to the Order of New Zealand, the highest honour in New Zealand's royal honours system, in December 2020.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Anne Salmond: Trump no aberration 29 December 2020

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