American “Liberty”… what’ll the next four years bring us… God only knows…
The protests that erupted across the USA in response to Donald Trump becoming the country’s 45th president are unprecedented and could well be a harbinger of a society irretrievably split and polarised because of his election. His detractors firmly attached the label “fascist” to Donald Trump throughout a campaign for the White House that unleashed nativism, bigotry, and xenophobia. His pledge to place a moratorium on Muslims coming into the United States, to deport millions of illegal Mexican immigrants, and to build a giant wall on the US border with its southern neighbour to control immigration was a political hand grenade being let off in a society proud of its respect for freedom of religion, tolerance, and its racial and ethnic diversity.
His critics believe that Trump has, in less than a year of participating in the American political process, succeeded in rolling back progress made by previous generations in a hard-fought struggle against racial, gender, and religious discrimination. He legitimised white supremacy and succeeded in sowing the kind of social divisions consonant with a society teetering on the edge of implosion. However, surely, then we need to ask… if one candidate in one election year is capable of ripping up cultural values considered so entrenched and universal, that Washington decided the rest of the world should also live by those values, up to the point of forcing the issue with cruise missiles, F-15s, and Apache helicopter gunships, how strongly entrenched were they in America in the first place?
Trump represents a backlash against a liberal establishment that become so fixated with identity politics that it refused to tackle a growing ocean of alienation and poverty across large swathes of the country. The likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton presented themselves as leaders in touch with the needs and struggles of the common man, while in truth worshiping at the altar of the free market, they cosied up to Wall Street and corporate America, in service to the hegemony of neoliberal economics… that extreme variant of capitalism which accords the market a mystical, almost divine-like status. This economic system acts as a tyrant over the lives of the mass of people and not serving their needs, producing a race to the bottom involving workers around the world competing for the crumbs from the table of a multinational corporate dictatorship that in its ability to destroy or raise living standards arrogated to itself more power than most governments have.
The result in the USA was that manufacturing jobs that once provided decent income and a sense of dignity and worth in working-class communities went abroad to China, Mexico, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the Global South. Low-paid jobs in the new service economy replaced them; forcing people to take two, even three, jobs just to survive. What’s more, they were the fortunate ones. For far too many Americans, joblessness and underemployment became the new normal, leading to creating a vast underclass of people across the country’s rust belt seething with hatred for the liberal élite in Washington and on either coast. With such obscene levels of inequality, alienation, and poverty being the fate of a growing section of the population, exacerbated by the worst economic recession since the 1930s, caused by the ineffable greed of those at the top of this grotesque income scale, something had to give. That something was Donald Trump’s election as president, a billionaire with no earlier political experience, but a disdain for the political correctness and identity politics associated with Washington.
However, here one needs to strike a note of caution, one that comes to us from history. For just as the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s under similar conditions of economic depression and dislocation gave way to fascism, so the collapse of the liberal order in our time has given way not to international brotherhood and solidarity as the dominant narrative of a denuded and disaffected working class across national, religious, ethnic, or cultural differences, but to nationalism, white supremacy, xenophobia, and the rise and spread of racism. All across Europe, we witness the rise of the far right… in the Ukraine, Scandinavia, France, the Netherlands, and elsewhere the ideology of “we ourselves” filled the space opened up by the collapse of the liberal centre ground. Brexit in the UK is merely its British manifestation, whilst in the USA, Donald Trump’s election leaves no doubt that not since the 1930s has rightwing populism managed to gain such traction and support in the West.
In the 1940s, Bertolt Brecht warned of the danger of complacency with regard to the prospect of fascism ever rising again after the Second World War. In words that resonate today, he said:
The womb from which this monster emerged remains fertile.
This isn’t to suggest that Donald Trump is a fascist, however, or that everyone who voted for him did so motivated by racism or xenophobia. Not at all. On the contrary, one must understand that Trump’s campaign opened up space for elevating both to the mainstream, motivated by inchoate anger and rage at the aforementioned liberal establishment. This is why no one should mourn the demise of the Western liberal order either in the USA or across Europe. It’s failed and failed utterly, destroying communities and decimating the lives of millions at home, whilst creating chaos and instability across the world. Donald Trump’s election may not be the solution to all the damage and chaos wrought, nevertheless, it resounds as rejecting cultural values that amount to lecturing a man on his lack of political correctness and manners whilst he’s drowning in a swamp with no way out.
14 November 2016