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Reason in the Age of Trump

MADRID – In the classical Greek tragedy The Bacchae, the god Dionysus, powered by a thirst for vengeance, battles the inflexible and closed-minded King Pentheus for the soul of Thebes. Ultimately, Pentheus’s rigidity – his attempt to suppress, rather than understand or adapt to, the emotions inflamed by the passionate and unconventional Dionysus – proves to be his undoing. Dionysus emerges victorious, and Pentheus is ripped to shreds.

Today, the emotional and mercurial Donald Trump is challenging the US political establishment for America’s soul. But Trump is no god. And if he wins this battle, his country will be far worse off than Thebes, and the repercussions will be felt by the entire world.

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While the likelihood of a Trump presidency seems to be declining by the day, it would be premature – and, indeed, highly risky – to dismiss it altogether. As the British vote in June to exit the European Union starkly demonstrated, citizens of democratic countries are more than capable of making choices that contradict their own rational self-interest – a trend that has lately been picking up steam.

Paradoxically, this is not altogether illogical. Amid economic struggle, national identity crises, and populist fearmongering – all amplified by social media – there is some sense in gravitating toward voices and ideas that provide comfort and an outlet for frustration.

But, while the fantasy of deus ex machina may feel good, it will not solve any problems. Leaders like Trump make things much worse, because they undermine the rules-based system that has delivered untold prosperity and security over the last seven decades.

A century ago, the sociologist Max Weber classified the three types of legitimacy that can ground governmental authority: traditional (an inherited system); charismatic (a particular leader’s force of personality); or legal (a set of rational rules, applied fairly). For Weber, the modern state was rooted in a self-evident legal legitimacy.

But, contrary to Weber’s assumptions, a growing number of Westerners today regard neither the logic nor the fairness of the rules as obvious. This leaves space for new leaders to step in, using personal charisma and appeals to tradition to win support. For everyone from right-wing populists in the West to ISIS recruiters, the combination has proved to be a powerful one.

To be sure, there are real problems with the current system. Western democracies offer endless examples of regulation run amok, as well as instances of rules being applied unevenly. Add to that enduring income, racial, and gender inequality, and frustration with the current system is not surprising.

But this is reason to pursue reform, not to advocate the wholesale exit that people are increasingly supporting. And, indeed, the key to saving a rules-based order is not just to demonstrate its unquestionable superiority, but also to acknowledge and address its flaws. That is the only way to change the perception of rules as a source of oppression, rather than protection.

Reform will not be easy. Politically, it is much simpler – and electorally more rewarding – to criticize a system than it is to defend it, especially when that system is far from perfect. But defend it we must, with leaders explaining effectively why rules are necessary, including by educating the public on why the system operates the way it does.

At the same time, policymakers must take a deeper look at the system, and make vital changes. Specifically, they must adjust how rules are made, to ensure that what results is fit for the modern world.

At a time when change happens at lightning speed, there is a perception that formal rule-making is too slow to keep up. But the predictable rules that formal processes produce remain critical to reinforce the stability required for sustained prosperity. What is needed is an updated approach that supports the evolution of law in a constantly evolving environment, thereby ensuring that law is more responsive to the needs of citizens.

The final item on the agenda for reviving the rules-based order, and defeating the world’s destructive Dionysuses, is the most challenging: we must reinforce rules-based communities. Dislocated by modernity, the West has seen a turn towards identities of the past – nationalism, tribalism, sectarianism – whose allure rests in their familiarity and certainty.

But identity politics, it is well known, can be very destructive. That is why it is critical that rules-based communities, such as the modern state, become a hook that people overwhelmed by change can grasp. This means moving beyond pure reason to establish an emotional connection with and among citizens.

This may seem counterintuitive. Law is supposed to be impartial and rational; that is its core strength. But if the rules-based order is to survive, it must resonate in people’s hearts, as well as their heads.

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It is not yet clear precisely how to approach this process. What is clear is that it will require a foundation of common values, and leaders who work actively and consistently to build credibility and earn a skeptical public’s trust. Otherwise, we will see the shift toward an unruly world, one shaped by passion and power grabs, gain momentum.

The growing appeal of irrationality should be a wake-up call to rational leaders everywhere. If we want to prevent our societies from being lured onto the rocks by the siren song of charisma and nostalgia, we must make a strong case for the rule of law, while rejecting rigidity. Failure to do so is, after all, what got Pentheus killed.