I’ve avoided writing about the American election. It’s not as if there are too few words or opinions on the subject flying about. And I’m not in America, so I can’t see the nuances. But I think maybe I can see something, from my perspective. And, hell, it’s been a few weeks since I last got into trouble for my opinions.
So it’s time to talk politics again.
Let’s begin by watching this film. It’s Donald Trump’s final TV ad, and I’d ask you to watch it carefully. As you do, forget who it’s about. Forget who made it, who is promoting it, and whatever it is that you think of him. Forget the election, in fact. Just listen to the words, and the arguments.
Now let’s isolate a few of the claims being made here, and let’s look at the language they are being made in:
‘Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment.’
‘The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake … the political establishment that is trying to stop us, is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals.’
‘There’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.’
‘The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you.’
If I were to place these quotes in front of you, and challenge you to tell me whether they came from Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, George Monbiot, Jeremy Corbyn, Yanis Varoufakis, Occupy Wall Street, Marine Le Pen or me, I don’t think you’d find it easy. Neither would I.
Now, let’s continue. Who do you think said this?
[If I were American, I would vote for] Trump. I’m horrified by him [but] I’m just left thinking Hillary is the true danger … In every society, there is a whole network of unwritten rules, how politics works, and how you build consensus. And Trump disturbed this. If Trump wins, both major parties–Republicans and Democrats–would have to return to basics, rethink themselves, and maybe some things can happen there. … It will be a kind of big awakening. New political processes will be set in motion, will be triggered.
That’s Slavoj Zizek, celebrated Marxist philosopher.
Now, about this one?
When Trump stood in the shadow of a Ford Motor factory during the Michigan primary, he threatened the corporation that if they did indeed go ahead with their planned closure of that factory and move it to Mexico, he would slap a 35% tariff on any Mexican-built cars shipped back to the United States. It was sweet, sweet music to the ears of the working class of Michigan, and when he tossed in his threat to Apple that he would force them to stop making their iPhones in China and build them here in America, well, hearts swooned and Trump walked away with a big victory.
From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here.
That’s famously lefty filmmaker Michael Moore. He doesn’t like Trump, but he thinks he’s going to win. Finally, for some useful insights into why Americans will vote for Trump despite his many flaws, I recommend this analysis from John Michael Greer, who writes:
We’ll know by this time next week whether the bipartisan consensus that’s been welded firmly in place in American politics since the election of George W. Bush will stay intact for the next four years. That consensus, for those of my readers who haven’t been paying attention, supports massive giveaways to big corporations and the already affluent, punitive austerity for the poor, malign neglect for the nation’s infrastructure, the destruction of the American working class through federal subsidies for automation and offshoring and tacit acceptance of mass illegal immigration as a means of driving down wages, and a monomaniacally confrontational foreign policy obsessed with the domination of the Middle East by raw military force. Those are the policies that George W. Bush and Barack Obama pursued through four presidential terms, and they’re the policies that Hillary Clinton has supported throughout her political career.
Donald Trump, by contrast, has been arguing against several core elements of that consensus since the beginning of his run for office. Specifically, he’s calling for a reversal of federal policies that support offshoring of jobs, the enforcement of US immigration law, and a less rigidly confrontational stance toward Russia over the war in Syria. It’s been popular all through the current campaign for Clinton’s supporters to insist that nobody actually cares about these issues, and that Trump’s supporters must by definition be motivated by hateful values instead, but that rhetorical gimmick has been a standard thoughstopper on the left for many years now, and it simply won’t wash. The reason why Trump was able to sweep aside the other GOP candidates, and has a shot at winning next week’s election despite the unanimous opposition of this nation’s political class, is that he’s the first presidential candidate in a generation to admit that the issues just mentioned actually matter.
Please don’t leave comments below explaining to me how awful Donald Trump is and all the reasons why. I know all that. It doesn’t matter, at this point. Here’s what does: everything he said in that ad is demonstrably factually correct, in America as in many other nations, and people know it. And here’s something else that matters: the Democratic party, which once represented the working class and was supposed to defend them, at least in theory, from this fate, has morphed into a party of privileged bourgeois liberals, big banks, defence companies, illegal migrants and media corporations. That has allowed a billionaire property developer to lead an insurrection that has captured one of America’s political parties – the party, mind, which kicked off the globalisation project, the party of the rich, the party of those trade deals – and use it to start a war against globalisation.
