Everybody knows why Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Now that it’s happening, everybody knows. You have maybe heard it all night from analysts and talking heads. You will keep on hearing it, from politicians, from think tank people, from newspaper columnists, on your social media. You’d be amazed how many people have the answer.
Let me summarise the root cause argument for you. Trump will assume the Presidency of the free world (I write this as the man himself gives his acceptance speech) Britain voted to leave the EU, and the Tories won the last general election. Big, unexpected defeats for liberals, and down to one thing: a revolt from the white working class that has been screwed over by free markets and free movement.
The argument writes itself. Since 1979, the progressive Atlantic parties (the American Democrats, and the Labour Party in this country) separated themselves from the working class that they originated to represent. Clinton Democrats and New Labour embraced a more aggressive form of capitalism, involving more privatisations, more migrant labour, and a further shift from manufacturing to service based economics. Culturally, and certainly in this country, Labour introduced more identity-based politics, which bemused the working class left that tended to prioritise trade union rights over the rainbow coalition. The white working class, in Britain and in America, grew tired of crap jobs, social stratification and political correctness and delivered a resounding ‘Fuck you’ to the establishment. Result? Goodbye, Europe: hello, Mr President Trump.
There’s obvious truth in the argument, and I do think that the left and liberals need to acknowledge some responsibility for this complete fucking train wreck that we are waking up to. I’m thinking less of the beard strokers and more of the career activists who demonstrated against ‘neoliberalism’ and foreign intervention. Well, we have a President who’s sent the markets haywire, and who takes care to accommodate murderous foreign powers. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood: we have that kind of culture now. It’s not quite what you wanted, but it’s a start…
And yet: as the policy wonks and beard-strokers deliver the rehearsed argument, is there not a undertone of complacency in their voices? Can it really be so simple? Is there not a sleight-of-hand being played here somewhere? And are you sure that you’re not being fooled again?
Here’s the problem. The political science professors and the Labour grandees and the columnists have a point. We might well be better off outside the EU. We should certainly be able to have sovereignty over our own laws, and unravel the crap parts of EU law from our system. Identity politics is often silly. We should be able to make and sell stuff in our own countries.
Fair enough, all good, but what I don’t get is the zero sum nature of these arguments. It’s not enough for ‘the left behind’ to succeed – others must be hurt. These few months since the referendum have been an obvious example. June 24 was a fantastic opportunity to draft our written constitution, our Bill of Rights, to redress institutional wrongs that have screwed all of us, for centuries.
And what do we get? Nothing, except yet another crackdown on net migration. A British Prime Minister – someone who represents the greatest country in the world – travelling from country to country, and telling people ‘Please don’t visit Great Britain.’ It would be funny, if it wasn’t so fucking tragic.
This isn’t just rhetoric. People get hurt. The EU nationals who find themselves passed around like so many bags of candy. The victims of racist assaults, in the wake of June 24. Every man, woman and child made to feel less British because they have a different colour skin or imperfect English or an unusual name.
Trump is of course the master of ‘others must suffer’ zero sum politics. Mexicans, Muslims, assertive women, African-Americans – there appears no end to the man’s hatreds. Politicians used to win by careful strategies that appealed to as many voters as possible. Trump pulled his victory from a jukebox of resentments. We have seen the normalisation of outright bigotry, and white supremacism, during this campaign (if you don’t believe me, I can recommend the work of the St Louis journalist Sarah Kendzior, a fearless chronicler of alt-right craziness).
And this takes us into a different world. Put simply, it doesn’t matter that we have Equality Acts and diversity training and identity politics if enough people decide these things don’t matter. The brilliant journalist Chris Deerin said that: ‘civilisation is a more fragile thing than we often care to understand.’ And he’s not wrong.
It’s pointless to make predictions, ultimately pointless in this instance because of the number of catastrophic scenarios that will make talk of political theory laughably irrelevant, but I think the following scenario will play out. There will be a lot of tedious anti-Americanism, and looking-down upon the working class, in Britain and in America. Implications will be made that democracy is hardly worth the candle if it keeps throwing up a Trump or a Brexit. The moral legitimacy of the American idea, and of democracy in general, will be undermined.
Trump might satisfy some of his base (as Tory Brexit will satisfy to some extent the ‘left behind’ in this country) but nothing will ever satisfy the true believers, because while we can do more to stimulate domestic industry and control immigration we cannot reverse time or socially engineer a lost country. There will be more bitterness, more resentment, more backlash, which Trump and Nigel will not be able to blame on the ‘establishment’ because by then they will be the establishment. And civilisation will get that little bit more fragile.
Obviously I don’t have the answers, but I will say this. Zero sum politics doesn’t work. The white working class Trump talks about deserve the best (and I’ve yet to meet a working class person who wouldn’t be insulted by the idea that they would fall for a blatant scam artist like Trump or Farage, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter). People who feel hard done by because of immigration deserve their say and our support: but what about immigrants themselves, or EU nationals, or those of us who support free movement or merely don’t have a problem with it: aren’t we citizens too? We must accept that times and societies and countries change. Tradition and sense of place isn’t corroded by that change, on the contrary, it’s for the sake of tradition and the texture of our lives that we must stand up for difference, for the cosmopolitan, for what is creative and otherworldly and compassionate in us. This isn’t over.
Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us/hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
‘Song of Myself’