Setting the rudder

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 9 Jul 2024

Thinking about what to expect of the upcoming American elections, Abdel-Moneim Said wonders about the deepest drivers of historical change


What makes history transition from one era to the next, whether that new era takes humankind forward to greater progress or backwards to the abyss? Philosophers and political scientists are divided over the answer to this question. Liberals believe that democratic institutions have the wherewithal to usher in change smoothly and effectively, by giving the elected majority the mandate to set the course, pace, and degree of change. Marxists and socialists see history as driven by material forces, specifically the forces of production and their associated technologies. Those, they believe, shape relations between classes and dictate the class struggle that fuels the engine of history. Reformists fall somewhere in between. They have learned that moderation and a role played by the government in protecting society from the adverse consequences of error and excess lead to the most reasonable and rational results.

Divergent as these views remain, they all renounce an older school of thought which saw the individual as the driver of history. History was made by “great men”: emperors, generals, and prophets, and their respective conquests, wars, and divine missions. That school of thought has continued into modern times, even among hardcore exponents of dialectical materialism. In a letter to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels voiced his concern that, in their theory of history, they might have exaggerated the impact of the economic factor on human development. Indeed, it is hard to deny the role the individual has played in history. The same might be said of coincidence.

Right now, humankind appears to be at a juncture and an individual will determine which way history will turn. The individual in question is one of two possible leaders of the world’s foremost economic and military superpower: the incumbent President Joe Biden and the former president Donald Trump.

In last week’s column, I discussed the recent debate between those two men and the way it encapsulated a crisis in US democracy. The problem did not stop there, however. Since then, it has become clear that there are more than two horns to this dilemma. Much hinges on the condition of the incumbent president who floundered in the debate, whether due to lack of sleep or other factors. As a result, a shaken Democratic Party has split into three camps. One is pushing to stay the course with Biden until election day. The second is clamouring to replace Biden with an alternative to be certified as the Democratic candidate in the party’s forthcoming convention. The third camp sees no reason to fret: Vice President Kamala Harris is the natural heir apparent to the party’s leadership and presidential shoes. This has been the case in the past every time a president resigned, decided not to run for a second term, or died.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side of the dilemma, we have former president Trump who is mired in a morass of lawsuits on misdemeanour and felony charges. And yet Trump, as though preparing for the present situation, had secured a 6-3 Republican majority in the Supreme Court while in power. The Supreme Court, as we know, has the ultimate say on legal questions that wend their way up through the tiers of the US judicial system.

Often the idea of the individual as the driver of history evokes the image of a maverick who defies customs, norms, and the established order of things. Trump has been brazen about this, boasting of disrupting the status quo. “Disruptive”, a word that Trump has used a lot to describe himself, implies more than being annoying or disturbing. As Dr Mahmoud Mohieldin explained it to me in this context, disruptiveness involves sowing havoc with a view to throwing the status quo into disarray, propelling it in different directions.

Trump now has a six-point lead over Biden in opinion polls, compared to a one-point lead before the debate. He also polls two points ahead of Harris in a hypothetical head-to-head race between the two. And what this means is that Trump no longer just sets the agenda of public discourse. More importantly, he is poised to steer the US — along with the rest of the world — to its demise. Circumstances have brought us to this strange epitome of the theory of the individual at the helm, setting the rudder of a stunned world towards economic upheaval and anarchy, the detrimental effects of which are compounded by globalisation.

Here in the Middle East, many blame Biden for the support he has given to Netanyahu. But their hatred for him blinds them to Trump’s advise to Netanyahu to “finish the job,” i.e., the job of annihilating the Palestinian people.

In all events, only four months are left until the US presidential elections.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: