Photo by Jamelle Bouie/flickr

This is the second of two posts pulling together the strands of what I think I understand about Trump’s win in the US Presidential Election. (The first post is here). The first four things I think I know are:

  • Neo-liberalism just died
  • The long-run theories are best
  • Crises are invisible before they erupt
  • Class matters

Here’s another six thoughts.

5. Place matters

Thomas Friedman made a decent amount of money from his claim about globalisation that “the world is flat,” but his earlier book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, was closer to the mark: the shiny world of tradable goods, and tradable labour, contrasted with older and deep-seated tradition. It turns out that the world isn’t so flat after all. This speaks to a sense of ‘solastalgia‘, of nostalgia for a place you know well that is no longer familiar to you. Some of that unfamiliarity is about an economic landscape that has been obliterated, at least partly by trade deals such as NAFTA. And yes, the literature says that trade deals make people better off, although decreasingly so. And the literature is mostly silent on how the benefits get distributed. [Update: The IMF has just reported on this. At last] Certainly, one of the things that seems to have done for Hillary in the Rust Belt states was Bill’s role in pushing NAFTA through.

But there’s another point here as well; that place has been becoming more important in politics, not just in the US, but in the UK and France as well. As Jean Pisani-Ferry noted in Social Europe,

In many countries, where you live tends to be an accurate predictor of what or whom you are voting for… This voting geography is indicative of a deep economic, social, and educational divide… What is new is a growing correlation of spatial, social, and political polarization that is turning fellow citizens into near-strangers. As Enrico Moretti of the University of California at Berkeley emphasized in his book The New Geography of Jobs, the salience of this new divide is unmistakable: university graduates account for half of the total population in the most affluent US metropolitan areas, but are four times less numerous in worse-off areas.

This notion of the city versus the rest has become central to 21st century politics. The city is the home of a progressive “post-materialist” politics almost everywhere in the richer world, and this politics also has youth on its side.

6. Race matters

Not everyone who voted for a Trump is a racist. But he certainly attracted a disproportionate share of the racist vote. In doing so, he’s also given permission to racists to re-emerge in public, with quite a lot of ugliness, just as they re-emerged in the UK after the Brexit vote. It’s impossible to think about the idea of “loss” without seeing a sense of cultural loss as well. Richard Inglehart and Pippa Norris write about a “cultural backlash” in a recent paper:

Less educated and older citizens, especially white men, who were once the privileged majority culture in Western societies, resent being told that traditional values are ‘politically incorrect’ if they have come to feel that they are being marginalized within their own countries. As cultures have shifted, a tipping point appears to have occurred.

I’m not condoning this, but we should acknowledge it. This slow erosion of white privilege in society (especially white male privilege) is one of the long shifts that’s going on in the rich world. As Michael Mark Cohen put it in a long article on Medium,

white racial resentment is one of the leading factors driving this election. And that this resentment — this sense of loss, or mourning on the white right, this sense of “being strangers in their own land,” is overdetermined, meaning that it has more than one cause.

In a more academic post at Verso, Akwugo Emejulu connects race and economics:

Whiteness is always inflected by class and gender. Trump’s election reasserts a recommitment to the economic order of white groups as well as white male supremacy. According to the CBS exit poll, overall, Trump won the support of white women, particularly those who are non-college educated.

But in contrast to the loss of place, this is also an “imagined” or a “constructed” loss. As with the Brexit vote, the areas that have the most hostility to migrants are those where they are least present.

7. The age of the trickster

Both Anthony Barnett and Andrew Sullivan called out Trump as a fascist in pieces written close to the election. They’re both good writers, and Barnett’s writing on Brexit has been exemplary. So I’m reluctant to disagree. But both Zygmunt Bauman and Dougald Hine preferred a different metaphor, that of the trickster or shape-shifter, explored in Lewis Hyde’s fine book. Credit where it’s due; the connection was also articulated by Corey Pein in The Baffler.

