David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Donald Trump: Stranger Than We Can Imagine?

Brandon Sun, May 30, 2016 - David McConkey

Help! I am still coming to grips with Donald Trump! He will likely win the Republican nomination, and possibly the presidency of the U.S. What about more understanding of the world that led to Trump? I was happy to get just that from a new book I picked up at the Brandon Public Library. The book, by British writer John Higgs, is Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century.
 
Author Higgs goes way beyond the usual historical account and considers a remarkable range of influences that shaped the century. He meanders through art, literature, music, science, technology, and much more. (The book’s “stranger” title comes from the field of astrophysics.)

“We’re going to take a journey through the 20th century in which we step off the main highway and strike out towards the dark woods,” Higgs says of his approach. Often avoided in standard histories, what are those “dark woods”? Well, the author lists some examples: “relativity, cubism, the Somme, quantum mechanics, the id, existentialism, Stalin, psychedelics, chaos mathematics, and climate change.” 

No wonder those “dark woods” are often ignored! “They have a reputation for initially appearing difficult,” the author says, and then “becoming increasingly bewildering the more they are studied.” I’ll say! I am still scratching my head over the book’s math and science. And take the chapter on postmodernism! Please! (Or, is a postmodernist explanation just supposed to be, um, incomprehensible?)

A major theme of the book is individualism. Forget about looking out for the good of some collective whole – the 20th century said – the individual is all that matters. Individualism was forcefully expressed in the political arena by Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. “Society?” Thatcher said. “There is no such thing!”

Individualism causes problems like income inequality. It also causes a rejection of global, long-term, scientific thinking. Higgs notes that Thatcher – a chemist by profession – well understood the issue of climate change and was an early and passionate campaigner to reduce greenhouse gases. But Thatcher later denied the science: it did not fit with short-term economic growth and unfettered personal consumption. (The same denial process happened with Republicans in the U.S. and with Conservatives in Canada.)

StrangerHiggs offers interesting insights from his British vantage point. Why has Christianity atrophied in Europe, but flourished in the U.S.? A crucial reason, the author says, is that the American brand of Christianity successfully incorporated the individualist, “greed is good,” ethic.

(And I would add – from a Canadian perspective – that U.S. Christianity is more robust because it embraced that country’s unique gun culture. Americans cling both to their guns and to their religion.)
 
After reading Stranger Than We Can Imagine, the Trump phenomenon makes a lot more sense. Trump personifies individualism and excessive, conspicuous consumption. Trump also is skillfully exploiting the Republican party’s simplistic thinking; its religiosity; and its agenda that is pro-gun and anti-science.
 
Trump is a master communicator. He not only rants and raves at big rallies; but also dominates 24-hour TV news and social media like Twitter. Just don’t try to logically analyze Trump! Trump is deftly playing the Republican party, the media, and the people. Trump’s campaign is being likened to a “postmodernist performance.” Wow!
 
Higgs wraps up his book with a glimpse of the 21st century, which is all about networks and connections. Trump is, like, so 20th century! Trump is at odds with the values of the new century: authenticity, sharing, transparency, complexity, and science. To find those values, look at the Bernie Sanders campaign. No wonder Sanders appeals to young millennials.

“We made it through yesterday. We’re about to encounter tomorrow,” the author concludes. “We can take the dark woods of the 20th century in our stride.” 

“We’re citizens of the 21st century now.”

Hopefully, our 21st century challenges won’t include President Donald J. Trump!

* * * *
See also: 

Stranger Than We Can Imagine on Amazon.com        (on Amazon.ca)

Could We Have a Donald Trump in Canada?

“Bugs Bunny” Theory of American Politics

Other Reviews

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