Another Win for the Populists

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By Daniel Shears, Features Editor

Donald John Trump has been elected as the 45th President of the United States of America, and the political commentariat are lining up to offer their two cents on why the billionaire business-mogul won, and what the next four years might have in store for the American people. Larry Elliot of the Guardian took the economic position, talking of the “simmering anger” of the disadvantaged many, the victims of omnipotent globalisation, while Maya Goodfellow of the New Statesman passionately pointed the finger of blame at the pervasive “racist whitelash”. Climate scientists are anticipating environmental catastrophe, and many on the liberal left fear a new climate of hatred and division sweeping America. Others, such as Brion McClanahan of Breitbart, think Trump’s victory is a refreshing challenge to the establishment consensuses of military adventurism, globalism and “cultural Marxism”.

Putting aside for one moment Trump-based speculation, what is clear is that after a vitriolic, mud-slinging and accusatory election campaign, which pitted a symbol of the establishment against insurgent populism, the populists have ultimately won the battle. Across the Atlantic from the so-called “land of the free”, populist figures on the left and the right are gaining traction in European countries too (and have been for a while: see Corbyn, Brexit, Farage, Le Pen etc). It seems that the split in politics now is no longer between socialism and capitalism; in fact, it no longer even lies within the domain of economics. No, the new political playing field is the conflict between the political establishment and the “left behind” (in the words of Theresa May). This is a truth self-evident if you look at the rhetoric employed during the campaign, especially on Trump’s side. Talk of “draining the Washington swamp” and repeatedly banging the anti-establishment drum has resonated deeply with folks who have thought much the same about the prevailing political order for a very long time.

In a recent television interview between FOX News and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the former listed the latter as “UK Opposition Leader”. While the liberal sphere of the internet has used this recent revelation to indulge in gleeful mockery of the neo-conservative news channel, the fact that a charismatic not-even-MP on the populist right can be mistaken for a leading political figure with institutional authority says something much more unsettling about the nature of our politics. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it. Nevertheless, what has undeniably been proven in 2016 is that anything that can happen, will. Also: you can’t trust the polls anymore (or Poles if you’re a Farage fanatic).

I can’t say I’m surprised that Trump won. Anti-establishment sentiment has been brewing in America for the past half a century, but only in 2016 did a candidate come along whose populist message so effectively cut across party lines (despite running as a Republican) and built a broad church of support. His appeal to nationalism and political disenchantment is really his only consistent strategy; whether you’re talking about healthcare, abortion, foreign policy or taxation, Trump has been a flip-flopper. In 2000, Trump was considering a run for the Presidency under Ross Perot’s Reform Party. In his manifesto of the same year, “The America We Deserve”, he proposed universal employer-based health insurance, gays in the military and a one-off 14.5 percent tax on the rich. The rise of the ultra-conservative Tea Party in the wake of 2008 however forced Trump to pander to more socially conservative, anti-Obama voters, hence his promise to repeal Obamacare and cut income tax. And despite supporting a law passed in North Carolina which requires individuals to use bathrooms based on the sex listed on one’s birth certificate, as well as expressing opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision to grant a nation-wide constitutional right to same-sex marriage, he is by no means a vehement defender of traditional conservative values. In fact, when it came to the North Carolina ruling, he said he would “strongly consider” appointing justices to overturn it. In an interview with CNN just days after his successful election victory, when questioned about gay marriage he claimed he was “fine” with it, proclaiming: “it’s done”. Moreover, he cast himself as a defender of gay and transgender rights in the wake of the terror attack at a gay night club in Orlando, spinning the issue towards his trump card (pardon the pun) of immigration and radical Islam. His lack of absolute clarity on many political issues and constant ideological manoeuvring is symptomatic of his populism, yet simultaneously explains the momentum behind his political inexorability.

But what about Trump’s blunders, bungles and gaffes? The Mexican rapists, the radical, violent Muslims, the hormonal women, the overt sexual assault? As James O’Brien (radio-journalist for LBC) rightly said regarding the phenomenon of Trumpism, it is a saddening indication of how desperate some people have become in America that they are willing to vote for a man who has privately boasted about grabbing women by the genitalia. And while we should, in accordance with basic morality and common human decency condemn, decry and denounce all forms of racism, misogyny and xenophobia, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and at least understand it. A hatred of black people and/or women amongst a proportion of the voting population was not the (only) reason Trump clinched the White House. The most consistent justifications cited for Trump support have been in reference to his character, his persona and his charm. His well-crafted image as a straight-talking, no-nonsense man of the people was ultimately what won his supporters over from the rather less alluring, more “robotic” projection from Hillary Clinton.

The election of Mr. Trump still seems like a strange irreality, and it will take a while for the Americans, and for that matter the world, to accustom themselves to one of the most unorthodox leaders in modern Presidential history. Uncertainty prevails. The American people have gambled on Trump; only time will tell if they cash out, or lose it all.

Features Editor