The age of rage
Mark McLaughlin says the election of Donald Trump is an angry cry from a people suffering indignity and exploitation, but should not provoke a retreat from social liberalism or globalisation.
In his farewell address from the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan spoke of the United States of America as a “shining city upon a hill”. He said it was “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
At its best, the United States drew strength from being a nation of immigrants. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” So proclaims the Statue of Liberty. Founded by foreigners, built by immigrants, powered by free speech and the free market, America is a nation built on an idea rather than an idea built around nationhood.
It is difficult to know whether the performance of the founding fathers ever did fulfil the early promise of their poetry. The United States is, after all, a nation born in the blood of 1776, raised in the shadow of slavery, hardened by the gangland violence of the 1930s, and plagued by boundless conflict from World War I to present day Syria. Perhaps the subject of global aspiration was the idea of America, rather than the result of its implementation.
Reagan’s shining city upon a hill is perceptibly dimmer after November 8th 2016. No longer is the United States a beacon for freedom and democracy. All that will shine atop the hill come 2020 are the crackling embers of universal healthcare, abortion rights, gun control and equal marriage, hard won protections set ablaze by a Republican President, Congress, Senate and Supreme Court. Pilgrims from lost places will not find a home in Donald Trump’s America.
The oft-touted “checks and balances” of the US Constitution will be tested to breaking point. Trump is a Republican in name, but not a republican in nature. None of his actions thus far are indicative of a man who knows or cares about constitutional freedoms. His acidic rhetoric at once corrodes and coarsens the hollowed husk of what was once the political home of Abraham Lincoln.
When Team Trump is handed the reigns of power, assumptions that have defined his country – that freedom of the press and freedom of religion are inviolable – will rest on a shoogly peg. Trump is dangerous not because his beliefs are indecent, but because he holds no beliefs at all. He feeds on the adoration and affirmation from the public and his peers. The garishness of Trump Tower and his tiresome braggadocio act as further evidence of deep-seated insecurity. A cursory glance at his Twitter timeline and you almost feel sorry for the man; he was elected to the most powerful office in the world only a week ago, and still can’t help throwing a tantrum about coverage in the New York Times.
Aside from the horror of someone so thin-skinned having access to the nuclear codes, perhaps there is a faint glimmer of hope in this character flaw. When the next Sandy Hook shooting is committed in the United States, how will President Trump respond? It seems possible that he would be swept towards a position of sensible gun regulation on a reactionary wave. Or, at least, it seems more possible than with your average Republican. When the next unarmed African-American is gunned down by a police officer, a likely response would be for the new President to throw petrol on the flames – red meat for the red-hatted faithful. But isn’t it plausible that, amid the necessity of being seen to act, Trump could actually propose reform of the police? Naked populism gets a lot wrong, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Of course, given the appointment of antisemitic Breitbart executive Steve Bannon as Trump’s key strategic adviser, this straw-clutching will not apply if the perpetrator of these crimes is from an ethnic minority background, and certainly not if they are Muslim. The rapturous applause with which his previous scapegoating has been met makes it a dangerous time to be non-white in the United States.
Beyond America’s shores, the fading ideals of democracy will be acutely felt. Supporters of authoritarian regimes in Asia and the Middle East are already offering Donald Trump as evidence that democracy is no protection against the darker proclivities of the despot. Much like the Cold War of the 1960s, there still exists a conflict not of bombs or bullets, but of perception. There should be no doubt about the damage done to the desirability of Western democracy in the rest of the world.
If this is how America falls, it has been with a whimper, not a roar. Donald Trump is not one for sweeping oratory or an ambitious policy platform; he is a national embarrassment and an incurious buffoon. This anti-establishment modern day Peasant’s Revolt is led by a billionaire from New York, and is every bit as ridiculous as that makes it sound. During the campaign, any question that required a specific answer was met with a clodhopping pivot to explain how terrible it all is (nothing in particular, just all things), before concluding that only Trump could Make America Great Again.
