Trump, white nativism and economic populism: a new (r)age for western politics

Trump’s victory smashed Obama’s blue wall. It demands the American and European left learn uncomfortable lessons 

Throw it all out. The model and rule book we have long used to understand how voters interact with the process of elections are junk – all of it. Throw it all out.

 

After Trump’s victory, an entire polling industry and punditry class have been made to look stupid. With this result, America’s social and political map has been recast. Academics in the states traditionally call a moment like this a ‘Realignment’, but this sounds too orderly for describe this mess.

 

But was the result really that much of a mess? A good deal of the American map did in fact conform to the expectations of a ‘normal’ election. Florida was close, it usually is, as was North Carolina. Virginia and Colorado behaved as expected and didn’t ‘break the rules’ either. The Latino vote won Clinton Nevada and gave her a good showing in usually Republican Arizona. Most of it did look fairly normal. The only part of the map that angrily threw out the rule book was the ex-industrial areas of the northern “rust-belt” – Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio. This was the real stunner. Minus Ohio (a bit more Republican than the rest), Clinton was meant to win the lot. No Republican has won these states in decades: Wisconsin 1984, Pennsylvania and Michigan – 1988, Minnesota, 1972. These were all taken-for-granted bricks of the Democrats’ vaunted ‘blue wall’. The final results have yet to decide Michigan and Minnesota, it doesn’t matter –  The blue wall Obama built has been smashed to pieces.

 

Why? how?

 

Economic populism has long been the not-so-secret-weapon in the rust-belt. Obama won in these rustbelt states in 2012 as he pushed a government bailout for the treasured (but declining) American car industry. The auto industry has become a symbol of America’s once mighty Fordist production regime. Obama’s opponent in 2012, corporate stooge Mitt Romney, was against the bailout and wanted to let the auto industry fall. This decided Ohio’s result in 2012 and it took the rest of the rust belt with it. That year, Romney was the corporate stooge, Obama – the defender of peoples’ pocket book – the champion of the people. This year the party roles were reversed: Democrat Clinton – the face of Wall Street, and anti-trade Billionaire Trump (implausibly) – the ‘champion of the people’.

 

Donald Trump combined a different brand of economic populism with a counter-culture white nativism that, as right-wing populists usually do, included a heavy dose racially charged anti-immigrant rhetoric. The challenge for Democrats is to return to their own brand of economic populism

 

This does to some extent mask a longer term, slow burning trend. These industrial areas have slowly turned into ex-industrial areas. There is a reason it’s called the ‘rustbelt’. Once the home of the ‘labor union’-member “Reagan Democrat”, most of the rust-belt started voting Democratic again in 1992 (electing Bill Clinton) and remained so until they rejected Bill’s wife 24 years later. Bill in 92’ combined a centrism with an empathetic economic populism to win the rust-belt. Donald Trump combined a different brand of economic populism with a counter-culture white nativism that, as right-wing populists usually do, included a heavy dose racially charged anti-immigrant rhetoric. The challenge for Democrats is to return to their own brand of economic populism. Some will point to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as the party’s populist standard bearers. Some since Tuesday the 8th have already noted Sanders’ own come-from-behind win in the Michigan primary against Clinton earlier this year. It perhaps was a precursor for what was to come. America has far greater traditions of leftist populism that we do. It doesn’t make their political left shudder like it does ours. Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan are the two examples often pointed to from yesteryear (read Michael Kazin: A Populist Persuasion and A Godly Hero). Jackson and Bryan railed against the corporate interests of America in favour of an earthy, agrarian evocative populism that that spoke to the economic interests of the downtrodden, to an ‘idealised version of a chosen people’ (Taggart 2000). Today there are more options of this populist stripe. They will have to pushed to the front.

 

Trade unions long provided that conduit between working people, their economic interests and partisan politics. The identities of the modern working masses however no longer are represented by this form of class agency, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t return to perform this function

 

The politics of Trump is not a self-contained ‘American problem’. A pincer of economic nationalism and white nativist populism has emerged across Europe too. This demands these countries’ mainstream parties look at their own experiences of industrial decline.  Diagnoses must also include a ‘Brexit comparison’, something I rejected for months before the morning of November 9th. The role of class has violently re-emerged in both Britain and the US. These same ex-industrial areas in Britain also became a focus since the June 23rd EU referendum. Much of the anger and rancour Britain has had this conjoined industrial decline-inequality problem at its root.

 

Understanding this industrial epicentre of these shocks points to a new politics of inequality and an anti-globalism that has to be part of this story. Even if not explicitly acknowledged by voters, this must to be part of the story. Combining these themes of inequality and industrial decline, concerns of class, class agency and worker voice are raised. Trade union decline has been pronounced in Britain and the United states, much more than in mainland Europe. With this, trade union identities and working class identity have unavoidably declined with it. Trade unions long provided that conduit between working people, their economic interests and partisan politics. The identities of the modern working masses however no longer are represented by this form of class agency, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t return to perform this function. This has collapsed in Britain and, at least in relation to the rust-belt, the US. What is interesting is that unions have become invaluable to the Democratic Party in the US in organising Latinos in ‘new industries’, even if this trade union influence has declined in ‘old’ industries in the rust-belt. This was part of Obama’s celebrated ‘ground game’ that helped his ‘blue wall’. Maybe Clinton was the wrong person to hand over the baton to, but the problems are far more fundamental than this. The point in brief: unions as an expression of class agency are as essential today as ever. How these perform politically must change. How they relate to political parties on the one hand and citizens on the other, performing this role as bridge, must change. With this, arguments of the Mandelson sort that think unions have nothing but an unhealthy role in social democratic politics must be dismissed as what they are: unwelcome and counter-productive.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks about the Orlando shooting at an event in New Hampshire on Monday.

 

The challenge for social democratic parties is immense. In Britain, there is little doubt that the Blue Labour will make a reappearance. It hadn’t gone anywhere, but only started to remerge in policy discussions since the Referendum result in June. This is perhaps the nearest attempt Labour has got to a mode of left populism that seeks to speak to the modern working class rather than the old one (Hi Jez!). Some wrong lessons have been learnt however, namely an attempt to steal the clothes of those on the populist right who make dramatic claims about immigration. This not only will make any necessary cross-class, bi-racial coalition difficult to forge, it will not work. As long as voters care about immigration they’ll take the offer of the real thing: the Trumps, the UKIPs, the Swedish Democrats, the Le Pens. The task is to redirect the conversation away from the distraction of migration toward the real enemy of working people: the bosses, the corporate plutocrats, the monied interests of the asset class. An attempt to craft a conjoined communitarian social democracy is very welcome. Plus living wage campaigns, which are meant to be the embodiment of this, also demonstrate what a a marriage between community organising and party politics can look like – That trade union conduit between party and people now pluralised to include broader other community interests.  We do have some of the answers already.

 

This discussion will intensify here in Britain as a response to the rise of Trump. For the US, Democrats have the traditions and the personnel to respond. On the latter, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and ex-Senator Jim Webb must be brought to the fore to push a left populism the wins. There might also be a role for others from the rust-belt like Tim Ryan (also from Ohio). The corporate centrist Democrat must be pushed aside. The same applies to the incarnation of that beast in Britain also.

 

Edited on evening November 11th.
Reading:
Michael Kazin – A Populist Persuasion (book)
Michael Kazin – A Godly Hero (book)
Martin Kettle – It’s easy to hate Trump, but essential to learn from him
Polly Toynbee – Brexit and Trump mark a whitelash. Politicians must not pander to it
Owen Jones The left needs a new populism fast. It’s clear what happens if we fail