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In conversation after the US inauguration: Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Owen Jones, Sam Kriss, Abi Wilkinson

In our first openDemocracy podcast of 2017, Ellie Mae O’Hagan chairs a roundtable from Washington DC, as the Trump presidency begins.

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8 February 2017
Pat Benic/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Pat Benic/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Ben Ramm: Welcome to the first openDemocracy podcast of 2017. This week Ellie Mae O’Hagan reports from Washington DC as Donald Trump begins his presidency.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan: Ok, so I’m here with Abi Wilkinson, Owen Jones, and Sam Kriss. How was the inauguration for you guys? I found it quite drab, I was quite taken aback.

Owen Jones: It was an anti-climax.

Sam Kriss: What was horrifying was how normal it was, the way in which someone like Donald Trump managed to slide effortlessly in his usual greasy way into all the processes and institutions of American state power and the way it almost seemed to fit. You know, you have the kind of pomposity and grandiosity of the American inaugural ceremony and Donald Trump’s presence there didn’t actually seem that ridiculous in context.

AW: I think people are going to be paying attention to issues they potentially ignored under Obama though, like deportations; it felt like it’s been a jolt. The protests were kind of lively, it felt optimistic; it felt helpful like the left is kind of stronger in the US than it has been in a long time. So despite it being a terrible day I felt like people are making plans and doing stuff.

EM: Yeah I definitely felt like that they seem to be quite united on basically that there is a failure of liberalism and that is what has led to the rise in Trump, and they know what they need to defend and what they need to fight for.

OJ: I think this is a surreal moment, no question, and the populist right are sweeping across the western world and this is its biggest victory yet. Actually the left in this country in the USA is stronger than it’s been for at least four decades. It was in 2016, let’s not forget, that the most successful socialist since Eugene Debs – and more successful as a self-described socialist than any socialist in history – gathered a mass movement behind him. The younger generation here in particular are increasingly politicised and the old Clinton-Blair centrist axis is demoralised, weakened, and has nothing really to say. I think you get an American left now that is saying, look, this is a time when Americans are very angry, they have every reason to be angry at a status quo that is broken. The old democratic establishment are rightly seen as wedded to that old status quo and it’s up to us now to mobilise and organise, not to allow Democrats, as they did under George W Bush, to compromise and capitulate… to build their own movement that can actually offer a genuine alternative. So it is bleak, it is dark, this is a guy that ran on a racist and misogynistic campaign and there were many people of colour, immigrants, women, LGBT people who are very, very scared at the moment, but there is a movement that has emerged and I do think that’s something which should give us hope.

SK: I mean what’s positive is that people are starting to challenge the legitimacy of the government but there’s still a step between that challenging the legitimacy of the Trump administration and challenging the legitimacy of the US government as a whole. We were just at the women’s march on Washington which was incredibly heartening to see so many people out there, and so many people willing to resist, but at the same time a lot of the slogans I  think rang quite hollow, because the impression they were trying to give was that you have, you know, a kind of good American government that once stood up for its people and was responsible to them, which has now been hijacked by Donald Trump, and I think the first thing for any left movement to do to actually start making a difference here is to point out this really isn’t the case. I mean it’s another case of that Clinton slogan ‘America is already great’. America was not already great for many millions of its inhabitants and those inhabitants, the ones who have been suffering before and likely to suffer even more now, they need to be the people who will be the foundation and impetus behind any new left movement. When people say that Donald Trump is not fit to be president the implication seems to be that the president of the United States is a worthy position occupied by honourable people, which it is not.

OJ: Well Richard Nixon, he was really honourable… I mean I think if we look at the USA at the moment it is one of the richest countries that has ever existed, that is able to provide a decent and comfortable existence for a huge chunk of its population, where the living standards of the majority of people has stagnated or declined in the last few years. Since the financial crash we have seen the banks bailed out, Wall Street bailed out whilst, as people would put it here, Main Street has struggled and the battle now is either the populist right is given free rein to exploit that justifiable anger, and it wasn’t just about that, there is backlash against the struggles of African Americans, LGBTQ people – and that clearly is part of the mix – but you know it is no surprise if we think about it that if you have stagnated the living standards of Americans for so many years, a financial crash caused by those at the top, which millions of people have paid for, where life has not got better under a Democratic presidency in the last eight years, that the populist right has a lot to work with. If we just fall back on the New Labour playbook of the 1990s and think that’s appropriate for this kind of context, then the likes of Donald Trump are going to be triumphalist and I do think hope-wise, in the new movements that are emerging all over the United States and also in Europe – places like Spain and so on, where you get grassroots movements which are putting pressure on established political leaders and which are creating their own political movements; in the case of Spain an entirely new political party ‘Podemos’ – that has to be the future. So it is grim, and this is the most powerful country on earth and this will have an impact everywhere, but I do think there is a lot of hope that I didn’t actually myself expect to see until I actually came here and spoke to people.

AW: 58% of people would like to replace Obamacare with universal healthcare. Public opinion on many issues is somewhat to the left of either of the major parties which just kind of shows how broken the system is. It feels like the left has more of a plan for what the Democratic party should be doing than the liberals.

SK: I have to kind of disagree a bit here, has a plan in so far as you know the kind of Bernie Sanders/Keith Ellison portion of the left has a plan which is to hijack the Democrat party and push it slowly towards more left-wing goals and then hope for a left-wing victory in the next election. And I think it’s not enough to wait for the Republicans to lose so the Democrats can win again. We need to fight for something more fundamental.

EM: I think you’re being unfair actually on Bernie there. I don’t think that the left plan is to take over the Democratic Party, I think it’s to build a movement. The Bernie Sanders people are calling it “our revolution”.

SK: I just think we shouldn’t necessarily overstate the influence of the left, I think it can lead to a slightly dangerous over-optimism.

AW: You know what I think? There are a lot of people who are starting to realise things aren’t right and maybe they weren’t aware of the bad things that happened under Obama, maybe they don’t pay that much attention to foreign policy, doesn’t mean they aren’t winnable.

EM: I think one thing that maybe we can all agree on is, I don’t know about you guys, but I definitely came here feeling anxious, feeling like I would feel really depressed and I’ve been really surprised at how I feel battle-ready now and feel quite optimistic.

SK: Let’s punch some Nazis. 

BR: That was Ellie Mae O’Hagan in Washington DC. To read openDemocracy’s content and to support our work visit opendemocracy.net/2017.

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