Donald Trump: A turning point or stopgap?
After a convivial evening at King’s College on the Strand, when he boarded the Victoria Line to Earl’s Court, Professor Ron Geaves experienced the first public reaction to a Donald Trump victory.
At one of the stations, two Polish jazz singers entered the compartment. They were busking, an established tradition on the London Underground.
“Let me travel in peace,” a woman at the far end shouted. It was clear from her accent that she was American. The authority in her tone invited a riposte from an English woman. “We are used to buskers in this country.”
“You tolerate too much from outsiders,” the American persisted. “We now have a President who will straighten things up in our country.”
“Not here, though,” said the English woman.
Two attitudes in conflict. When Geaves told me the story, I found it refreshingly down to earth.
How far removed from real life had I been in the groves of academe on the East Coast of the US. Conversations with US diplomats, bankers and media led to the same conclusion: the US electorate was being asked to choose between candidates they did not like. But all were inclined towards Clinton.
Trump was inelegant, even boorish; Hillary Clinton was untrustworthy, indeed a liar. And yet all these fine minds gave the balance of advantage to Clinton. This relatively higher comfort level with a candidate surrounded by all manner of scandal was for a simple reason: she was the known devil, to whom direct or indirect links could be found by all the interests listed above.
The Trump victory was explained most succinctly by placards carried by protesters in Philadelphia: “If you make Bernie Sanders impossible, you make Trump inevitable.”
Both Bernie Sanders and Trump challenged the Establishment from two diametrically opposite ideological ends. Socialism is anathema to the Establishment; it stokes McCarthyism. So, Bernie, even though on a roll during the primaries, had to be set aside.
Once Bernie was stopped in his tracks, Hillary would look like a natural commander-in-chief with her vast experience in diplomacy and the Congress. This assessment overlooked the essential detail: the electorate was fiercely averse to the Washington-centred Establishment. And this, alas, was all that Clinton represented — the Establishment.
For prescience on these elections, the trophy must go to filmmaker Michael Moore. Three months before polling day he wrote: “This election is only about who gets who out to vote, who gets the most rabid supporters, the kind of candidate who inspires people to get out of bed at 5 a.m. on Election Day because a Wall needs to be built. Muslims are killing us! Women are taking over! USA! USA! Hillary is the devil! America first! First in line with the polls.”
Moore emphasised that those who felt obliged to vote for Hillary to keep Trump out had no “positive” urge to vote for her. Therefore personal persuasion on a wide scale was required. Those depressed at Bernie having been grounded would need extraordinary persuasion to walk to polling booths to vote for Hillary.
“So many people have given up on our system and that’s because the system has given up on them. They know it’s all bullshit: politics, politicians, elections. The middle class in tatters, the American Dream a nightmare for the 47 million living in poverty.” People wanted to tear down establishments. A Clinton victory would have endorsed the continuity of exactly the state of affairs, Moore laments.
Some maintain that Bernie Sanders would have carried the day in a hypothetical Bernie-Trump fight. They speculate that a Trump victory is therefore only the semi-final in the country’s political evolution.
Place him against a global backdrop, and Trump begins to look more like a “stopgap” than a “turning point”.
In the UK, the “New Labour” Blairites and the conservatives would join hands to thwart the Leftward surge represented by Jeremy Corbyn.
The rise of the Leftist Podemos in Spain has been temporarily checkmated after last June’s election created space for a possible Podemos participation in a coalition. But in the end corporate interests have prevailed — socialists have enabled the conservative People’s Party to remain in power by abstaining in a vote of confidence. The People’s Party, with links to a Franco past, was considered a better prospect for the socialists than a real Left. In Madrid, observers saw this thwarting of a new Leftist party as its long-term gain. If people are pitted against the establishment surely people will carry the tide eventually.
On December 4, Italy holds a referendum on a new constitution. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which has already captured the key mayorships of Rome and Turin, is expected to win. There are shifts galore everywhere.
President Barack Obama, during a recent visit to Europe, attributed some of the turmoil to a mismanagement of globalisation. The consequent hardships have produced a young, progressive elite, trying to break out of conservative shackles. Trump, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and Blairite Labour do not respond to the aspirations of this lot; Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Pablo Iglesias of Podemos do.
Corresponding shifts to Left and the Right are afoot in other democracies as well. Establishments are universally in bad odour. It will be interesting to watch how the Trump administration copes with political shifts down the road.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)