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Trump’s victory: the ‘whitelash’ against the liberal order

The new nativism thrives off the failures of neoliberalism. We have entered a dangerous era of anti-liberalism.

lead lead lead Donald Trump at a lectern making his acceptance speech Donald Trump makes his acceptance speech in New York. (Paco Anselmi PA Wire/PA Images)

'America first, 

the cradle of the best and of the worst'

(Leonard Cohen, 'Democracy', because which other nation could elect Obama and Trump in succession?)

A few thoughts on the causes and consequences of Trump’s victory:

-   Bill Clinton’s legacy may have cost Hillary the election. It’s now clear that NAFTA, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act to regulate banking, and the welfare reforms that threw millions into poverty, laid the seeds for Trump’s victory. Under Obama, who will leave office with a higher approval rating than Reagan, unemployment is under 5% and worker pay is growing at 2.8% – the highest rate since the 2008 crash. But Clintonism as a political economy has created deep alienation, and it has no future.

-   The age of neoliberalism is drawing to a close. Despite his love of theatrics, Donald Trump has never been an admirer of Ronald Reagan, whose aversion to walls helped foster globalisation. Trump, in his vitriolic tone and ‘divide-and-rule’ cultural strategy, is more reminiscent of Nixon, the master of anti-liberalism. The economic decline and backlash against the liberal order makes our moment feel like the mid-1970s, with all its reactionary insularity.

-   In part because of this shift, Hillary Clinton was a poor candidate. Not only did she offer continuity when Americans were yearning for change, but she embodied a corrupt establishment order. The hubris of her campaign was staggering: Clinton did not visit Wisconsin after the primaries in April, and with a fortnight to go, money and energy was redirected to Texas, which the Democrats had little chance of winning. Voter demographics are changing in the south, but not so rapidly to shift the deep roots of Republican support.

-   Nonetheless, Clinton was the recipient of virulent and vicious misogyny: ‘the wicked witch’, the ‘nasty woman’. That 45% of white college-educated women voters backed Trump is testament to a dismaying lack of solidarity across racial and class lines. organized social democratic solidarity is the only way to fight the politics of ethnic grievance.

-   The most severe and significant impact of this result will be on the planet itself – Trump has stated that he will cancel the Paris climate accords, and with them our best chance of halting global warming.

-   A vote for American chauvinism will result in the weakening of American power. Like Brexit Britain, the US will become consumed in internal division, with emboldened reactionaries sowing seeds along racial and religious fault lines. Trump has offered a textbook example of how to win by exploiting ethnic divisions – his campaign will be copied in years to come.

-   The nativist backlash against Obama, stoked by Trump since his ‘birther’ campaign, has deep roots in the unresolved legacy of slavery, as illustrated by the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2005, during the bleak days of George W. Bush’s second term, the literary critic Harold Bloom wrote: “Sometimes I find myself wondering if the south belatedly has won the civil war, more than a century after its supposed defeat”. After the election of Barack Obama, this thesis seemed absurd – but the ‘whitelash’ may suggest otherwise.

-   ‘Socialism or barbarism’ – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren could have beaten Trump. Far from representing an ‘un-American tradition’, Bernie was capable of reconstituting (part of) the New Deal Democrat coalition. He would surely have retained the key blue-collar states that Clinton lost – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Moreover, organized social democratic solidarity is the only way to fight the politics of ethnic grievance. Elizabeth Warren may have been an even stronger candidate: a fluent speaker with a powerful back story and a proven commitment to tackling inequality.

-   The election campaign was an embarrassment for American democracy. Of all the farcical episodes, the FBI (Trump) vs CIA (Clinton) saga was redolent of the power struggles of a banana republic. (A strange sensation for Democrats to be supporting the CIA, backer of banana republics, in the name of democracy). James Comey, the FBI’s director, has a lot to answer for.

-   The hard-won achievements of the Obama presidency will be eroded. Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare within his first 100 days – a decision that will cause immeasurable pain for millions of Americans.

-   “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”, said CEO Leslie Moonves. Like its competitors, CBS – once the gold standard of American journalism – enabled the rise of Trump. Ratings-obsessed, financially-imperiled networks gave Trump thousands of hours of free coverage during the primaries, and indulged him with false equivalences (particularly over the email ‘scandal’). In the world of political reality television, why vote off the most ‘entertaining’ contestant?

-   This media was guilty of terrible complacency. At the start of the primaries, The Huffington Post refused to report on Trump in the Politics section, instead relegating him to Entertainment. (The HuffPo also gave Clinton a 98% probability of victory in its final reckoning – a perfect example of the failure of the polling companies to map the underlying trends). Exactly a month before the election, Slate ran an article in the past tense: ‘Donald Trump Could Have Been President’. The nations that conceived of the Enlightenment have turned against it with a vengeance.

-   Expect Trump to go after independent media – there is no reason to believe that as president he will respect the boundaries of the fourth estate, after having attacked journalists so personally and relentlessly. We need independent media now more than ever.

-   The vanities of the liberal echo chamber (the campus conversation about cultural appropriation, for example) shows quite how far progressives have strayed from the national debate. Young people need to re-engage in conversations beyond their ‘safe spaces’.

-   We are back in the era of the strongman: Duterte in the Phillipines, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey. As Modi in India proves, majoritarian identity politics can be electorally potent.

-   Le Pen is now in pole position to become France’s president next year. The nations that conceived of the Enlightenment have turned against it with a vengeance.

-   Trump’s courting with Russia is deeply troubling, but his relationship with China may be even more significant. Trump obsessed over China during the campaign, and how his administration deals with the Xi Jinping will tell us much about the future of free trade, as well as nuclear disarmament. (Trump, looking to draw down American involvement in east Asia, has suggested that Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear weapons).

-   This is the end of the ‘End of History’. Or is it? Fukuyama himself anticipated this reaction in the final paragraph of his essay:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come… Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again”.

 

About the author

Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm


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