The trickster, in Hyde’s account, is a low status character within a culture, the mischievous messenger boy, who’s normally no more than a nuisance, but who takes on an altogether more important role in moments of deep cultural crisis.

As Hine writes,

when those who hold high status within the existing order of things are helpless, trickster can shift the axis, find the hidden joke that allows the culture to pass through into a new version of itself.

This whole area is worth far more consideration, but for the moment this idea also connects to Ned Resnikoff’s post on the idea of the ‘Phantasmagoria.’ Resnikoff argued that Trump had taken a leaf from Putin’s playbook (or more accurately that of the former Deputy Prime Minister Surkov), who

turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups… But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake.

In the American context, then,

Trump and his advisers… have no interest in creating a new reality; instead, they’re calling into question the existence of any reality… But the Surkov strategy works especially well for Trump because of his roots in the world of reality television, another sphere where “reality” is defined largely by its self-conscious and blatant artifice… Everything is fiction, so voters can only choose the fiction that best suits their taste and aligns with their self-image.

8. American democracy is broken

It’s fashionable right now to suggest that we have political problems because we have too much democracy, but that’s not what happened in the recent elections. Actually, there’s not enough democracy: the Republicans have the Presidency and control of both Houses of Congress, on a minority vote for all three.

That’s partly down to the way that the power of the States is baked into the electoral system, so that, as Lawrence Lessig notes, a Presidential (and Senate) vote in a small state has much more weight than a vote in a large one. It’s also down to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and possibly hacking. The Supreme Court’s intervention on the Voting Rights Act may have been decisive. I say all this as a Brit with our own broken democracy.

But all institutions get trapped in their moment of birth. There’s something darkly apposite about an institution—the Electoral College—that was designed to protect the interests of the slave states delivering a majority to Trump.

9. Politics is fluid

This period between winning the Presidency and both Houses, and the Presidential transition in January, may be as good as it gets for the Republicans. Despite their apparent control, it is (as with the UK’s post-Brexit Conservatives) a fragile coalition. The platform that Trump won on—Main Street not Wall Street, with a loud chorus of dog-whistling—won’t long survive contact with the ambitions of more traditional Republicans.

And one of the curiosities of politics right now, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that progressive business leaders have no natural home. By progressive, I mean those who are signed up to diversity and sustainability objectives, the kind who have given North Carolina such a mauling over the “bathroom bill.” As a rule of thumb, the closer a business is to a broad base of consumers, the more progressive its public statements and commitments. Packaged goods businesses tend to be progressive, oil companies and investment banks, not so much. As Ian Christie pointed out to me in an email, these businesses were traditionally Republican, but certainly not now. There are effective coalitions that can be built around progressive objectives. But the Democrats need to snap the link with the neoliberal years to make that happen.

10. Hope helps

Whatever your view of “Make America Great Again” as a political slogan, it conveys more hope than “I’m with her”. (I mean: really? Which expensive campaign strategist thought that was a good idea?) One of the things that Nesta noted in the wake of the British 2015 election, also decided by a ruthless and possibly unlawful concentration on swing seats, the Conservatives’ message was about the future. It conveyed hope in a way that Labour’s didn’t.

There’s a paradox here. For as with the Brexit vote, the “hope” that was articulated by Trump was a backward looking hope. As Bill Fletcher Jr noted,

right-wing populism… is a movement that is always focused on a mythical past to which a particular country must return. In the case of the United States, right-wing populism seeks a return to the era of the “white republic,” and it is this that the Trump campaign was so successful in articulating.

But frankly, if social democrats can’t construct an optimistic or hopeful story about a better future it suggests they have lost touch with the history of change that their parties represent, lost in a miasma of polling numbers and focus groups. It’s not hard to construct this progressive version of the story. In her HBR post the academic Joan Williams wrote about the need to put “good jobs” at the heart of a progressive agenda, linked to a modern industrial policy. Educational investment would help, at all levels, including community college programs. To which we could add free education and a better healthcare programme.


The image at the top of the post is by Jamelle Bouie on Flickr, published under a Creative Commons licence and used here with thanks.