Class challenges not liberalism can halt Trump and his populist allies
by Hugh Cullen • Plenty has been said to characterise Trump as a slimy sociopathic predator. His persistent lies and disregard for human life sparks protest around the world and in liberal quarters of American society.
Yet, after dozens of scandals in the last two years that would have ended the careers of any conventional politician, Trump is consolidating his supporter base.
He, along with a wave of other new leaders in Europe and America, has slapped his own spin onto movements to capitalise on a resurgence of right-wing populism that beats back against decades of liberal dominance.
As the American liberal media rages against his sexism and racist policy drives, they only tighten the grip of Trump branded nationalism that still has hold of 42 per cent of Americans [May 2018 approval ratings], only 3 per cent behind Barack Obama at the same stage in his first term.
A reaction to the post-war liberal order that has left them behind, it’s ‘us versus the world’.
Attacking their leader for things that don’t affect the material lives of Trump supporters is only going to further enrage them. Bolstered unapologetically by a man who doesn’t fit the Washington mould.
To understand it, we have to look at how the outsiders and underdogs have swept Europe and America since the financial crisis.
Beneath the bluster, Trump addresses the economic anxieties of blue-collar Americans who feel they have been left behind by ‘globalisation’.
The term is used sparingly in British politics as it represents a process of merging and liberalising international markets and relative shrinking of the world that consecutive Westminster Governments have been at the heart of.
As free trade facilitated a steady flight of environmentally heavy and labour intensive workplaces to developing countries, many communities lost their soul and main source of employment.
It’s a familiar story to towns and cities outside the South-East bubble in Britain, and across the advanced capitalist world.
In a new financialised economy, the jobs on offer don’t compare—precarious, low-skilled and poorly paid.
A huge proportion of working class Americans, especially outside the metropolitan costal cities, don’t buy the new service economy. And can be persuaded that immigrant labour has reduced job opportunities.
The ascendancy of new multinational corporate giants, the real winners in globalisation, makes small business ownership even more difficult. A cornerstone of the fanciful American Dream.
The global financial crisis that struck in 2008 catalysed an already burning dissatisfaction, as across Europe and America we felt the pinch in our pockets.
Finance capital got caught out. But across the world, corporations had politicians on the payroll. Buying lighter regulation and lower taxes. The only treatments on offer were debt and austerity—the liberal elites making workers pay for their mistakes.
The time was now for outsiders and radicals, populists not associated with the failed politics of old.
In Europe there were a few from the left who were organised enough to make an impact—Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luke Melenchon in France.
Attempts to rebrand socialism to appeal to a young liberal generation who were shaped in the globalised world.
Unfortunately, as the established social democratic and conservative parties across Europe suffered, the real winners of this decade have been the nationalist right.
There are countless examples across Europe, scapegoating migrant labour and the political establishment for the current financial hardship.
In Britain, the Tories are hoping Brexit and a harsher immigration policy will hold off a UKIP-resurgence. France’s liberalism only managed to survive the challenge from Front Nationale by re-branding as anti-establishment in the form of Macron’s La République En Marche alliance.
Others have fallen. Europe’s youngest Prime Minister leads the Austrian People’s Party. The anti-refugee, anti-EU and pro-business Sebastian Kurz is locked in battles with trade unions as he tries to extend the maximum working day and week.
But the pinnacle of European populism happened in Italy this year, where a right-wing coalition’s supporters claim “there is no left and right”.
The Five Star Movement has challenged the European finance sector, unsettling Brussels and the IMF. They were formed in 2009 and now have the most MPs in Parliament.
Promising to leave the Eurozone and a backward social policy, particularly towards refugees, has been radical enough to win mass support. Their supporters overlook the corporate tax cuts and a harsher version of the same economic system.
Back in America, the two biggest stories of the election were outsiders and pole opposites.
Bernie Sanders also offered alternative to the status quo—one based on universal care, protection at work and redistribution of wealth. He captured the imagination of many young Americans, but didn’t have enough support to win the Democratic nomination from a ‘safe option’ in Obama-backed Hillary Clinton.
Obama’s support may mean something inside the Democratic Party, but it’s the last thing you want in the American Mid-West.
Even in West Virginia, a Democratic stronghold since the 1930s, Obama’s approval rating in 2016 was 23 per cent. ‘Crooked Hillary’ was an easy image for Fox News to create when she was a face of the establishment for 20 years and had close relationships in Wall St.
It’s hard to fathom that Trump is seen as an outsider at all, a real estate billionaire with a lifetime inside smoke-filled private members clubs under his belt.
Yet this is another feature of several new populist movements; UKIP’s Nigel Farage and French President Emmanuel Macron both found success through sledging the neoliberal centre.
Both are former investment bankers, fighting for the same corruptible system with a nationalist spin. It seems that it’s not being wealthy that’s the problem, it’s being directly associated with elected political power.
Despite Sanders uneasy backing of Clinton after defeat, Trump’s victory was a damning verdict on the Obama Presidency.
Clinton ran on a platform of ‘more of the same’ and your first female President. No match for a speak your mind candidate with promises of tax cuts for workers and investment and jobs in infrastructure.
As a response to globalised liberalism, Trump echoes many other populist movements with a dogmatic economic nationalism. America first. American business interests anyway. An aggressive foreign policy to shake up the world order.
At a time when the people wanted someone to blame, Trump found many in Washington and the Mexican and Muslim immigrant communities. Deflecting attention from the core of his economics in a festival of reaction.
His barriers on multinational corporations freely importing to the United States and disregard for environmental agreements may well return some industry, but there will be disruption in other areas as the remaining liberal heads of state try to dissuade other countries from following suit with tit-for-tat tariffs.
Abroad, Trump has built new global alliances that disrupt the balance of power.
The ramifications of a potential trade war with China & the EU, Saudi Arabia and Israel tentatively working together and a re-empowered Russia (arguably the biggest winners of this populist wave), send shockwaves through the world economy.
With this degree of economic uncertainty, there will be opportunities ahead from the ramifications of Governments increasingly disrupting the neoliberal plan.
But the left’s response must address the economic anxieties at the heart of the crisis. Defending multiculturalism alone isn’t enough to turn the tide on rising right-wing populism, a program to transform the economy is needed to channel workers outrage.
In New York on 27 June, a 28-year-old Latina woman did just that. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed socialist, took the Democratic nomination from a 10-term stalwart who was tipped to lead the party in Congress.
She did it by running on a left-wing platform that promised universal medicare, free education, a $15/hour minimum wage and guaranteed benefits and rights at work.
Ocasio-Cortez, a product of the Sanders 2016 campaign, is a new shoot that offers hope.
She shows the potential for a class message that inspires workers, despite decades of ‘red scare’ in the US.
It’s this message of change, not stale liberalism, that can defeat Trump and the other new-right populists.
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