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Long-Term Matters: My inner Trump

Early on Wednesday 9 November we learnt that Donald Trump would be president of the US, and two days later I heard I may have a cancer.

Since then, it has been confirmed that the cancer is large, worrying and cannot be magically removed. Outwardly, I look well, but inside, this malignant parasite has been growing – silently – for some years.

Cancerous cells occur all the time in humans.  Normally, these mutations are destroyed by the body’s immune system, but clearly that hasn’t happened in my case.

Are you still wondering why I call this cancer my ‘inner Trump’?

The populist backlash against globalisation is large and can’t be wished away. Brexit, Trump’s election, Renzi’s crushing defeat are symptoms of the disease. Even in Austria, where the far-right candidate lost, we can’t ignore that 47% of the public voted for someone from an organisation founded by a former SS officer.

Why is this happening? The simple answer is a lost faith in politics. And who can blame people?  In case you aren’t convinced, consider that youth unemployment is 46.5% in Greece, 42.6% in Spain and 36.4% in Italy. 

In the US, the brokenness of society displays differently. For example, US life expectancy is falling. As commentator Umair Haque notes, “It would be  surprising in a poor country – and therefore it is genuinely alarming in a rich one.”  

The cause? Haque points to: “Systemic institutional failure. Across the board. Not just one institution, but many.”

Readers of this column will know that I am critical of the way that investors have enabled dysfunctional corporate and market behaviour and have written about what they could do differently. Investment decision-makers have moved in the right direction, but too slowly. They espouse the rhetoric of responsibility but, in practice, change has been incremental.

In contrast, populists know how to appeal to emotions in a way liberals almost never do. The critical question is, can investment advocates of moderation learn to pack a bigger emotional punch and follow it up with walk that really matches the talk?

So what’s ahead for society? Since that is beyond my control, I’ll focus on me.

Chemotherapy should hopefully shrink the growth but doctors can’t be sure what follows. Learning to live fully, despite the illness (and the side effects), and being aware that it might spread (but not living paralysed by this fear) are high on my project list. 

Some say I should be ‘optimistic’ just as some say we should be optimistic about Trump and other populists. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has explained why optimism in these times is unwise: “What has happened is a failure to understand the difference between optimism and hope. They sound similar but they are quite different. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, if we work hard enough, we can make things better. Between them lies all the difference in the world. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope.”

So what I fully intend to do is be hopeful and make adventurous decisions. A cancer survivor has written a funny blog about her experience of what this means: “One day, you’re minding your own business, you open the fridge, and oh my God, there’s a mountain lion in your fridge. Wait, what? How? Why is there a mountain lion in your fridge? No time to explain. Run! The mountain lion will kill you! Unless you find something even more ferocious to kill it first.” 

Investors have a huge ability to influence the eventual outcome of this swing to nationalism, protectionism and populism or worse. Will we live adventurously or will we close the fridge door and continue to be ‘optimistic’?

Dr Raj Thamotheram is CEO of Preventable Surprises and a visiting fellow at the Smith School, Oxford University

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