Ripping back the veil: an interview with Arun Kundnani

Trump promises politics in its naked form: the seizure of power for his clan, and be damned with all the rest. As the centre ground collapses, we must not cling to it. 

Phoebe Braithwaite Arun Kundnani
19 November 2016
Trump mask production line, Japan. Eugene Hoshiko/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Trump mask production line, Japan. Eugene Hoshiko/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.What are the roots and ramifications of Donald Trump’s election? As we reel from this seismic event, Arun Kundnani, political commentator and author of The Muslims Are Coming! (Verso, 2014), assesses its domestic and global significance for the innumerable communities on the frontline, with Trump set to inherit the vastest machineries for war and surveillance ever created. We must not accept this as normal, he argues, and we should match in extremity the coming administration’s rhetoric – while campaigning from the margins, with a genuine programme for change.

Phoebe Braithwaite: What part has racism played in the Trump campaign’s success?

Arun Kundnani: There are two prevailing ways that people have been looking at the Trump victory. One is focused on class and the other is focused on race. A lot of people are saying this is the revolt of the ‘losers’ in globalisation, focused on the white working class. Actually I don’t think the data supports that, because the most striking thing about the numbers is that support for Trump is not associated with poverty. It is correlated with race. Across all ages, every income category, and across men and women, more whites voted for Trump than Clinton and more non-whites voted for Clinton than Trump.

But the discussion on this has been limited so far because when people say, ‘Trump won because of his racism’ other people reply, ‘you’re saying that all Trump supporters are racist, but they’re not’. That assumes that racism is about individual attitudes of hate and ignorance. But racism is a system and it’s sustained not by barroom bigots but by a million daily complicities. It’s an inherent part of US society, which claims to be based on liberal values, but necessarily involves violence, oppression and exploitation. That’s why it’s possible for Trump to win on the back of racism without needing to imagine that half the country is in the Klan.

"A liberal curtain will be pulled back, and then we’ll be dealing with politics in its authentic form – them and us."

Trump first came to prominence defending racist housing policies in the 1970s and calling for the death penalty for African-American and Hispanic teenagers in the 1980s. Then, through the Birther movement, he is connected to a conspiratorial tradition on the American right, which goes back to the John Birch Society. But today, it’s very much tied up with Islamophobia. The Birther movement was not only about saying that Obama was not American but also that he was secretly Muslim. The real energy of Trump’s campaign initially came from making the arguments about banning Muslims. His critique of Obama was that he was deliberately trying to obscure the nature of the enemy, and we need to be more honest and direct in naming the enemy.

This connects with the idea of stripping away the pieties of the elite, that if you strip away all of this political correctness, you will reveal politics for the power grab it really is. And what he’s saying is, ‘I will grab power for my people, for my race, for my nation,’ and we don’t need to bother with the pretence of politically correct rules, and so forth. I think that’s a very emotional aspect of his appeal, tied up with that sense that a liberal curtain will be pulled back, and then we’ll be dealing with politics in its authentic form – them and us. And the ‘us’ for him would be, implicitly and often explicitly, white Americans.

I think we should take absolutely seriously the racism and Islamophobia of it and not just see it as a rhetorical device to get elected. There were two main components to his pitch: racism and anti-elitism. Of course his anti-elitism is a fiction, in the sense that he’s a part of the elite and he stands for the elite and he embodies the elite. In office, he will compromise on his anti-elitism and, to compensate for that, he will go overboard on his racism. So, for example, he’s already said he will be making registration of Muslims in the United States compulsory. I think those aspects will be the immediate priority for us to defend ourselves against.

PB: Are there appropriate comparisons for this period in history? Can we make parallels?

AK: The temptation is to say that this looks like a re-run of the election of Nixon or Reagan. And I don’t think it is. Trump’s politics are obviously different in relation to free trade. He’s committed to withdrawing from NAFTA. Compare that with George W. Bush, who was trying to expand NAFTA to South America. NAFTA was a way of locking Mexico into neoliberalism, so it’s striking that Trump seems willing to undo that. 

It’s too early to say how this will play out but is seems like a new paradigm is emerging here. Aspects of the orthodoxy of the last forty years might be getting reworked in quite fundamental ways. Free trade is a sacred value of the establishment. When you look at the different components of Trump’s politics, the particular sections of society it’s appealing to, the fact that racism is central to it, the fact that he wants to dispense with all kinds of liberal values, the fact that he wants centralised state power, you can see the resemblance to fascist ideology. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe this as a new kind of fascism, but it’s a very different kind of fascism from the early twentieth century fascism.

For one thing, the Italian and German fascisms were responses to leftist working-class revolutionary movements. They were trying to appropriate some of the forms of those mass movements but redirect those energies for the preservation of the capitalist system. Well, there isn’t a threat to the system from a labour insurgency today. But I think there is a sense among the Anglo-American business class that the system has stalled and that maybe there’s a need for some radical rewiring. And I think Trump embodies that possibility.

It is too early to say what that might look like, but a lot of people in the Trump camp are skeptical of the US playing the role of firefighter and police force for a global free-market system that they think has enriched East Asia and destabilised the Middle East more than it has helped the west. This is not the end of neoliberalism but perhaps a new kind of neoliberalism, in which the aim would be to anchor the power of free markets more in a sense of western cultural identity.

PB: What role did identity politics play in this election?