That’s right: a war against globalisation. In America. Led by a Republican. These are words which I never thought I would read, let alone write. Forget whether Trump means what he says. Forget whether he’d do anything about it. Forget whether you like or loathe him, too, because I’m not writing about him. I’m writing about his movement. What we are seeing in 2016 – and not just with Trump, but with Bernie Sanders before him (who we now know could have been the Democrats’ nominee were it not for the Clintons and their backers stuffing him like a turkey: thanks Wikileaks!) is a full-blown American revolt against the impacts of globalisation. Here in Britain, Brexit was our own version of this revolt (rather than being the massive and inexplicable spasm of irrational racism that many of its opponents still seem determined to explain it away as). The nativist parties in Europe represent another flavour, as do Syriza in Greece, Putin in Russia, Modi in India. Hell, even Isis.
I wrote my first book more than a decade ago; it was about a revolt against globalisation. I made two mistakes in that book (well, at least two, but these are the important ones.) Firstly, I was over-optimistic about the ‘global movement’ that I saw rising, and what it could do and how quickly. In fact, it faded away soon after – or seemed to. Secondly, I assumed that a revolt against globalisation would come from the left and from the poor world – from Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia and other places I visited, and from the proto-Occupy forces which back then were besieging global summits. A revolt certainly has come from those places, where it has in some cases been going on for decades. But now it has been joined by a revolt from the right, which is drawing its strength from working class and lower middle class people in the West. Globalisation, having immiserated much of the the ‘developing’ world for quarter of a century, is now immiserating much of the ‘developed’ world too. Too many people have been pushed over the brink by this system now. Their rage is not going to die back. There are too many reasons for people to feel it, and to express it. A tipping point has been reached.
What does this mean? I’m going to stick my neck out again on this, even though I did that back in 2004 and got it wrong (or perhaps my timing was just off). So, here we go again: globalisation is collapsing. The liberal project is in retreat. Perhaps it is over altogether. That’s what Brexit meant. That’s what Trump means – even if he loses. What began in earnest in 1990 with the Soviet collapse is ending now, with the collapse of the West – or at least this version of the West.
John Gray, in this week’s New Statesman, has a typically sharp take on just this subject. He thinks, too, that liberalism – economic and social – which has so long been assumed by Western elites to be the point upon which the world is converging, is actually a phenomena limited to Western nations, whose elites, cultural and political, have been corrupted by their dominance, and are increasingly shielded from the people they claim to represent. As such, liberalism is under threat, and could even disappear:
The liberal pageant is fading, yet liberals find it hard to get by without believing they are on what they like to think is the right side of history. The trouble is that they can only envision the future as a continuation of the recent past. This is so whether their liberalism comes from the right or the left. Whether they are George Osborne’s City-based “liberal mainstream”, or Thatcherite think tanks, baffled and seething because Brexit hasn’t taken us closer to a free-market utopia, or egalitarian social democrats who favour redistribution or “predistribution”, an entire generation is finding its view of the world melting away under the impact of events.
One thing seems clear to me, and it’s something both Trump and Sanders are right about: anyone who wants genuine change cannot, at this point in history, support the continuation of the self-serving machine that is delivering us to hell in a handbasket of deplorables. That doesn’t, of course, mean that Donald Trump is a solution; or indeed any of the other people I’ve mentioned here. I don’t think anyone has any real answers yet. But I do think that this is a revolutionary moment, and I know that revolutions are rarely pretty, or predictable.
To me, today, Hillary Clinton looks like a corrupt late Roman emperor, trying to buoy up a system of favour and patronage which is bleeding her outposts dry. Donald J. Trump looks like a barbarian hammering at her gates. Whether you would like to be governed by the emperor or the barbarian probably depends on how much you benefit from the emperor’s largesse, and how much you trust the barbarian not to turn on you once he has finished with the Praetorian Guard. But it probably also comes down to whether you have anything left to lose.
Let’s see how the gates hold tomorrow.