Trump’s victory is a disaster for too many people to list. The stories coming out of America already, of Muslim girls attacked in the streets, swastikas emblazoned in cities up and down the country and the sight of a Venezuelan cleaner breaking down in tears at work remind many of a Britain post-Brexit where race-hate began to ooze out of the cracks in its walls. Forever a reminder that these grand elections have direct consequences on people’s lives, they should now confirm to us that the far-right is here.
Trump has emphatically delivered neo-fascism to the White House on a programme that mobilised a supercharged white nativism with deep roots in American society, a stubborn misogyny as well as those frankly pissed off with the effects of corrosive neo-liberalism; the exporting of jobs, declining and stagnating wages as well as an obsequious inequality that has seen the rich continue to swell. Britain, too, is on a similar trajectory.
Fundamentally, America and now Britain post-Brexit have learnt in the most brutal sense that a decades long centrist capitulation to the right and commitment to the defence of neoliberal capitalism leads only to one place and one outcome, an atomized society primed to be swept up by a dangerous populism that scapegoats minorities, dismantles social contracts and further embeds power and privilege for a minority. Trump, UKIP and the power grab by far-right Tories are not events that happened in a vacuum.
It is and was with the eagerness to protect the neo-liberalism project from criticism for the iniquities it has born – the freedom of capital above and beyond that of persons, privatisation, low levels of public investment, the shrinking of the state, reduced welfare and insecure work – that centrists and self-professed liberals have condemned Britain and America to the rise of the right. In America and in the UK, the triangulation of the centrists over slashing public spending, reducing immigration and ‘reforming’ welfare, hasn’t made the false narrative of the right go away. It, and they, are all the stronger for it. In fact, this commitment, iconised in the proliferation of austerity across Europe, has bolstered fascists all over. Austria, Hungary and France amongst others are either in the grip of, or soon to be, the far-right. When Mario-Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, said that the social contract in Europe was ‘dead’, he was unaware that consequently, in the backdrop of a recession, the black heart of fascism was being brought back to life.
It is of course imperative that we fully acknowledge that a key part of Trump’s victory was an insipid and deeply set racism and misogyny that liberal Americans hoped were just fringe sentiments. Trump won convincingly with white voters, even white women. People of colour, who face much greater economic insecurity than whites, went for Clinton, as did millennials and those on the lowest incomes – though one largely neglected fact is that there was a 16% swing to Trump coming from those earning less than $30k. In short, Trump won thanks to a polygamous marriage of white-supremacy, misogyny, a horrendous candidate in Clinton and the final emotional cracking of an economic system that has stunted progress and stalled people’s lives. The answers provided are wrong, but they were proposed as answers of a kind none the less.
Whilst the open racism spewed and legitimised in Trump’s win is on a level not seen in Western politics for decades, there are eerie similarities with Brexit-UK. America voted for a man who promised to build a wall, Britons voted to leave and pull up the drawbridge. A disconnected population in areas of the highest levels of inequality strongly voted to leave the EU with immigration and ultimately race playing a major part; a surge in hate crime and a confident, throbbing nationalism only serving to reflect a scary reality.
Similarly, Trump won in a demoralised Rust Belt and tapped into a middle class who increasingly see their American Dream taking place as part of the precariat. He, like the Brexit campaign, also played into the hands of, and won comfortably with, the less educated. The rise of Trump and the vote to leave is partly two fingers to a system and a class of people that started throwing people overboard years ago. But there is no mono-causality here. Class, race and wider economics are all factors in both Trump and Brexit’s victories. It will be in the interests of those determined to save the neoliberal project or their own privileges that just one of these is explored. The sacrosanctity of neo-liberalism and the hush-hush useful effects of race inequality are unlikely to be amongst them.
And so in these trajectories that cross and undulate, it is clear the centre has failed totally to prevent the rise of the right. We are in a volatile populist moment, where systemic problems require significantly different answers. The offer to slightly better manage the slow and steady decline of people’s living standards in the current climate is no longer enough and the pandering to the agenda of racist parties and racist corners of society has to end. The left and centre-left in Britain has gladly legitimised the racist right and used immigrants and minorities as collateral damage in return for trying to secure precious racist votes. When the broader left no longer proposes economic radicalism and instead deploys racist triangulation, it ceases to belong on the left. The left must now make economic radicalism and minority solidarity the central pillars of its strategy. Failing to do this, in the face of a rising far-right, will leave progressives frozen out and the people they claim to represent on fire.
Labour has at least to some extent under Corbyn begun the battle to own and articulate these ideas – ones based on addressing Labour’s previously warped stances on immigration (though they should go so much further) and importantly, promising a break from the failed economic policies of neo-liberalism and a commitment to significant public investment. In the Democrat party, however, the battle for the future is just beginning. Hilary Clinton’s disastrous defeat leaves the party establishment, much like Labour, looking to secure its traditional powerbase. As disgraced chair Donna Brazille is eventually forced out, Howard Dean is already being lined up, a former colleague of Newt Gingrich and DC lobbyist. Labour initiated a change in direction through the grassroots, the Democrats must do the very same..
Ultimately, the left has to offer a clear, opposing narrative to the far-right. There must also be no more illusions that the liberal centre is willing or capable of leading it.
Whether it’s Trump’s visceral neo-fascism or Britain’s far-right with Received Pronunciation, the era of compromise with xenophobic agendas has to end and a project built on addressing systemic inequalities with radical economic thinking must take its place. If instead all that is offered is a continuation of people’s misery, the far-right will be here to stay.