AK: Clintonism – Hillary and Bill’s politics – was about corporate multiculturalism, corporate feminism, saying that people of colour and women can be included in the elites of the neoliberal project that Reagan had advanced before them. There was always a contradiction between the multicultural feel-good vibe of that politics and the realities for actual people of colour and actual women in America who were on the receiving end of the intensifying racism in the criminal justice system, or the cutbacks to welfare, and so forth, that Bill Clinton’s administration was involved in. Again it was the contradiction between the liberal image and the actual brutalities of the system – that’s what Trump was able to exploit. What Trump is saying, in effect, is, ‘Let’s do away with the pretence that this is an inclusive society. It’s a much more brutal society than that and it’s a society based on power, and who can grab power, and I can grab power for you (white people).’ 

Hillary Clinton. Andrew Harnik/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Hillary Clinton. Andrew Harnik/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

"Racism is a system and it’s sustained not by barroom bigots but by a million daily complicities."

In terms of how we think about identity politics, I think it’s a complete mistake to frame things in such a way that there is an opposition between feminism or anti-racism or LGBT rights, on the one hand, and class issues on the other hand, as if Clinton stands for gay rights and minorities and women and Trump stands for the white working class. I think that’s a complete misreading of the situation and a bad formulation that unfortunately has become very prominent. Our starting point should be that the US is a class society and a race society and a gender society, and all these social relations are intertwined with each other. So the kind of politics we need is one that can incorporate all these elements. Hillary Clinton’s defeat was, in part, to do with her reliance on the idea that women would vote only as women; in fact, they also voted for their race and their class.

PB: What should the left be doing differently?

AK: I think the first thing is to refuse the normalisation of Trump. All that stuff about healing the divides doesn’t grasp what’s happened. We should understand that this is, I think, a break with the last forty years of political and economic orthodoxy – radical not in the genuine sense but in the sense of change from above. The old centre ground of politics is eroding and we should not cling to it. 

I think we should understand that something new is going to have to come in the place of the centre-left and the centre-right, and so far the right has been better at figuring out what that might look like. Trump represents that, Brexit represents that. I think in the first instance it’s going to be a matter of defending communities from attack. I think we need to be building our own walls of resistance to what is going to be heading towards us. There are a lot of people in the crosshairs of this. Clearly, the whole national security apparatus is going to be powered up to recharge the batteries of the war on terror. 

But it’s also about the mob. I think there’s going to be a permanent mobilisation, a Trump movement, that is going to be responsible for racist violence, for all kinds of attacks on minorities. There’s a need to organise self-defence – this is where the lessons of anti-fascism in the twentieth century will have some resonance.

PB: Is it possible to make foreign policy predictions at this stage?

AK: It’s hard but there are some certainties. One is that the Trump administration will be fully aligned with the Israeli far-right, and that means moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, criminalising the BDS movement, going after pro-Palestinian groups within the US, all of which is very bad news for the Palestinians and their allies. It looks as if there will also be a rapprochement with Assad in Syria, which is bad news for the Syrian opposition who will be crushed between Russia and the United States.

More generally, I think what is on the cards is the US playing a different role in the international system. The old assumption that guided much of the last half century of US foreign policy was that the more that free trade was promoted, the more that American-style democracy was promoted, the better that would be for America. Neoliberal globalisation was supposed to be in America’s interests. That looked very convincing in 1994 when NAFTA was passed. But now globalisation does not look like Americanisation – it looks more like a de-centering of the west. What this means is hard to say but it certainly seems like a new era of US foreign policy will emerge that is quite different from the past. Leaders who have ideological similarities to Trump, such as Putin and Modi, can expect to benefit. 

PB: And the rise of the right in Europe?

AK: The fact that Trump has appointed Stephen K. Bannon as his chief strategist tells you that Trump’s politics is Breitbart politics. What was the Breitbart front page in the days after the election? It was Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. Those connections exist between the far-right in Europe and Trump.

Rutgers University students protest against Trump. Mel Evans/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Rutgers University students protest against Trump. Mel Evans/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

"We must match in radicalism Trump’s own rhetoric but ground it in a genuine programme for moving beyond the failures of neoliberalism."

This is a time of polarisation. There will be, let’s hope, a stronger left mobilisation in the United States than we’ve seen in recent decades. And we shouldn’t forget that millions of Americans voted for Bernie Sanders, someone who uses the label of “socialist”, and that would have been unimaginable relatively recently. That constituency now needs to – and I think will – take to the streets and fight for a genuine radical politics, not the fake anti-elitism of Trump.

PB: Do you think Sanders could have beaten Trump?

AK: It’s impossible to know. Certainly Sanders would have done better in the rustbelt states that were crucial to Trump’s victory. But once you swap Sanders for Clinton, then you don’t know what else is going to change. I think that, irrespective of whether he would have won, he was certainly the right candidate, because this is not a time for the status quo. This is a time when the status quo is collapsing, and the left needs to be campaigning from the margins rather than from the centre.

PB: What is especially to be feared now?

AK: Trump will inherit this vast armoury from the war on terror, the largest system of surveillance ever created, the capacity to carry out extra-judicial killings anywhere in the world on demand. There is the possibility that he will use those technologies to turn the border with Mexico into a warzone, while making it impossible for undocumented migrants to function within the US. He will have people around him who wish to strip away the civil rights of Muslims in the US and go to war with Iran. The Supreme Court will become more conservative. Corporations will be even less regulated. White supremacy will be regenerated.

But the real danger is normalisation. Our response cannot be aimed at restoring America to a discredited centrist status quo. We must match in radicalism Trump’s own rhetoric but ground it in a genuine programme for moving beyond the failures of neoliberalism.

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