The United States is the second mature democracy in six months to leap into the dark with little more than a slogan to cushion the fall. It does make one wonder whether the constitutional future of the United Kingdom turned on the fact that “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands” wasn’t quite as pithy as “Take Back Control”.
Broad comparisons between the independence referendum, Brexit and Trump are in vogue, but often fall wide of the mark. A self-avowed anti-elitist thread can be traced through all three, but the most accurate indicator of a Trump voter was race, not economic dislocation. American politics still considers abortion rights, equal marriage and gun control to be hot topics. Immigration played a starring role with Trump and Brexit, and yet no role whatsoever in the independence referendum.
At the risk of sounding complacent, race and social conservatism are dividing lines only on the fringes in the United Kingdom. There were substantive and qualitative differences in the public debate that make tying it all in neat bundle and slapping a “populism” label on the front a wholly inadequate dissection. Failure to recognise these distinctions risks either learning the wrong lessons, or learning nothing at all.
Firmly in the “wrong lessons” category is retreating from social liberalism and a global economy. In modern times, there has been a period of almost unbroken improvements in living standards in the western world. From German cars to Japanese televisions to American technology to Indian food, we are, each of us, enriched by making global best practice available to a mass market. Even at the lower end of the spectrum, those in poverty are considerably better off, in a material sense, than their equivalents forty years ago.
But the model of global capitalism has failed to ensure that the spoils are equitably distributed. Those in the upper echelons of business have disproportionately benefited from economic growth. In 2014, FTSE 100 CEOs were paid 150 times more than an average member of their workforce. A dockworker or miner in the 1970s was materially more deprived than the McDonald’s employee in 2016, and yet their place in society – and on the housing ladder – was more certain. This perceived loss of status, the lack of stable, respectable employment, opens a well of indignity into which ideas of nationhood, conspiracy and racial envy can be exploited by a willing populist.
It does appear as though the world that belonged to social and economic liberals only six months ago has crumbled into a Faragian sinkhole, though perhaps that analysis is a little too fair on the Princes who lost the Kingdom. The 2008 financial crash, and lack of accountability for the fallout, looks increasingly like an historical watershed. Trump follows Obama whose presidency has, milquetoast healthcare reform aside, failed to deliver the revolution his sparkling rhetoric promised. Brexit is preceded by six years of David Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism”, which managed to engineer his own destruction but little else.
There is a path to success for centre-left politics in the United Kingdom and the United States, but it lies in a proper analysis of the Brexit defeat and Trump’s victory. This is not the time to retreat from social liberalism or globalisation, but to be unapologetic in making the case for the former and correcting the flaws in the latter. Political leaders shouldn’t seek to temper the anger of voters who who want to break the system, but should embrace that anger and ensure it is directed to the right places.
Say what you will about Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, but they have been outrageously effective in transforming the SNP from an eccentric fringe into an election-winning behemoth. A vote for the SNP (party of government for nine years, lest we forget) remains a rage against the machine. Other parties howl into the night about them in fact being that machine, but it never quite lands. The electorate is angry, and Nicola Sturgeon reflects that anger and manages to dilute the anti-immigrant mood in the process.
The British Labour Party and the American Democrats have been unable to harness the anger that burgeoning inequality wrought in the post-crash era. I have more admiration than most for some aspects of Blairism and the qualities of Hillary Clinton, but both had a hand in creating this age of rage. If you spend ten minutes reading about the conflicts of interest in the Clinton Foundation, the paid speeches of $250,000 to Goldman Sachs or the grotesque self-enrichment of Tony Blair, you feel the need to shower just to wash off the grubby corruption of it all. Angry electorates want change – any change – and in that context the rejection of the most “establishment” candidate ever to run for the Presidency should come as little surprise, even if the chosen alternative certainly does.
Aloof disengagement in the Clinton mould is not going to cut it, and it was reckless arrogance to believe otherwise. Voters who want to break the system will not choose a candidate ostensibly part of it. This headlong gallop from one Trumpian disaster to the next will only exacerbate inequalities at home, and the field must not be left clear for the populist right, in its blue or purple hue, to capitalise on a discontent their ideology helped create.