Reflections on the Trump victory
How did we get here? This is the question being asked and answered thousands of times over around the world today. In line with various political events over the last 18 months, from the 2015 UK general election, to the election of Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, to Brexit and now to Trump, consensus reality as defined by the majority of our commentators and politicians has once again been proven a collective illusion. Despite the predictions of the polls, and the countless confident assertions, we have reached a new peak in the ongoing rise of the reactionary right.
The analyses, opinion pieces, hot takes and social media comments offer a variety of explanations for this multi-faceted crisis. Many prioritise economic explanations: from Sunderland and Michigan, the ‘left-behind’ whose wages have stagnated, and whose jobs have been moved abroad are kicking back against the forces of deindustrialisation and globalisation. Studies suggest this is true, certainly in the case of Brexit. But this argument fails to explain the motivations of the wealthy, home-counties Brexiteers, including the writers and editors of many of our newspapers, not to mention those paragons of elitism, the architects of Brexit itself. It also fails to account for the fact that according to exit polls at least, Clinton won among those earning less than $50k but Trump won with those earning more.
Racism and white supremacy is clearly a huge factor in Trump’s win, as it is among the reactionary movements in European countries; Alternative für Deutschland, UKIP and Front National. But this also doesn’t tell the whole story. Around a third of British Asians voted to leave the EU, and another reactionary right-wing regime recently gaining traction – that of authoritarian President Erdogan of Turkey – also lays claim to being a movement ‘of the people’ yet it clearly can not be tidied into the same white-supremacist narrative.
A rejection of ‘the elites’ across the West is apparent after a sustained period of growing inequality, and scandal after scandal revealing abuses of power, from the banking crisis to NSA surveillance, MPs expenses and the Panama Papers. But widespread and general dissatisfaction with the status quo is manifesting in different interpretations of the problem. People turn to the left (Corbyn/Sanders), but apparently more turn to the right (UKIP, Trump). Countless analyses seek to understand what it is that makes people look for answers in either direction.
Many point to the power of the media. Tabloids and indeed broadsheets in the UK froth about Brexit, labelling the judiciary ‘enemies of the people’ for upholding the British law and parliamentary sovereignty. We note that Liverpool – where The Sun is not sold – voted Remain. However, in the US, the mainstream print media was virtually unanimous in its support for Hilary Clinton. Meanwhile, others correctly identify that political polarisation is turbo-charged by our algorithm-driven, balkanising social media. We see only our own version of the truth mirrored back to us by our friends, and Facebook’s helpful targeted content.
How do Progressives confront this? It is clear that the liberal centre is falling: establishment, centrist candidate Hilary Clinton has decisively lost against a candidate who was literally imagined in advance by satirists. But the radical left is not winning either. Here in the UK Jeremy Corbyn languishes on around 16% approval ratings in the polls against a UKIP-ified Conservative party, while the Liberal Democrats win local election after local election. Those on the left who argue that anti-establishment Bernie Sanders could have won against Trump don’t seem to factor in that he is Jewish, with comparatively much lower popularity among black and Hispanic voters, in an election significantly defined by anti-Semitic and white-supremacist arguments.
Equally however, cleaving to the liberal centre, as defined by the concept of the ‘Third Way’ of Blair and Clinton has been shown to be thoroughly inadequate in the face of the populist right. Across the West the liberal, social democratic consensus is in crisis, with plummeting approval ratings across diverse countries and parties.
Political and historically-focussed opinion pieces differ too, in their assessments. The corruption of democracy by failed electoral systems; First Past the Post and the two party system, as well as by corporate interests is read as having advanced the festering discontent of the voiceless. Contrarian voices argue that ‘too much’ democracy is to blame. The citizenship is riven with racism and misogyny, and the ‘will of the people’ is just as liable to turn nasty as nice. Historians point to the cyclical nature of our history, our propensity for self-destructiveness, but in papers and on blogs, analogies with 20th century history are critiqued as well as invoked.
So what do we, as Progressives, do? Confusion and fear abound. The first step is to acknowledge that this is an intersectional crisis. It is manifesting in different ways in different countries. It can’t be pinned on any single motivator. It is economically driven, it is culturally driven, it is driven by technological change. It will not be defeated by a counter-narrative written in response to just one of these factors. It will not be defeated by a single existing group within the body politic, or a single demographic of people. The intersectionality of the problem requires that we take an equally wide-ranging response.
It will not suffice to descend into squabbles among ourselves on the centre to left over who of us is to blame: neither the radical left nor the liberal centre will win against the populist right alone. The very plate tectonics of our societies are shifting. Identity categories, political categories that had weight in the 20th century are unstable. We can’t fall back on old tribalisms, or on sectarian responses. The dangers are too grave.
Instead we must go back to first principles. What it is that we need to defend. Equality. Sustainability. Economic justice. Tolerance. The perils of this political moment are real. It is incumbent on all of us to take action in whatever way we can to resist the slide. Join campaign groups, demonstrate, write to MPs, volunteer – speak up! But it is absolutely essential that we do this with a clear recollection at all times of what the real enemy is: the forces of nativist, authoritarian, climate-change denying, anti-science, racists, misogynist nationalism.
In order to challenge this, we will need every ally that we can get. This means working across party lines. Across national lines. This means weighing up every battle and considering who to best advance the overall Progressive cause. There are always least-worst options. We must identify potential allies as well as existing ones, and learn to unite over our common values, not reject one another on the basis of party affiliation, demographic, or our interpretations of the causes of the problem. We must keep our first principles in mind and find ways work together, even when it is difficult. And we need a simple unified message: one that challenges the diverse economic and cultural insecurities driving the rise of the right, as powerful as ‘Take Back Control’ or ‘Make America Great Again’.
It means using multiple tactics; from direct action to voting; volunteering to lobbying. It means supporting the actions of allies, not submitting them to tests of ideological purity or being hyper-vigilant for ‘betrayal’. If we cannot form a broad coalition of progressive action across the entire centre to left, we will be smashed to bits by the waves of reactionary populism sweeping across the West. The dangers of this political moment are not imaginary, we cannot afford to keep underestimating them.